Marseille prided itself on faring better than its arch-rival paris during the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, bragging about how local star virologist and hydroxychloroquine guru didier raoult had kept the death toll low. now, after a summer respite, frances second-largest city is ground zero of a resurgent epidemic, and is resisting orders from the capital about how to keep the virus at bay.
When french health minister olivier vran on wednesday singled out marseille by ordering the closure of its bars and restaurants for at least two weeks following a spike in covid-19 infections, outrage among local officials was instant.
This decision is unilateral, unfit, and unfair! you think you are being courageous but in reality you are losing your nerve, tweeted renaud muselier, the centre-right president of the regional council, who is planning to challenge the governments measures in court.
Nothing about the health situation justifies this move, said michle rubirola, the recently elected green mayor, who is a physician.
The spat is not just the latest instalment of the perennial rivalry between paris and the ancient port city that is home to 900,000 residents. it is also a sign president emmanuel macrons government, like many across europe, is entering a more difficult phase of managing the pandemic: onein which people are more reluctant to comply with harsh restrictions on public life and business activity as winter looms and infections accelerate.
An elabe survey conducted this month suggested 47 per cent of the french thought the government was not doing enough to fight the virus, while 20 per cent thought it was doing too much. three-quarters of those surveyed said they opposed another national lockdown.
When covid-19 struck europe in the spring, marseille was not hit as hard as the paris region and the east of the country around strasbourg. but after lockdown restrictions were relaxed and holidaymakers made their way to the beach, locals let their guard down.
As of last week, the city recorded 280 weekly new infections per 100,000 people, compared with the governments alert threshold of 50 per 100,000. paris so-called incidence stands at 180 weekly new cases per 100,000.
In mid-august when infections climbed in marseille, they were concentrated among young people enjoying summer parties at the citys beaches and rooftop bars. they then spread to older residents often at family gatherings such as marriages and baptisms, according to health officials.
Now, even though doctors have a better understanding of how to treat severely ill covid-19 patients delaying ventilation has led to fewer critical cases and deaths the citys intensive care beds are filling up again.
Health officials are keeping a tight control over hospital capacity. philippe de mester, head of the regional health office, holds a daily call with the citys hospitals to dispatch patients and ensure there are enough beds.we have to manage this day to day, with extremely tight control, he said.
About 100 hospital beds have been added for critical patients in the past month, taking the total to 562. with 84 per cent of those beds now full with all types of patients, hospitals have started delaying some procedures. however, mr de mester said that unlike at the pandemics peak in march and april, they want to keep treating people with other serious ailments, from heart disease to cancer.
The situation is worrying... it is still getting worse. if we look ahead 15 days from now, we will still have more people in the hospital, he said.
In a small conference room down the hall from his office, half a dozen contract-tracers speak quietly on the phone through surgical masks and tap data into spreadsheets as they hunt down clusters of infections.
Much hinges on the grunt work of these contract-tracers who work long shifts seven days a week. we are now tracking clusters in schools, day cares, offices and at family gatherings like marriages and baptisms, said christine ortmans, who leads the 20-strong team. its not easy. its intense work and sometimes we get overwhelmed.
Yet local elected officials are adamant they can still keep the pandemic under control without pariss interference. the city has asked for a 10-day delay before the closures of bars and restaurants take effect and has released its own metrics showing an improvement since last week when a first round of restrictions was put in place.
Dr raoults research centre, which has 65 beds, continues to attract hundreds of people a day who line up on its concrete steps to be tested for covid-19 the results always come in the same day.
In one of his weekly youtube videos, the virologist who shot to fame by hailing the antiviral hydroxychloroquine as a cure, claimed the virus was becoming less deadly and insisted the worst of the epidemic was over. in paris, he is a contentious figure but for marseille local politicians such as mr muselier, also a doctor, his word is akin to religion.
The french government has vowed to give more leeway to local authorities to design their controls, insisted christophe mirmand, who as prefect for the marseille region is the highest-ranking government official. the challenge, however, is that it takes two to three weeks to know whether restrictions are working, he noted.
When we take action, we dont know if the measures are proportional and effective. so we have to grope in the dark for a bit, he said. we will always be criticised by some who say we went too far and others who say we didnt do enough.