The fifth wave of COVID19, powered by the highly contagious Omicron variant, progresses relentlessly throughout France, testing the optimism of even the most hopeful of us. That the rate of infections reached the level of 332,252 in one day, as it did on Wednesday, January 5, 2022, whereas it was under ten thousand as recently as early November, is a stunning development. In that time, it has taken the place of the much more-deadly delta variant as the dominant cause of COVID19 infections in France. Part of the shock that this generates stems from imagining with what France might have to cope if omicron proves to be as deadly as it is contagious.
Fortunately, that so far has not been the case, as until now omicron has been a milder version of COVID19, even if it is far more contagious. If you look at a chart of daily deaths due to COVID19, you will see that the current seven day moving average of deaths at circa 200 is much less than the wave that peaked in November 2020, when it topped at about 600, which itself was far below the wave that crested in early April 2020 at a bit under 1000.
Indeed, some experts point to the relatively milder symptoms of omicron as a hopeful development that may be pointing the way to successively milder mutations of the virus which will culminate in the virus subsiding altogether. They also point to the pattern of rapid peaks and subsidence in South Africa, where omicron first appeared, followed later by the UK, which appears to be echoing the South Africa pattern. If that should hold for France, we may see the peak here in the next couple weeks, followed by an improvement into February.
Meanwhile, life goes on in France without too much disruption in the lives of most citizens—provided that they have been vaccinated. Most businesses remain open, and, if you prove that you are in-compliance with the vaccination requirements, you are allowed entry to do most of what the majority of French people wish to do: go to restaurants, cafés, bars, shows, cinemas, sporting events and exhibitions.
But if you are one of those hold-outs against being vaccinated, it is a different story, and that precisely is the object of a current hullabaloo in France. It was precipitated by a statement last week from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who declared that he is determined to make life miserable for those who refuse to be vaccinated as asked by his government. Opponents, you might imagine, are now convulsed by the unreasonable demands of an allegedly deranged dictator, while defenders point to the fact that eight out of ten hospital beds in France are occupied by those one-in-ten French citizens who refused to be vaccinated.
We leave it to you to decide where your own sympathies may lie. The majority of the French public appears so far to be in second camp, and all of the political pundits concur that the French president is trying to tap into the frustrations of a majority of French voters for personal gain in the upcoming elections in May to choose the next president of France. He has our blessings, as it seems to us that the serious nature of the pandemic requires a firm hand to guide the country out of what can otherwise develop into a catastrophe for everyone.
I have a dear cousin who is a practicing physician living in Virginia, and we often exchange greetings when we have an excuse. During our recent Happy New Year exchange, he wondered out loud whether the milder omicron variant might not be part of a pattern of progressively weaker COVID19 variants that might eventually lead to infections becoming less and less virulent, to the point that being infected might become something similar to catching a cold, with more or less the same degree of consequence. That, he pointed out, is how the Spanish Flu epidemic concluded. His words reminded me of a friend who is fond of sometimes saying, “From your mouth to God’s ears.” Let us hope for the best.
Let me nevertheless report that we have been performing tours in France pretty much without inconvenience since the start of last July. During that time, our guides have embarked scores of clients for full day tours in Paris, Champagne, Provence, Normandy, the Loire Valley and destinations near-by Paris, each one without wearing masks during the times we were together in our own vehicles, but always wearing them when we entered sites open to the public, except when seated in restaurants for meals.
On one recent occasion, we had a group of women who were having an all-girl excursion from Paris in Champagne, for whom we booked them to have lunch at the Bellevue Brasserie of the Hotel Royal Champagne in Champillon, over-looking Epernay. The ladies had their lunch there privately, and we did not think anything more of it until a few days later, when we received a call from one of the managers of the brasserie, who reported that someone seated at a fair distance from our clients’ table subsequently came down with COVID19. He suggested we might want to under-go tests to determine whether any of us might have been infected. We did that, and were relieved when each of the results were negative. We mention this to let you know that the French COVID19 health pass does serve a useful functional purpose and it really does work.
Last week a client that we had booked to board a train early in the morning from Paris to travel to Tain L’Hermitage for a day of wine estate visits and tastings in the northern Rhone called us to say that they did not have the courage to board a train that would take more than two hours from Paris to Valence, for fear of contamination with COVID19.
It was one of those situations in which you really did not know what to say. Is there a risk, we were asked? With the contagiousness of omicron, how could one say no? Two hours and fifteen minutes sitting inside a hermetically sealed cabin with forty or so other passengers is undeniably a distinct risk. As a result, we cancelled the tour, which was done at a cost. and we are Our clients resolved the conundrum by deciding to cancel. If life goes on more or less normally for most people in France, there are exceptions.