The month of May
The first of May is Labour Day; in France the Communist Party normally has a big fund raiser selling sprigs of lily of the valley. Originally a wild woodland flower, it is now grown commercially, principally in the Loire Valley. This year supermarkets, who normally sell 50% of the crop, have reduced their orders, and the flowers won’t be harvested. The CP’s disappointment was reported in the Le Monde.
The present situation
The present crisis looks very similar in France and England. There are high numbers of deaths, and the same lack of clarity as to who is included in the statistics. Medical staff die due to lack of personal protective equipment. The lockdown, slow to be declared, impacts the economy. The government pays 80% of employed people’s wages. Unemployed, self-employed or pseudo self-employed depend on benefits. An increasing number depend on charity.
There are some differences. The lockdown is organised slightly differently: in France, people have to take a piece of paper with date and time and purpose of outing when they leave the house, and the police may check it; this is now also available electronically (a government website sends a bar code to your phone).
The popularity ratings of Johnson are twice as high as Macron’s. The French applaud essential workers every day at 8pm (every Thursday in England), and in places the clapping is accompanied with anti-Macron shouts. The unpopularity of Macron to start with, as shown by the Gilets Jaunes movement explains that. And staff at Intensive Care Units had been demonstrating for over a year about lack of personnel and equipment
In England it is known that the virus strikes the low paid and ethnic minorities disproportionately. It is the case in France, but the concentration of this population in the Paris suburb of Seine Saint Denis makes it starker yet. That département houses care workers, health assistants, delivery drivers and others who are exposed to the virus, and their death rate has been the highest in France. The département has also seen sporadic riots.
Union action carries on in France. Amazon employees have taken the firm to court for putting their lives in danger by not providing protective equipment and not organising social distancing measures properly. The Court ordered Amazon to sell only essential goods and imposed fines of 1 million euro per transgression. Amazon decided to close the warehouses for 4 days instead, and appealed. On appeal the Court maintained the order, but reduced the fines by a factor of 10. Amazon did not reopen, but is supplying its customers via other European countries. French employees are getting a taste of their own medicine, because they delivered parcels to Spain when Spanish Amazon workers were on strike, and Portuguese employees refused to deliver in their place.
Amazon carries on delivering. It uses one of its ‘branches’, Amazon Transport, which is distinct from ‘Amazon Logistic’ and apparently not subject to the same court order. The independent firms that sell on the Amazon platform but do their own deliveries have also contributed. Amazon is selling less as a result.
The next following two aspects of the crisis are common to France and England: the vast sums made available by the governments to save the economy, and the underlying health conditions of patients most affected by the disease.
Financing the crisis
There should be no government-imposed policy of austerity when the crisis abates. Le Monde explains that the vast sums expanded to save the economy won’t have to be repaid:
“If states have no hidden reserves of “magic money”, an institution based in Frankfurt has this fantastic power: the European Central Bank (ECB). Since the creation of the euro zone, it is the ECB that manages the stock of euros in circulation. So why not ask it to print new banknotes to finance debt, freeing governments from the pressure of the financial markets?
In fact, the ECB has already been doing this for several years. Not directly, because European rules prohibit it from lending money to governments. But it does buy back stocks of “second-hand” government debt from the lenders who hold it. As a result, these debts remain desirable in the eyes of the markets, and states such as France can continue to go into debt with low interest.
The ECB has already planned to spend €1,110 billion on such sleight of hand in 2020 – a fivefold increase due to the coronavirus crisis. Why not go even further, using this endless windfall of “free” money to finance existing debts, but also investments in health, social protection or the environment?
Until now, the main brake on this policy has been the risk of inflation: if too many euros enter into circulation, the currency could lose value, prices could soar, and savers’ investments could melt like snow in the sun. This is what happened in Germany in the inter-war period. But such a risk is limited in the current crisis, since a total standstill in the economy is not conducive to inflation – at least in the short term.
Could Europeans’ reluctance to get the money board to work be definitively overturned? In recent crises, Europeans have disregarded a lot of monetary policy principles that they claimed were irremovable. So, for the future, nothing can be ruled out.”
Epidemic of chronic bad health
The other crisis that threatens the health of the country, both France and England, is the obesity epidemic. In the case of the virus, “there is a proven link between obesity and the risk of complications, due to related pathologies, but also independently of them” says the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health, quoting a study conducted by teams from the Lille CHRU; this shows that more than 47% of infected patients entering intensive care are obese and that the severe form (i.e. a BMI greater than 35) significantly increases the risk of being placed under invasive mechanical respiration, regardless of age, high blood pressure and diabetes.”
A video on the same page of the Ministry’s website tells you that ‘obesity is a disease’. It is a disease, but it is man-made. The finger points at the quality of food and the decline in cooking from fresh ingredients. An unbalance between work and home life, made worse by low wages.
An article on the website of the Atlantic magazine puts it very clearly; it refers to cytokines, which are the elements that cause the ‘immune storms’ that can be fatal: “The people who get the most severely sick from COVID-19 will sometimes be unpredictable, but in many cases, they will not. They will be the same people who get sick from most every other cause. Cytokines like IL-6 can be elevated by a single night of bad sleep. Over the course of a lifetime, the effects of daily and hourly stressors accumulate. Ultimately, people who are unable to take time off of work when sick — or who don’t have a comfortable and quiet home, or who lack access to good food and clean air — are likely to bear the burden of severe disease.
Let us leave the last word to the Financial Times, which, editorially, says something must be done about this. Here it is, quoted in the Morning Star: Even the Financial Times, in its article “Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract” (April 3 2020) recognises that we need: “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades… Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure.”