Having parents who are doctors has two advantages: You can always cure minor ailments at home, and global epidemic alerts will reach you at WhatsApp in time.
When my father started flooding our family chat with statistics and studies straight out of Wuhan, China earlier this year, my millennial skepticism believed it was just the consequence of his excessive free time.
By January 31st, Italy — whose border is less than two hours from where I live in France — was already in a state of alert. From 16 confirmed cases in Lombardy on the 21st of February, my Italian neighbors had quarantined 50,000 people in less than 24 hours.
My decision to eliminate Facebook more than three years ago and my bad habit of not having a TV at home made me immune — for better and for worse — to the mass dissemination of real and fictitious news, and for me the coronavirus was still a slightly more serious flu.
“I’m not 70 and I don’t have a weakened immune system,” I repeated incessantly to my relatives in other countries, and I even bought a ticket to go spend a weekend in Paris.
Government agencies had already announced that the virus had spread on French territory since the last week of January, with a first confirmed case in Bordeaux in a person under 50. The first case of death from Covid-19 was reported on February 14th, coincidentally when I was also visiting Paris.
The paradox of the modern world is precisely that: how exacerbated connectivity also makes us insensitive and immune to what is happening around us.
President Emmanuel Macron broke the spell by announcing the closure of all schools and universities from March 16 until further notice. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe immediately banned social gatherings, but kept public transport open.
Gradually all public places were forced to close.
In a country whose social fabric is strongly supported by la joie de vivre in terraces and cultural centers, the confinement we saw in Italy or Spain seemed impossible.
As I walked around on Sunday in a deserted Paris, with nervousness in the air that could be cut with a feather, I wondered if it was time to worry.
I decided to return home, on a two-hour semi-empty train where people were distancing themselves from one another as much as possible, while avoiding being rude (a capital sin in France) and exposing themselves to anyone who dared to sneeze in a confined space.
Panic is a pressure cooker that warns only when it is too late.
Back home, the queues in the establishments reminded me of Latin America; sensitivity was in the air and the slightest gesture could cause a confrontation between the customers.
Twelve hours later, the supermarkets were under strict protocols of only allowing 100 people inside their facilities, which caused long lines of people waiting in the streets, where we were not always able to respect the meter of distance recommended by the government, and where improvised masks with scarves abounded everywhere.
Keeping calm in a supermarket when people squeeze their hands on the handlebars of the trolleys to avoid running desperately is nothing short of commendable. When you see 70-year-olds trying to find their favorite bread on an empty shelf, there is a slight taste of guilt and fear.
Below is the cumulative number of reported COVID-19 cases per 100 000 population, worldwide, as of 16 March 2020, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. #EU2020HR #CoronavirusOutbreak @ECDC_EU pic.twitter.com/Ew4ba658z2
— EU2020HR (@EU2020HR) March 16, 2020
Six hours later, confinement was imminent.
Macron spoke to the country again, announcing that “we are at war,” and that the health care system — public and free — would have full financial support from the government, as well as the army, which would deploy its forces to establish an isolated health care center to displace the sickest and prevent the spread.
Tax returns would be suspended, the government would bear the expenses of those most in need, and the rest of us would have to stay at home, on pain of penalty.
I am aware of my privilege, as I have been working remotely for years, but I could see in my neighborhood the double despair of people looking for supplies outside and facing the fact of having to live in a confined space, with others or with their own thoughts.
I have started to wash my hands compulsively, I count to twenty, I have all my shelves full of what I might need and I only think of my irresponsible naivety in thinking about my underestimation of the virus my dad talked about.
The recommendations of the WHO are more than enough. For my part, I am speaking to you from the epicenter and I beg you: Heed the first warning. There is a lot we can avoid if we listen in time and put in place the necessary protocols.
Surviving this is everyone’s responsibility.