Nice in Lockdown
18 March 2020
Life in the shadow of Covid-19
The realisation that we would be subject to swingeing changes in our lives came suddenly, although in retrospect we should have expected it. The government had recommended, then requested, that we wash our hands throughly, not go out unnecessarily and to limit our contact with others, especially by keeping our distance. It seemed novel, fun even, to joke about it and to do the ‘Wuhan shake’. But then we kissed on each cheek anyway and carried on regardless.
On Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves with a friend at a local bar, wondering whether our upcoming travels plans would go ahead, when she casually mentioned that all the non-food shops in the area would be closing from Monday. We talked on and sipped our beers and I mused over the massive drop in work I had experienced due to the epidemic. We then heard from our waiter that every bar and restaurant in Nice would be closing that night at midnight, not to reopen until further notice.
Of course it was obvious from any reading of the statistics that Covid-19 was everywhere, and was completely out of control. That it would lead to the widespread closures of shops and businesses, when the horse had so clearly bolted, seemed, at the time, disproportionate.
That evening, we saw Emmanuel Macron soberly set out the government’s reasons for closing down the restaurants and bars and all non-essential shops – i.e., those not selling food – and he was persuasive. I had also become aware that the relatively small number of diagnosed cases we had seen thus far were just the tip of an enormous iceberg, which contained a huge number of cases that would become apparent once the incubation period was up, by which time they would have infected many, many more people.
French people were still mixing too much. It was clear the game was up, lockdown would be inevitable.
A day later, Édouard Philippe, Prime Minster of France, said that, despite the measures to reduce social contact, French people were still mixing too much. It was clear the game was up, lockdown would be inevitable. Macron later told us that, from Monday, we would be allowed out only to buy food, to go to the pharmacy or hospital, see the doctor, go to work, if it remained open, or to take some exercise, and then only in the local area and not in groups.
The government subsequently announced that, before leaving home, everyone would have to fill out an attestation that they were outside in compliance with the requirements of the law, giving their name, date of birth and address, and selected reason for being on the streets from the list of permitted options.
The result is that Nice, while the same in appearance, has been transformed. The characteristic hum of the city has gone. It is quiet, and you can hear nothing but birds, the occasional car or van, and the toads calling to each other from across the valley – it is mating season after all.
Flights have stopped landing at the airport and the skies are empty, apart from the gulls circling overhead and the swallows flitting about over the rooftops. The city, for the first time since I became acquainted with it, is tranquil.
Everyone is bearing up well, but the sunshine and unseasonal warmth helps. Our neighbour below us, recently recovered from an aortic aneurysm, is in the garden constantly, and the children from the family downstairs, no longer able to go to school, play in the sunshine and help their mother to tend the plants. Of course, we are in the same basket, as the French say, and so we have to just get on with it.
People, normally barely aware of others on the street, regarded strangers with suspicion. Are they infected, they were clearly thinking. Should I be afraid of them?
Today, we ventured outside for the first time since the order was given, attestations in my pocket. The roads were empty. People, far fewer than usual, milled on the streets, and kept their distance. At the supermarket, there was a notice in untidy felt-tip pen that no more than 100 people would be allowed in at any one time. The shelves were still being restocked after the panic buying at the start of the week but at least we didn’t have to queue for long at the till.
Back outside, what struck me was that people, normally barely aware of others on the street, regarded strangers with suspicion. Are they infected, they were clearly thinking. Should I be afraid of them? That and the police. They were not everywhere but they were present. We walked past two who clearly would have had no hesitation in questioning us, were we not laden with bags full of food.
Who knows how long this will continue. The measures introduced at the weekend are intended to last for 15 days, although it is obvious that this period will have to continue for another week or two at least, if not another month. How that will affect our lives over the longer term, I have no idea. Our habits, our rhythms of existence, will change, at least for a while. Macron says that no business will have to go under as a result of coronavirus, and I hope he is right, as the entire economy needs to restart, and quickly, once the crisis has abated.
Yet sometimes, when I am looking down the valley to the silent city and the sea beyond, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we didn’t stay like this, at least in some ways. After all, we need to radically reposition the economy to tackle the climate crisis that is right in front of us, in ways that Covid-19 has implemented in one fell swoop.
Of course, the deaths are lamentable, especially as many could have been prevented if governments had acted sooner, but we have to learn lessons from this epidemic, not least of which that a more peaceful life might be better for us in ways we do not yet fully appreciate.