Epidemic in France: the criminal negligence of the bourgeoisie

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Graph showing the decline in the number of hospital beds and places in France between 2013 and 2018

While the epidemic was already largely spread in Europe and notably in Italy, the French bourgeoisie were very late in timidly beginning to take measures in order to "protect" the population. It wasn’t until the situation was catastrophic in certain regions such as Picardy and the Alsace that the Macron government woke up and took drastic decisions: necessary isolation, closing of frontiers, police controls and mobilisation of the army to help medical teams that are totally overwhelmed.

"We are at war!" declared President Macron in his speech of March 16. Elements of martial language flourished in the mouths of all the ministries and politicians of every stripe: "The enemy is here"! "National unity"! "War"! "General mobilisation"! "War effort"! The government even resorted to the poor old men, "heroes of World War II", in order to explain that coughing into your elbow was like an "act of Resistance".

If "the enemy" remains "invisible" and "unknowable", the fight against this pandemic has, in fact, been that of a real war: government lies and half-truths have multiplied, they send millions of workers to risk their lives at the front (economic, that is) and that's when they are not sacrificing people by telling them to walk into polling booths for the local elections; an action that's both suicidal and irresponsible!

The bourgeois state is responsible for the mass graves!  

'We are ready and ultra-ready. Should it last two years, there will no shortages of masks, hydro-alcoholic gel for our soldiers (in white uniforms)', General Macron could have declared. But the reality is the exact opposite: faced with the negligence of the state and the amateurism of Macron, the government is winging it and now relies entirely on doctors to protect the population. Thus, while the Jupiterian war-chief and his ministers play their little games, hospital personnel sacrifice themselves in order to save lives and are doing so with largely insufficient means.

Today, faced with COVID-19, working hours are lengthening in a crazy fashion in all the services and nurses are exhausted from working shifts of fourteen hours, increasing still more the risks of serious errors. The hospital workers have vented their anger on all the TV channels. In Alsace, faced with the number of dead and patients with severe breathing difficulties, the state has had to improvise a "military hospital campaign" in an unprecedented logistical fog in order to support civilian hospitals choked by the lack of beds and equipment.

As to stocks of masks, hydro-alcoholic solutions, protective caps, uniforms, respirators, there is general shortage! In 2005, the state held a strategic stock of 723 million masks (1.4 billion in 2011 following the H1N1 crisis). But in 2013, budget restrictions meant that the stocks fell to 150 million. Faced with rationing, the recourse to out-of-date masks, even the re-use of old masks, the government has drawn 12 million from the already depleted state reserves... for masks for 1.1 million hospital workers who are supposed to throw them into the bin after four hours use. That's enough for four days use if the hospital is lucky enough to get a delivery. As to "non-priority" services and laboratories doing thousands of tests daily, they face identical problems.  More masks![1] Hospital workers in "the front line" thus find themselves exposed to the sickness. An emergency doctor in Compiègne has just died due to the virus and others will probably follow him to the grave! How can Macron look at himself in a mirror when he dares to assert that health must come before everything else?

Moreover, in order to shift its responsibility and the reality of the situation, the state, acting like a banana republic, blatantly lied. The numbers of sick were thus largely underestimated and the government and the Regional Health Agencies kept quiet for several days about the fact that screenings were "no longer systematic", according to the admirable understatement of the Minister of Health. Similarly the authorities let it be understood that the "saturation of hospitals" was localised to some areas. Shameless lies! The press and even social networks buzzed with poignant witness to tearful medical staff, showing the breadth of the catastrophe.

It has to be clearly stated: this chaos is the product of the decadence of the capitalist system, of budget cuts that the state has had to make for decades in order to keep the national capital afloat!

From 2004, the state made the choice to drastically reduce basic research into coronavirus for budgetary reasons[2]. The ruling class knew perfectly well that hospitals, already drained by simple, seasonal flu, wouldn't stand up to the shock of a major epidemic[3]. The bourgeois state has deliberately chosen to let workers die in order to put its finances first.

With an unbearable paternalistic tone, General Macron today praises the courage and heroism of the doctors, nursing assistants, nurses and paramedics, forgetting very conveniently that he sent his CRS to gas them for a whole year while the “soldiers in white coats” asked for the equipment and staff in order to care for their patients! During a year of strikes and demonstrations, the bourgeoisie hasn't ceased to show contempt for medical workers, their only response being the totally insignificant[4] "hospital plan" and sickening insinuations about the privileged position of public sector workers. Macron may well flatter them by describing them as "heroes" but their wages and working conditions will not stop getting worse.

The dismantling of the health system in France

The health system in France, as everywhere else in the world, is in ruins, cut to the bone on the altar of "budgetary rigour" so dear to Minister of Public Action and Accounts, Gerald Darmanin, one of General Macron’s best soldiers. In twenty years, the number of hospital beds has been reduced by 100,000! The numbers of hospitals and clinics has gone down from 1416 sites in 2014 to 1356 in 2018[5]. Symbolic of the destruction of the health care system, the government decided in 2014 to sell the military hospital of Val de Grace, the best performing and the best equipped hospital in France.

Logically, in 2017, France had 309 intensive care places per 100,000 inhabitants against 601 in Germany[6] which (a miracle!) is suffering a mortality rate much lower (for the moment) than its neighbours. In some regions, as in eastern France or Corsica, beds and equipment are sorely lacking and the triage of patients has already begun. It's a real dose of "war medicine" where the wounded and most seriously ill (notably the elderly) are left to die and can't be treated because of the profitability of the national economy.

All this is of course accompanied by a chronic lack of personnel with those working subject to killer shifts, extra hours and wages of misery[7]. The dismantling of the care system is also shown through the so-called policy of numerus clausus, limiting numbers of medical staff from all areas into the system. For 50 years, doctors and nurses have been selected by competition with a number of laureates arbitrarily fixed by ministerial decree, in what one suspects is the strictest logic of budgetary discipline. This forced the second European economic power to literally "import" cheaper doctors and nurses from Spain, the Maghreb or the countries of the East.

The bourgeoisie has no other means than coercion to stem the pandemic

In order to lessen the impact of the health crisis on the "French production apparatus", a series of urgent measure were adopted at the highest levels of the state, the first of which was a very late semi-isolation. While the epidemic began in Europe in February, we had to wait until March 16 for General Macron to finally announce measures of isolation. Up until then his priority was to take measures of austerity against the working class, notably forcing through the pension reforms while the epidemic continued to spread.

However, the government was well aware of the danger that COVID-19 represented. Ex-health minister, the "white angel" Agnes Busyn, publicly let the cat out of the bag (motivated no doubt by the electoral results that finished her attempts to become mayor of Paris) and warned the head of the state very early on of the imminence of the catastrophe: "I know that there is a tsunami coming towards us". “January 30, I warned (Prime Minister) Edouard Philippe that doubtless the elections shouldn't take place", "They should have stopped them, it was a masquerade"[8].

The "masquerade" took place. The government knowingly aggravated the spread of the epidemic by sending millions of citizens out to vote in a great democratic mass. The crying incapacity of one of the world's major powers to provide its population with the means of effective protection (masks, gloves, washing solutions) imposed more drastic measures of confinement.

But "masquerade" doesn't at all sum up the criminal organisation of elections in the full force of an epidemic; and then, in the same speech of March 16, Macron asked his "dear compatriots" not to come out onto the streets... "... except to vote and do the shopping". This paradoxical injunction (go out, don't go out, go to work, don't go to work) meant that many couldn't believe in the reality and the seriousness of this pandemic. It was thus not surprising that numerous "citizens" lacked "civil responsibility" and took advantage of the good weather to go for a stroll by the river or in public parks.

The speech of Macron trying to play both ends against the middle is similar to his decision to maintain the first round of the municipal elections which was still an "error" that was exploited by Marine Le Pen in her electoral campaign.

Under pressure from medical bodies, Macron and his Interior Minister Christophe Castaner took the decision for a general confinement. An army of 100,000 cops and military was deployed over the territory in order to enforce the lock-down and the multiplication of curfews. Faced with the gravity of the pandemic, the dominant class had no other choice than to use coercion in order to avoid mass deaths.

On the Cote d'Azur, a drone with a loudspeaker attached flew over the communes of Nice and Cannes ordering pedestrians to go home: "Remember the rules around the Covid-19 epidemic, going outside is forbidden unless you have an exemption. Keep a distance from each other of at least a metre apart", repeated the message from the drone.

The police, with the sense of discernment that we know so well, has not hesitated in applying and aiming the government's measures at the poor and the homeless: "several homeless people have been warned by the forces of order in France because they weren't respecting the lock-down (...) Cases have been registered in Paris, Lyon and Bayonne"[9]. The cops didn't hesitate to warn four people in mourning at the door of a cemetery for "not respecting the rules", affirming that there was "nothing imperative about a funeral". The bourgeoisie can do no other than deploy its forces of order, but it also profits from the situation by habituating the population to the militarisation of society when the "enemy within" will no longer be the virus but the working class in struggle.

On all the TV channels, every day, hospital workers mobilised on "the frontline" are interviewed to exhort the population to rigorously respect the lock-down and social distancing. Because, alas, it's the only means today to fight the ravages of the coronavirus and limit the contagion.

The bourgeoisie treats the health of the exploited with the greatest contempt

The "masquerade" is also expressed in the millions of people pressed together every day in public transport, in the workshops of factories and the areas which the bourgeoisie has "confined" workers by the hundreds. The criminal "masquerade" of the bourgeoisie and its government is that thousands of businesses are still open for the production of essentials only in name. When workers in a building refused to expose themselves to the virus for no reason, the Minister for Work, Penicaud, dared to talk about "defeatism". "In the war against this epidemic, the economic world represents a rear-guard", the President of MEDEF (the French employers' organisation) underlined.

In order to get workers who want to leave their place of exploitation to stay put, the government has unleashed two of its most redoubtable arms: repression and propaganda. The state naturally counts on its trade union guard dogs to ensure discipline. The latter have continually called for "the indispensable means for the protection of the health and security of workers who have to go to work" and "to salute the engagement of workers in public services and elsewhere"[10]. This can be translated as: go to work! We are expressing concerns about your protection thanks to the "social dialogue" with the company and the boss! When the workers express their reticence more openly, the unions are quick to talk about the "right to withdraw" of each individual from "their" workplace.

"The state of health emergency" hasn't prevented the government from exhorting workers not to respect isolation when work from home is not possible. But henceforth, if workers refuse to go to work and prefer to guard their health and those of their loved ones, will we see the cops arrest them and sanction all those that the state judges a hindrance to the good functioning of the national economy? The idea of taking holidays has been mooted by employers to "compensate" for absenteeism. Even workers in some tax offices have been told not to abandon their posts. This selective confinement is part of the logic of capital, which demands that this killer pandemic mustn't prevent the "continuity" of the national economy.

"My priority is to save the French productive apparatus", thus declared Bruno Le Maire, Economy Minister/dragoon, sword drawn. As so pleasantly underlined by the journalist of Atlantico, Jean-Sebastien Ferjou, on LCI: "the real question (...) is do we prefer to sacrifice our old and weak or do we prefer to lose two points off the GDP?" The government has chosen to sacrifice the old and weak.

It's the working class who will pay the bill

Regarding its outrageous propaganda, the French bourgeoisie, in the image of its neighbours, has spared nothing. In calling for a "general mobilisation" and "national unity", the bourgeoisie has unleashed a most nauseating nationalist campaign.

The bourgeoisie has already prepared the ground for the economic devastation that this "health war" will engender, and it's the working class who will pay the bill. The "spirit of sacrifice" that goes along with a period of "reconstruction" is already the order of the day. Already, the most precarious workers have lost the hours that allow them to survive. Already, those technically unemployed will not receive their full wages, contrary to government promises. The propaganda is drummed into our heads that because of the epidemic everyone in the future will have to tighten their belts. While they made us think that "greedy bankers" and "crazy finance" was the at the origin of the financial crisis of 2008, they are trying today to make us think that it's Covid-19 which is at the origin of the economic crisis. But reality is far different: not only is the epidemic only a catalyst, an accelerant of the capitalist crisis, it is itself a pure product of the crisis.

In the press and on social networks, from television to Youtube, people out jogging alone are being designated as irresponsible for spreading the virus. Hasn't it dawned on the journalists and "Youtubers" that these impudent exercisers have found it ridiculous to be forbidden to breathe fresh air after being heaped together in their millions on trains, in factories, in warehouses, in the polling booths? The state is also unleashing a campaign of individual guilt in order to better hide its own negligence and its incapacity to stem the pandemic.  

But where the ideological campaign of the bourgeoisie is most pernicious is the call for applause for hospital personnel. TV channels have shown, on the loop, the images of an illuminated Eiffel Tower and of the surrounding areas applauding the doctors and nurses every night at 2000, sometimes from windows and even to the strains of the Marseillaise. The bourgeoisie will not hold back from any cynicism, any indecency as it did when it called for the population to redouble its applause after the death of the first doctor. "Soldiers dying for France" falling on the field of honour under popular jubilation and applause! It's nothing other than a distortion of proletarian solidarity echoing the military discourse of General Macron vaunting the "heroism" of the carers. Although the applause could warm their hearts, the medical workers have no need of medals for their good and loyal service to the "Nation". They need personal protective gear, specialised equipment, masks, tests and extra workers. They need the "recognition" of their exploiters to be shown by increases in wages and staff so they don't go under due to the diabolical hours they are working.

Anger can only spread

Faced with the negligence of the bourgeoisie and the breakdown of a health system that makes it more and more difficult to look after the sick, anger is rising among the workers. The contempt of the dominant class for human life appalls the exploited. There are many who no longer put up with the government exposing those not obeying the rules, or having to expose themselves to sanctions when nothing justifies their attendance at work. Delivery drivers of Deliveroo and Uber, the SNF workers of Andrezieux, those of La Redoute and Saverglass in the Oise thus went on strike to protest against their dangerous working conditions. At Amazon and the postal service workers also walked out. Elsewhere, numerous proletarians enthusiastically expressed their solidarity from their windows demanding equipment for the hospital workers, not applauding them as "the Nation's heroes", but with the cry of "Money! Money for the public hospitals"!

In the immediate though, what dominates is fear and paralysis faced with a health catastrophe that the dominant class is unable to get on top of. The impossibility of meeting up together doesn't allow the working class today to take up the road to struggle on its own grounds.

Nevertheless, all these expressions demonstrate that combativity is very much alive, that the proletariat will not fatally accept the negligence of those who exploit them. "We are not cannon-fodder" could be heard among health workers.

When this health crisis is overcome, the "protector" state will once again reveal its true face. The attacks on all of the conditions of proletarian life (aggravated by the plunge of the economy into the abyss of recession) can only end up, in time, not with a Sacred Union of exploited and exploiters, but with new explosions of indignation and anger.

This global health catastrophe can only contribute to reflection in the working class and a development of consciousness that capitalism is a completely rotten system, a real curse threatening the survival of the human race.

EG, 22 March 2020

[1]  General Macron can at least count on his expeditionary forces, the Chinese Red Cross, which has made a "donation" to the old continent of several million masks and materials to ventilate and intubate the sick. Anecdotally, the "donation" from Beijing is by no means an altruistic and disinterested act. Whereas states are incapable of coordinating a minimum of collective action, the "largesse" of China is rather the expression of the general tendency of each-for-themselves that characterises a putrefying capitalism of which the COVID-19 pandemic is a spectacular illustration. We will return to this issue in another article.

[2]  Cf. interview with Professor Bruno Canard, director of research at CNRS and coronavirus specialist, appearing in Le Monde: "Faced with Corona virus an enormous amount of time has been lost in finding medications" (February 29, 2020).

[3]  COVID-19 is moreover is far from being the most virulent sickness which has struck humanity. Without too much difficulty one can already anticipate the apocalyptic impact of a pandemic like MERS-COV with its 30% death rate.

[4]  One can appreciate the pleasantry here when comparing this "very important investment" of 300 million euros (according to ex-Minister of Health, Agnes Buzyn) to the aid of some 750 billion euros which has just been unblocked by the ECB in order to "save the economy".

[6]  See:Curative care beds in hospitals”. The figures date from 2017.  Further degradation in the last two years is hardly accounted for.

[7]  The state further aggravates this misery by replacing nurses with care assistants paid at a lower rate.

[8]  “Les regrets d’Agnès Buzyn”, Le Monde (17 mars 2020).

[9]  "Coronavirus: the SDF warns about not respecting the lock-down" AFP (20 March 2020).

[10]  Inter-union communiqué of March 19 2020, signed, hand-in-hand, by union and bosses’ organisations.


Covid-19 pandemic