Amidst relentless pro-war propaganda in the press, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in France a little over a month away from the 2022 presidential elections.
The total death toll is approaching 140,000. In the last seven days 1,427 people died from the virus. Over 2,500 remain on ventilators in French hospitals. Even though cases have continued to fall in France since the peak of over half a million cases on January 25 they remain high, the seven-day average is still above 54,000. This is equivalent to the peak of the devastating second wave in the winter of 2020 to 2021.
Nonetheless, the Macron government is removing all but the most limited health restrictions. On February 28, the requirement to wear masks in indoor venues requiring the vaccination pass was removed. This primarily applies to theatres, cinemas, and museums. Public transport and indoor shops are the only places where masks remain mandatory.
There was also a further reduction in mandatory isolation for contact cases. Now only one negative antigen test after two days of isolation is sufficient for release. It is still the case that vaccinated individuals who test positive can be released after only five days of isolation and a negative antigen test.
Antigen tests are unreliable and are only effective when patients are at their most symptomatic. As has been well known since the beginning of the pandemic, and has been shown in studies of the Omicron variant, individuals are infectious both pre- and post-symptomatically. The new policy therefore will mean the even earlier release of infectious individuals back to workplaces, schools, and throughout society.
The latest rollback follows weeks cutting down what remained of health measures to combat COVID-19. On 16 February, nightclubs and concert venues reopened without capacity restrictions. On 2 February, the requirement to encourage remote work was also cancelled. Mandatory masks in French high schools have also been progressively dropped in the past three weeks.
According to the National Institute for Demographic Studies, over 20,000 people have died from the Omicron-driven fifth wave of the virus in France. Fifty-five percent of victims had received at least two doses of the vaccine, bursting through the notion that a vaccine-only strategy is sufficient to protect human life.
However, the same figures also show the necessity of combining mass vaccination with social distancing measures. In January 2022, the unvaccinated French population had 142 deaths per 100,000 compared to 10 deaths per 100,000 for those who had received a booster. This makes clear that the effectiveness of vaccines is indisputable. However, had a scientific zero-COVID policy been implemented then none of these deaths, including the 120,000 before the fifth wave, would have taken place.
Children have experienced skyrocketing levels of infection during the Omicron wave. As a result of the conscious mass infection policy pursued in schools, 16 children aged between 0 and 9 years-old died from COVID-19 just in January and February 2022. Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of unvaccinated children have been infected, 10 to 15 percent of whom will be victims of Long COVID.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, France’s presidential candidates were muted on the pandemic, or where it was discussed, this was only to criticize the remaining health restrictions.
Neither Macron, Blanquer, nor Véran, have made a statement on COVID-19 since a January 20 press conference. In early January, Macron sought to shift blame for the consequences of his own deadly pandemic policy onto the France’s small unvaccinated population, declaring, “the unvaccinated, I really want to cover them in sh*t.” Since then, Macron’s government has pursued a rapid rollback of the limited health restrictions that were in place.
In early January, right-wing Les Républicains candidate Valerie Pécresse stated that if she were president her only additional measure would be a lockdown of the unvaccinated. Pseudo-left La France Insoumise candidate Jean Luc Mélénchon has scarcely mentioned the pandemic, except to attack Macron’s limited measures from the right, notably by continuing his party’s support for far-right anti-vaccine protesters.
The far-right candidates have attacked what limited measures were in line with anti-vaccination activists and eugenicists. On January 19, Le Pen stated that vaccination of children is “a form of abuse.' Fascistic candidate Eric Zemmour has also denounced this measure, also insisting that COVID-19 must be lived with “as we have done for centuries with other respiratory diseases like influenza.”
Contrary to the anti-scientific claims coming from every section of the French ruling elite, it is not the case that society must “learn to live with the virus.” COVID-19 is not equivalent to influenza. It continues to have much higher mortality rate than the flu despite much more widespread vaccination coverage. It not only attacks the lungs, but also leads to inflammation of the heart, brain, and other vital organs.
Amongst its known long-term effects are diabetes, cognitive decline, and a dramatically increased mortality rate from twenty diseases, including heart failure, at least one year after infection. The effects of wave after wave of mass COVID-19 infection on France’s 300,000 immuno-suppressed individuals will be catastrophic.
With tens of thousands of daily infections in France and hundreds of thousands throughout Europe, the evolution of a dangerous new variant is only a matter of time. Vaccine effectiveness against infection and severe disease also declines over time. In these conditions, the roll back of the most basic measures to combat the virus, masking and proper isolation of infected cases leaves the population in France and internationally as sitting ducks for the next major variant.
Nonetheless, the French ruling class is united in its aim to continue its mass infection policy, regardless of the cost in lives. Thus, in the third year of the pandemic and at nearly 140,000 deaths France faces a remarkable situation where, except for Zemmour’s openly fascistic program, no leading presidential candidate has any detailed outline of their pandemic policy for a presidential election little over a month away. This mix of silence and far-right agitation on the pandemic reflects the capitalist class’ intention to continue to rule with a policy of mass infection.
The working class must also be aware that the current NATO-led war drive following the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be utilized by capitalist governments across the continent to divert attention away from pandemic and its impact on the population.
Class tensions in France and across Europe have been massively accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like its allies in Europe and across the Atlantic, large sections of the French ruling class sees an external war as a crucial tactic to suppress internal divisions. The unity of presidential candidates in embracing a policy of mass infection underlines the necessity of building an independent working-class movement to eliminate the pandemic and oppose the reckless drive to war.