Bénédicte Manier is a journalist working with Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Paris, a writer and regular contributor to French monthly magazines Alternatives Economiques and Le Monde Diplomatique. She has specialised in social, development and population issues, and has extensively written on citizens’ initiatives. She has covered events and issues and reported extensively in France, Spain, Ireland, North America, Cambodia, Thaïland, The Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Argentina, etc. She has been a time traveller to India and is an old India-hand. She is the author of five books, among them, ‘L’Inde nouvelle s’impatiente’ (Impatient Young India), on Indian youth. Her two latest essays, published in 2018, are both bestsellers, dealing with grassroots innovations for people and the planet: ‘Un million de révolutions tranquilles. Comment les citoyens changent le monde (A Million Quiet Revolutions. How citizens are changing the world) and ‘La route verte des Indes’ (The Green Roads of India).
In this interview she talks to Hardnews about the current global health crisis, the delicate and tragic situation in France and Europe, and the future of capitalism and neo-liberalism in the post-pandemic world.
What is happening in France? We really have no news from France.
The virus first appeared in February in a religious meeting in Mulhouse, an eastern French city, as well as in Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, borne and carried by a few travellers from China. It then spread fast throughout Northeastern France and the Paris region. Local elections held on March 15 with millions going to vote, accelerated the pace of contamination.
French officials claimed – like in many other countries – that the public health system was ready to cope with the impending crisis. In fact, the health infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed and the government appeared unable to provide enough face masks, protective equipment and lab coats to the medics. Hundreds got contaminated and some died.
Northeastern and Parisian hospitals soon went short of beds and ventilators. The Army had to set up an emergency field hospital in Mulhouse and dozens of patients were transferred to other regions and to nearby German cities. A nationwide quarantine was then declared on March 17when it became obvious that we could not provide enough face masks, viral tests and hospital beds for the country’s population of 6.5 crore.
There is a strong demand for participatory democracy, social justice and a radically different economic policy, to support people and the planet, not profits. New paradigms that philosophers Edgar Morin and Patrick Viveret, or economist Dominique Meda, to name a few, have been promoting for decades, are being widely discussed.
This capacity was easy to predict. Decades of budget cuts in civil services have resulted in 100,000 beds being wiped out from public hospitals in the last 20 years. In March 2019, just one year before the epidemic started, hospital emergency workers went on strike to protest “chronic understaffing” and a lack of resources. The strike rapidly spread nationwide and went on for 10 months. Lakhs of medics took to the streets and warned that public hospitals were on the brink of collapse. I remember one of their placards: “The government is counting money. We will soon be counting the dead.”
The epidemic started two months later. You can imagine these medics’ dedication to fight the virus in such working conditions.
The second factor is that France and other European countries have lost self-sufficiency in essential medical supplies. For long, European multinational pharmaceutical companies have outsourced their production to Asia where wages are lower: face masks, ventilators, syringes, tests reagents and anesthetics are manufactured in China. Antibiotics, anti-viral, anti-fever drugs that we now need in big amount, are made in India. In 2011, a large number of face masks were even destroyed by French bureaucrats who considered them of no use and easy to replace with new ones imported from China — the main global producer with a high export capacity. China was the first country to be hit by the Corona virus and it kept its stocks of face masks for its own population.
So the few millions face masks left in France were exhausted in a few days and we are now fighting to buy the four crore face masks our hospitals need every week. With a massive global demand, a fierce international competition is now taking place in China and crores of face masks are often bargained at the last minute on Chinese airport runways.
France and European countries have lost self-sufficiency in essential medical supplies. For long, European multinational pharmaceutical companies have outsourced their production to Asia where wages are lower: face masks, ventilators, syringes, tests reagents and anesthetics are manufactured in China. Antibiotics, anti-viral, anti-fever drugs are made in India
In early April, a French order was bought off by Americans who paid three times the price in cash just as the shipment was about to set off for France. France has, of course, started domestic production of face masks, ventilators and hand sanitisers, but it is indeed too little and too late to meet the spiraling mass needs.
To date, that is, till April 20, the epidemic has hit 152,894 French people and taken the life of 19,718. The pace of contamination is now slowing down but eradicating the virus will take months.
In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to progressively release French people from isolation and reopen schools from May 11 is being widely criticised as too early and likely to raise a second wave of contamination.
Do you think that by and large, Europe, especially Italy and Spain, did not really anticipate the catastrophe?
Since 1992, in the European Union (EU), all member-states’ budgets have been constrained by this constitutional rule: their deficit must be kept under 3 per cent of the GDP and their public debt has to be under 60 per cent of the GDP. These ceilings have entailed massive cuts in public spending. The public health sector was also summoned to reduce costs in order to generate profits. That is why, Spain, Italy and France now lack so many hospital beds and are striving to cope with the number of Corona virus-affected patients. In Spain, an emergency 5,000 bed hospital had to be set up in Madrid. The shortage of face masks and viral tests has also led to nationwide self-isolation in Spain and Italy.
As on April 20, the epidemic toll in Italy with its 6 crore inhabitants is almost 179,000 confirmed infections and 23,660 deaths. Spain with 4.6 crore inhabitants records 200,210 infections and 20,852 fatalities.
How is Germany coping ?
Being self-sufficient in viral tests, Germany is coping better. It has quickly reacted with early campaigns of 500,000 tests per week (as compared to 30,000 per week in France in early April) and it aims to reach 100,000 tests per day soon.
Quarantine was also decided earlier in Germany earlier when compared to France and Germany has more hospital beds: 8 for 1,000 inhabitants, as compared to 6 in France, and 4.3 doctors for 1,000 inhabitants when compared to only 3.4 in France. It proved efficient: this country of 8.3 crore inhabitants, with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle-east whom it has generously given shelter, has almost 140,00 cases of Covid-19 but only 4,294 deaths — five times less than Italy or France.
Do you think the world will learn some lessons from this pandemic, since the advanced capitalist countries completely failed, especially the US?
On April 20, health ministers from the G20 (the 20 most advanced economies), recognised that the pandemic has highlighted systemic weaknesses in the health systems,which sounds like a rare expression of self-criticism.
In the US, President Donald Trump’s early denial of the epidemic and his late support of virus-hit Americans might well be remembered by voters in the November presidential election. As well as the huge cut of 17 per cent in the health federal budget.
In Europe, some consequences are already visible. Many European states have de facto dropped the 3 per cent deficit rule. Deficits are now reaching 8 per cent of GDP, or, more, as governments have to spend billions to support their economy crippled by nationwide quarantines. They have also increased the welfare schemes to compensate the quick rise of unemployment and poverty.
Quarantine was decided earlier in Germany when compared to France and Germany has more hospital beds: 8 for 1,000 inhabitants, as compared to 6 in France, and 4.3 doctors for 1,000 inhabitants when compared to 3.4 in France. It proved efficient: this country of 8.3 crore inhabitants, with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle-east, has almost 140,00 cases of Covid-19 but only 4,294 deaths — five times less than Italy or France.
In this context, neo-liberal dogma which considers the public sector as non-productive and costly is widely criticized. Had European states kept investing in public hospitals before the epidemic, they would have avoided thousands of deaths and this massive economic slowdown, which will cost much more.
Many experts also remind that a good public health system is a pillar of a nation’s wealth, just as good transport and prosperous agriculture. They add wealth to the GDP. Moreover, a high level of public health is an irreplaceable common good, like education or clean water. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European countries’ massive investment in hospitals, in medical research and vaccinations, undeniably boosted their economic and social development. This is a lesson to remember.
Second: the epidemic obviously shows the limits of a globalised economy. Having so many countries depending on China for their essential medical supplies is a phenomena bordering on nonsense. Many European governments now realise that they must regain some self-sufficiency.
A third field of reflection is emerging in France: how can the civil society acquire some control on governments to keep them from making more ill-advised decisions in the future?
Many groups of citizens, social activists, thinkers and NGOs are getting organised to produce coordinated proposals for new public policies in “le monde d’après” (the post-epidemic world). There is a strong demand for more participatory democracy, more social justice and a radically different economic policy, to support people and the planet, not profits. New paradigms that philosophers Edgar Morin and Patrick Viveret, or economist Dominique Meda, to name a few, have been promoting for decades, are being widely discussed.
This unexpected crisis might well be – must be – an opportunity for French people to speak out and for these wise intellectuals to be heard – at last.