France's COVID-19 crisis washes up in ocean territories
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Anxiety is growing over the coronavirus threat for France's overseas territories, located in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans thousands of kilometres from the mainland, with distance proving no protection for regions with fragile health infrastructure.
The "Outre-mer" or overseas departments, largely a legacy of the country's colonial past, are considered fully integral to the nation, with inhabitants holding French passports, voting in national elections and sending MPs to the Paris parliament.
For many in France, they are best known as easily accessible and French-speaking destinations for holidays in areas resembling paradise. But the coronavirus crisis risks being even more grim there than on the mainland itself, where thousands have died from COVID-19.
There have so far been 13 coronavirus deaths in the overseas territories, mainly on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Martin, as well as two victims on the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte.
But there is also rising concern about the disease's spread on Reunion in the Indian Ocean, in French Guiana in South America, and on French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific.
France is now sending two helicopter carriers -- the Mistral and the Dixmude -- to the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean to bolster local hospitals and clinics that risk being overwhelmed if the number of cases rises further.
The Dixmude left its Mediterranean port Friday morning carrying medical equipment including hand gel and over one million surgical masks for the Antilles, the army said in a statement, though it is not expected to arrive until mid-April.
And while the two ships will provide logistical support, they will not be used as hospital ships to take patients on board.
"We are following the situation in the overseas territories very closely and we are aware of the fragilities," government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said this week. "It is a major subject of concern, attention and mobilisation."
- 'Catastrophe' -
The remoteness of the territories, coupled with their high poverty and unemployment rates, risks turning any outbreak into full-blown epidemic that could quickly overwhelm health professionals.
A source close to discussions between government ministries on containing the crisis, who asked not to be identified by name, told AFP, "It is going to be a catastrophe."
"We feel there is no pilot on board," Gabriel Serville, an MP for French Guiana, told AFP. "I fear for the worst for a territory that is behind in health terms, with poor areas where social distancing is not possible."
Mayotte, where 82 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, often in shanty towns without running water, is a particular source of concern. "There has been no organisation or preparation," said Mansour Kamardine, a rightwing MP on the island.
"It feels like we're just making it up as we go along."
On France's Pacific island territory of New Caledonia, located east of Australia between New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, early spring is usually a time of celebration for the yam harvesting season. But there is no mood for -- or possibility of -- festivity.
Indigenous Melanesians, known locally as Kanaks and counting for 39 percent of the population, already have prevalent health issues, particularly diabetes and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
If the virus were to spread, the impact would be "devastating," said Georges Mandaoue, a prominent local politician.
"I've put all tribal chiefs in charge of explaining the consequences of the virus and the measures to protect everyone," he told AFP.
People are aware of the danger, Mandaoue said, for example cultivating fields while respecting security distances. "They go to the river but not to the sea anymore, and greet each other from far away, without handshakes," he said.
- 'Happened before' -
The memory of previous epidemics such as leprosy remains vivid, as do scars from the arrival and colonisation of the island by Europeans, who brought unknown diseases with them that decimated the local populations.
"We know that epidemics have happened before, that people had to isolate members of the tribe and not see them before the burial," said Gilbert Assawa, a tribal chieftain.
Regularly scheduled passenger flights between Paris and the overseas territories have been suspended, though cargo transit is continuing.
Most of the regions have also imposed lockdowns similar to that of mainland France, and some have also decreed nightly curfews.
The government insists that everything is being done to maintain control of the situation.
"The systems that have been put in place in the overseas territories match the same criteria and organisation as mainland France," said Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin.
© 2020 AFP