Published:

83 comments

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

The most confounding aspect of the Coronavirus is its variability. Some people die, others require expensive and time-consuming intensive care to survive.

There are those that have a bad illness, but not enough to need medical intervention (or benefit from it when treatments have yet to be devised). At the mild end, the impact ranges from a cold to no symptoms at all.

We know it gets more serious with hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, obesity, and age, which correlates with all of them.

We’ve also found out that the bizarre study about it being less dangerous to smokers was a statistical error known as “collider bias”, which the interested can read about here.

We’re starting to understand more about how it spreads, and here variability, a feature of coronaviruses in general strikes again.

The variability has been complicated by the time this virus takes through its cycle from infection to quick shaking off, long recovery and death.

Cases only came to the attention of public health authorities – first in China, then elsewhere – when people started arriving in hospitals with pneumonia and dying.

But it takes around four weeks for someone to die of this virus, by which time somewhere between 90 and 130 other people are likely to have had it, and recovered from it, within days or a week or two, and infected an average of between two and three others. That means one death would, on average, be associated with some hundreds of other cases.

This was shown most acutely in France, where it seems the first Coronavirus case can now be traced back to December.

The country also shows how much the average conceals. Its outbreak was most serious in Paris, which is to be expected. This is a disease that has struck hardest in where population density is high, people use public transport and which are major international travel hubs.

But France also suffered a second, unusual outbreak centred around a church Mulhouse near Strasbourg.

A church in Alsace may conjure up images of pitched roofs, whitewashed walls, adorned only with austere busts of Luther and attended by diminishing numbers of conservatively dressed elderly ladies.

The Christian Open Door church was quite the opposite. First of all it is huge, accommodating 2,500 people. It’s an American-style evangelical mega-church and its services are more like concerts.

And this February, it held a week long festival of singing and worship that drew people in from across the world. Singing, tragically, appears to be a devastatingly efficient way to spread the disease.

Confronted by these two outbreaks, France imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Only essential services were allowed to open (wine shops weren’t spared; a friend joked to me about her despair at being limited to supermarket wine), and people were allowed out to exercise, but only within one kilometre of their homes.

The French administrative state lived up to its reputation, producing a form for people to carry with them to indicate the purpose of their exit.

This brought the epidemic under control. Excess deaths figures, which account for variations in reporting and testing, are at about 30 per cent in France, on a par with Sweden (compared to 60 per cent in the UK and Spain, and a dreadful 66 per cent in Belgium).

This suggests the question of imposing lockdowns is less binary than usually presented. It was likely necessary in France, particularly given Paris’s extreme density, but details matter.

The political consequences point to a strengthening of the left, which has been in the doldrums since François Hollande’s hapless presidency.

Polls have been few, but suggest an increase in the approval of left-wing candidates at the expense of Macron (Marine Le Pen seems stuck at her 20 per cent figures), though Macron maintains his lead.

He also suffered a small split in his party, losing 17 MPs to a new left-leaning formation that is trying to position itself between Macron itself and the Socialist opposition.

His La Republique en Marche has now lost its parliamentary majority, but can rely on Francois Bayrou’s liberal Modem party to get legislation through. This indicates more a rebalancing of French politics than a particularly deep crisis.

Macron remains significantly less unpopular than his rivals, and in France’s two-round system would only need about a quarter of the vote to come through against an opponent from the extreme-right (Le Pen) or extreme-left (Melenchon) when the next elections eventually happen in 2022.

Insofar as he had tacked to the right on immigration and by soft pedalling green policies to appease the Gilets Jaunes last year, he may need to move further left to protect himself from a socialist resurgence in a country that still looks up to the idea of its state as much as it despises the people it elects to run it.

83 comments for: Garvan Walshe: How Covid-19 is leaving Macron’s left flank exposed

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.