Belleville is a diverse place. We used to joke that my wife is the only French person on our street. My immediate neighborhood is primarily government-subsidized housing. In the times before the pandemic our street in front of our place looked like a river of people flowing too and fro. When my parents came to visit they were stunned by the quantity of people. Rue Faubourg de Temple is like a Middle Eastern version of 5th Avenue. Many of the people basically live outside from morning to night, squatting on the parked scooters, drinking Capri Suns, laughing in their native tongues about who knows what. Now they are all trying to find a new normal, a life inside. I don’t see them hanging around as much because of the restrictions, but I do see a lot of them passing by.
There are far too many people in the street. The sun is too strong a magnet for the necessary isolationism. Sticking my head out the window reveals a place with fewer cars, sure, but nearly as many people walking by as ever. And they look exactly like the at-risk population who should be doing anything but. Elderly people with deep wrinkles from a lifetime of smoking. Middle-aged men strolling around smoking cigarettes with a mask pulled down below their chin. I’m not a medical doctor but I don’t think that’s an effective way of using a precious mask. I see people with scarves over their faces too. Will it help to prevent contamination? Not as much as being inside.
How can you blame them though? The righteous crusaders on social media who are begging people to stay inside don’t take into account the realities of poorer populations. Many of these people don’t have enough money to stock up on supplies for a full week let alone longer. Many of the fragile population can’t even carry a full grocery bag if they did have the money to fill it. Lending a helping hand could result in contamination. Many are stuck to fend for themselves. The worst-off are living baguette to baguette. Their only break of monotony coming during their stroll to the bakery.
The diverse population partially explains the diverse application of governmental instructions to combat coronavirus. It also comes down to precision in communication. The French government makes a decree (like President Macron on TV) which can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Then the government releases more detailed guidelines about what is allowed and what is not. They provided the attestation that must be carried at all times whenever out of the home. Even that, with its 5 different boxes to check, left a lot of room for interpretation. What is an essential errand? What does “close proximity to your home” actually mean?
Add this to the rising uncertainty about the disease and it’s easy to see why people have been slow to respond across the world to calls by governments. First, we’ve never been in a pandemic like this before. There is no precedent as to what needs to be done. A perfect solution is not clear, and since it is not clear there is no way to know exactly where we are going. It is not an absence of leadership (though that is a severe problem in some places) it is the absence of a goal. There are different waves of instructions that take time to wash over populations. Each population is made up of individuals who react in different ways depending on lots of factors. Nothing is constant or a given when it comes to societies.
Second, we’re using new terms to discuss what’s happening and how we should respond. Social distancing, sure to be the word of the year for 2020, does not have the same connotation depending on who or where you are. Introverts will say that they have been social distancing all of their lives. Others think it might refer to seeing their friends less, or using Whatsapp calls instead of swinging by to say what’s up. It’s easy to forgive people then that social distancing really means “keep at least one meter (or 6 feet or whatever distance you want) distance between you and everyone that you come in contact with (outside of people you are in isolation with).” This type of directive is much easier to understand. We need to stop saying “practice social distancing” and start saying “keep the fuck away from each other.”
Finally, there has to be more detailed instructions about the types of outings that people can take. “Essential errands” leaves the door wide open to just about any excuse to go buy something from the store. What we need is a much more specific system about who can go out and more importantly – how often people can go out. China used technology to track people, and while the idea of government placing tracking measures on all of its citizens in a free country like France makes me bristle, I also know that people are clearly not following the rules and this abuse is going to lengthen the time that we all suffer – and could add to the total death count.
Alternate systems could help stop short of tracking people’s movements, like different groups of people based on the first letter of their last name. A – L can go out on even-number dates, M – Z on odd-number dates. Or the government could give out passes that enable people to go to the store once per week (or more frequently depending on their situation as I mentioned above). Any solution that could bring fairness and clarity would be welcome because right now there are the people who are helping to contain and there are people who are helping to spread – and our perception of different groups is going to sow division.
Perfect example: one group of people are not contributing to the solution are people with dogs. You went through the trouble to get your dog, to keep it locked in your apartment, and you need to bring it out a few times a day to shit and piss on the places that we walk so that we can track your animals excrements into our homes (where we do not have a dog). Your dog brings you joy? That’s great Marie Kondo. It brings the rest of us fecal matter. So why should animal owners have the right to go out multiple times a day, to casually stroll up and down the street like there was not the deadliest global pandemic in 100 years, letting their animals befoul the streets that are no longer being cleaned as much as they normally are? Dog owners should have to follow the same isolation rules as everyone else. Your dog needs somewhere to shit? How about inside your apartment? Oh that would be dirty for you? That’s exactly how I feel about our public spaces. Your dog = your fucking problem. Get back inside and teach your dog to shit in a bag.
This example of bitterness is but one of millions. It stems from differences in the application of the confinement situation. The French government just released an updated version of the attestation necessary for movements. Thankfully, it includes more detailed descriptions of things like jogging (only 1 kilometer from the home maximum and less than 1 hour). It also details differences in health-related movements, being more specific about when to stay home and when to seek care. There are also footnotes that outline different cases. If this containment goes on for 7 more weeks, this attestation is sure to balloon from one page to many.
It’s good to see the government and society adapting. There is no playbook, no right answers, simply the best we can do – as long as we actually do out best.