The Day The Earth Stood Still
08-23-20: When I learned a new epidemic had broken out in China, I wasn't too surprised. I knew the plague, the Spanish flu, and SARS, were undesired gifts from the Middle Kingdom to the depraved and decadent western countries. This novel coronavirus (COVID-19) would not be an exception.
However, I was surprised that swift and adequate measures to curb the evil epidemic were not taken immediately! My country suffered from SARS a few years ago and was traumatized by it.
COVID-19 made me furious with genuine rage! As much as the Chinese seem to "accept" being brainwashed since 1949 and the advent of communism, and as much as they had been terrorized by respiratory diseases, why didn't they close their borders completely - as only an authoritarian regime would dare to do - so that the quarantine would be mandatory for anyone leaving or entering their country?
Too late! COVID-19 struck Italy. We, French, were filled with a somewhat hypocritical compassion for our Latin cousin-neighbors (we are only half-Latin) and then, COVID-19 (at least we hoped) had no chance of crossing our border without valid documents!
Unfortunately, extremely unfortunately, when the first COVID-19 clusters were identified here and there in France, all our efforts to circumscribe the disease proved to be in vain. The initial cases increased, the first frightening hospitalizations stunned us, the desperate resuscitation attempts overcame us, and then tragic deaths devastated us.
Some of us could still convince ourselves that, after all, COVID-19 was only occurring in the provinces. We had time to avoid it. This inaccurate assurance proved to be short-lived.
Yes, China eventually confined millions of its people with aggressive authoritarianism. But, compliance from those whom we considered to be obedient and controlled did not surprise us.
A simple proposal of a mandatory "Stay-at-Home" period being issued to France, kindly, and with the greatest humanity possible, did not occur to us! Few of us imagined that freedom loving French people would be asked to tolerate being confined to his or her home!
Big mistake! When Emmanuel Macron, our young president, seriously announced one evening on TV, in front of a record-breaking audience, that France was to undergo a mandatory three-week "Stay-at-Home" requirement, the ground sank beneath our feet!
Three weeks restricted in our homes doing nothing? Three weeks of being required to secure a "Permission to Leave" exemption with our names, addresses, and times of exit, which was limited to one hour and a radius of one kilometer surrounding our homes?
It was dreadful, especially for people who live in small apartments in Paris. A limited number of food shops were open. All parks and gardens were closed. It was a nightmare!
The police, very zealous, diligently checked exit permits. This reminded the oldest among us of the period of Nazi occupation during the Second World War: "Ausweis bitte! Schnell! Papier, bitte! Danke schön! Actually, in terms of freedom of movement, it was a great deal worse than the German occupation; offenders were fined 135 euros (about 110 USD).
The "regulated" outings were no picnic. Between panting joggers who were possibly expelling COVID-19 in your face with their winded breath, and people who, when passing you on a street, did a wide swerve while clutching handkerchiefs tightly over their mouths to guard themselves from you - it was alarming! Anyone not wearing a mask had the same effect on these nearly hysterical people as a vampire under whose nose you shake a clove of garlic or bravely brandish a crucifix.
Streets were deserted. Most shops were closed, as were cafés, bars, and restaurants. In short, almost everything that enhances the life and the charm of a brilliant and musical city as exquisite and as glorious as Paris had come to a silent standstill. The heavy curtains were down. The magnificent play would not go on. Color was replaced with muted black and white.
I rarely heard or saw laughing and carefree children outside playing, let alone clusters of teenagers chatting while smoking cigarettes (or worse). During this extraordinary time, more than once I climbed to the famous Sacré-Coeur, in Montmartre, which is approximately one kilometer from my home. Astonished, I saw what few Frenchmen have ever seen: a closed Sacré-Coeur, an absolutely deserted Montmartre quarter! It was a distressing sight that will forever remain engraved in my memory.
Sometimes it felt as if I was on a stark film set in the middle-ages: a mysterious foreigner, on horseback, enters a humble village, a few alarmed inhabitants walking in the streets hurry to their homes, and shutters are quickly closed with a foreboding creaking.
It seemed that each of us were terrified that the other was infected with this pestilential COVID-19 disease. We looked at each other suspiciously, and often without saying a word. Few of us had surgical masks. Our hospitals, private clinics, and doctors were desperately short of masks and other needed supplies.
Many of those infected with COVID-19, and those who died, owed their suffering or demise to a scandalous lack of preparation, which caused a catastrophic shortage of medical (PPE) personal protective equipment: masks, gloves, gowns, face shields, hydro-alcoholic gel, etc.
Amazon had a total ban on selling these items to private individuals. There were thefts of masks from trucks or hospitals! However, although we lacked protection, we did not lack information, far from it. All televisions channels provided nearly continuous COVID-19 information, from morning to evening. Director General of Health, Jerome Salomon (our good Doctor Fauci) gave updates each afternoon. He also reported the grim number of people hospitalized, in intensive care, and even more tragically, the number of those who had perished.
Our government's policy was two-fold: scare people enough to convince them to comply with health instructions, and reassure people sufficiently to prevent collective hysteria. It was a delicate and difficult balance, but it enabled French people to completely support the utterly new and otherwise unbearable restrictive measures that were being required.
Every evening, at 8 p.m. we opened our windows to applaud and shout our gratitude to the medical staff. They were the ones on the frontlines exposing themselves to health risks while we were in the warmth of our homes watching TV.
Occasionally, I felt something like the recognized "Stockholm Syndrome," when hostages started supporting the cause of their captors. This made me smile, before COVID-19 nurses sometimes endured criticism for the quality of their work or for a perceived belief that some nurses had inadequate compassion for their patients. Now they were gallantly risking their lives for their patients. They were heroes.
I am an avid "outdoor man" who relishes nothing more than hiking outside of Paris in deserted forests or in depopulated country-sides. If weather does not permit that, I enjoy wandering though the city and visiting museums. The strict shutdown was particularly painful, and it also felt especially unfair to me. On a hike alone there would be absolutely no danger of me contaminating anyone, or of me becoming contaminated by anyone, but I was forbidden to take hikes.
Otherwise, I essentially did not change my lifestyle. I got up at around 5.30 a.m., and I used my computer until the evening. Of course, I pondered all sorts of questions about what we were going through. The whole planet had closed down because of COVID-19! That doesn't happen every day. There was a worldwide health crisis, a global economic catastrophe, no more cinema, theater, sports, cafés, restaurants, non-food shops, travel, tourism, socializing with family and friends, etc.
There was one thing, however, that curiously few people were talking about: our sex lives! At my age, staying celibate for a while wasn't the work of Hercules, but how were younger people dealing with this? It is difficult to imagine any satisfying romantic love relationship that requires social distancing. You keep a mask on (a face condom?) to kiss? I pitied the challenges young lovers were facing. Also, prostitutes, they probably had to switch to phone sex with their most faithful clients.
Also, what about those couples living in loveless marriages that were suddenly forced to remain home together without any opportunity to have time apart? When some wives were out doing essential errands were some husbands on their computers visiting porn sites? Did they carefully erase their browsing histories?
I confess, instead of only taking the one-hour that I was allowed to be outside, I sometimes "lost track of time" and enjoyed two-hour outings. This gave me five or six kilometers of Parisian "hiking", which, after all, was not so bad!
I was extremely surprised that I almost never saw anyone from my building in the elevator or in the street. It seemed that people all over Paris were locked inside their homes and rarely ventured out. This astonished me, but I understood that for a number of people the terror of COVID-19 was truly overwhelming. Some people had masks, most did not, and God knows we were tremendously well informed. I think we knew as much, and sometimes more, than many doctors because we were constantly updated!
Each day, during dedicated broadcasts, epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, virologists etc. informed us. All you had to do was type the letter "C" on your computer keyboard to immediately get a vast amount of information about "coronavirus" or COVID-19. I doubt that ever before in the history of medicine has so much accurate information, misleading/incorrect information, and sometimes even confidential information, been disclosed to the general public.
Children were rarely outside, and they did not go to school. I wondered how they could endure endless days inside apartments, without playing outside, without sunshine on their faces, without seeing their friends, without walking in public gardens with their mothers, etc. I would have probably gone crazy as a child if I had to tolerate that! It is good that we have Internet, and children can play online video games, etc.
The "Stay Home" confinement was extended by weeks, with the assurance that we could hopefully go on holiday this summer, and that our lives would (also hopefully) return to almost normal. We were eventually allowed to increase the distance that we could travel to a radius of 100 kilometers around our homes, and with no one-hour time limit, we finally had no time limits!
As soon as restrictions were lifted, I explored my belovéd city of Paris that I had been denied access to like a prisoner who was rediscovering a free environment after serving a long sentence. When I saw people wearing masks in the streets, and especially when I took the bus or the metro, it made me feel like I was in a gigantic hospital. There was something surreal about it. I sometimes resented constantly seeing masks; they reminded me of the still present danger of COVID-19 and the continued mistrust we had for one another.
I took the train early one morning for my first "post-confinement" hike. I left the train and walked hesitantly to the beautiful countryside around Paris. I happily burst into tears. Free! Free at last! I found my dear, my very dear friend "nature" waiting to greet me: flowers, birds, trees, and fresh early morning air that stings your nose and intoxicates you. A lazy sun ever so slowly rose in a blue sky as if it wanted to provide me leisure time to admire it. It would be a beautiful day. A day of freedom can only be beautiful.
As usual each year, with my girlfriend, I planned to go away for a summer month to a campsite in the south of France. I could not help but fear that this would not be possible this summer. My worry and suspense filled me until our government finally "freed" us from travel restrictions. The camping sites opened, and we spent a wonderful vacation together, almost as it normally was, in places isolated enough so that COVID-19 could not dampen our joy.
In conclusion, if I had to retain only one final image of the many experiences and tragic consequences of this unprecedented pandemic, it would be of an azure blue sky with only two or three planes soaring free with their trailing plumes of white smoke.
Thank you for reading my story. I wish good health and safety to you and your loved ones.