Tag Archives: ‘catastrophe’

How France found itself in the middle of a coronavirus catastrophe

Emmanuel Macron opened his official visit to Italy on Feb. 26 with a big two-cheek kiss for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Then he was off for a 20-minute round of handshaking in the streets of Naples, even though the Italian coronavirus outbreak was already big news there. 

In Paris on March 9, the day neighbouring Italy was locked down, Macron went strolling with his wife on the Champs-Élysées, telling restaurant patrons he wanted to “send a message of confidence to the French economy.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a great idea. France is now among the worst-performing countries in handling the outbreak. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte came in close contact twice during their summit in Naples in late February, when the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding. Macron also embarked on a round of hand-shaking on the city’s streets. (The Associated Press)

“In France, the French president is like a king. He’s a republican king,” says Mathieu Magnaudeix, one of France’s top investigative journalists. “It’s very clear they didn’t grasp how important the situation was. It’s a failure of the whole system. It’s a failure of French executive power and especially the president.”

Occasionally, the president was challenged. On a Feb. 28 visit to a French hospital, he was confronted by a doctor about how public hospitals were effectively on fire like the famous Notre Dame Cathedral and needed his immediate attention.

Macron pushed back, saying, “OK, so I can count on you?” The doctor quickly responded, “Oh yes, you can count on me, but the opposite still needs to be proven.”

Before long, France was embroiled in a full-scale heath crisis, with so many cases of COVID-19 that hospitals and some seniors’ care homes were overwhelmed with patients. (MARTIN BUREAU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a lot of anger directed at the French government right now, Magnaudeix says.

“We basically lost two months or three months, three very important months, where we could have helped prevent this pandemic from getting bigger and bigger in France,” he said. “After all of that is over, the government will have to be accountable for what they’ve done or not done.”

It wasn’t all the government’s fault. On March 12, Macron finally went on TV to announce he was closing schools and calling for physical distancing because France was now at war with COVID-19.

The very next day, the public flooded into Parisian terraces and courtyards to enjoy the sunshine with their friends and relatives. Many people seemed to pay no attention to the possibility that France could share Italy’s horrible fate. 

Mathieu Magnaudeix, an investigative journalist with French online publication Mediapart, says France’s response to the pandemic is ‘a failure of the whole system.’ (Mathieu Magnaudeix)

“We had the example of Wuhan under our eyes and then we had the example of Italy under our eyes,” says Dr. Catherine Hill, a leading French epidemiologist. 

“Instead of thinking that those were examples, people just hoped for the best and they talked about the Italian scenario as if it was a Western movie made by Italians or something exotic. It’s ridiculous! The same causes tend to have the same consequences.” 

Intensive care units overwhelmed

Eric Maury, an intensive care physician at Hôpital Saint-Antoine in Paris, said there are thousands more intensive care patients in France than its health-care system can handle. (Eric Maury)

Sure enough, the consequences have arrived. A tidal wave of COVID-19 patients is overwhelming France’s hospitals.

Intensive care doctor Eric Maury estimates there are 5,000 ICU beds in France.

“Actually there are more than 7,000 patients requiring ICU, so we have actually more patients than France can treat in ICU beds,” he said.

On Sunday, the death toll topped 14,000.

France has responded to the shortage with an amazing mobilization of high-speed trains and aircraft to move patients from saturated hospitals in Paris and the eastern portion of the country to less busy hospitals in other regions, and even other countries. 

“They sent patients to Germany, to Switzerland, to Luxembourg because [the system] was overwhelmed,” Maury said. “There were too many patients to take care of and there were no more ICU beds, no ventilators.”

The comparisons to other countries are astonishing. While France is reputed to have one of the best health care systems in the world, neighbouring Germany performed five times the per-capita number of COVID-19 tests. Now France has six times the per-capita number of German deaths from the disease.

A woman carries some shopping home in Marseille, in southern France, just after nationwide confinement measures came into effect on March 17. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

France claims to have a suspiciously low number of confirmed cases, but epidemiologists like Hill don’t believe it.

“My estimate is that you have to multiply the published figures by something like 50, so there’s an enormous gap,” she said.

WATCH | COVID-19 catastrophe in France:

The overconfidence shown by French President Emmanuel Macron as neighbouring Italy went into lockdown to contain COVID-19 was followed by a lack of regard for physical distancing recommendations and has resulted in the most lethal outbreak in the world.   6:05

There was a scandal in France when it turned out that a much-discussed stockpile of masks and other protective equipment was far smaller than promised. Macron toured a mask production line and promised more were on the way.

Intensive care physicians like Maury say there is no sign of relief yet.

“What I am telling the government is if there is no protection, we are not going to take care of patients,” he said. “It’s not possible to do that.” 

Return to normal?

Even as France is flying patients to other countries, the government is announcing plans to return to normal.

Experts like Hill doubt that’s possible without a large increase in testing. 

“Half of the contaminations are caused by individuals who do not know they are infectious,” she said. “There are millions of people in France who are positive right now. How do you release the quarantine? You really have to start testing massively to sort out the people who are contagious and bring them aside.”

And like Canada, France has a shockingly high proportion of deaths in nursing homes. 

A man runs on the forecourt of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur on top Montmartre hill during a nationwide confinement to counter the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

It’s something Macron did not seem to see coming back on March 6, when he joined the dinner table at a Paris seniors’ residence and didn’t pay attention to physical distancing.

Today, the number of seniors who have died of COVID-19 in France is roughly 5,000. The deaths in seniors’ homes are perhaps the most shocking element of France’s lamentable coronavirus record.

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UN Security Council hears of ‘unfolding humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria’s Idlib province

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkey’s border “under horrendous conditions” in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, the UN humanitarian chief said Wednesday.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has “overwhelmed” efforts to provide aid.

He said nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1, when the government offensive began — more than 500,000 of them children.

“Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

Lowock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces.

“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,” he said.

‘Tragic suffering’

UN special envoy Geir Pedersen echoed Secretary-General António Guterres’s expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation “and the tragic suffering of civilians.”

“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,” he said.

This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows an area near Kafaldin in northern Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border on Feb. 5, top, and the same area with a large number of refugee tents for internally displaced people on Feb. 16, bottom. The difference illustrates the rapid expansion of refugees as hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area scramble to escape an offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. (Maxar Technologies via The Associated Press)

Pedersen warned: “The potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.”

He said Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a ceasefire in Idlib, “can and must play a key role in finding a way to de-escalate the situation now,” though meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow in recent days and contacts between the two presidents have not produced results.

“To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,” Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva.

‘Spare no effort’

The United States, United Kingdom, Germany and others stressed that three-way talks with Syria supporters Russia and Iran and opposition backer Turkey, which led to a de-escalation zone in Idlib, aren’t working.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula isn’t working, it’s now time for the UN to step in and “it’s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.”

“We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council, to stop what is happening,” he said. “We must spare no effort.”

Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.

“If you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,” he said.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: “We will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria, which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.”

He defended the Astana process as playing “the key role,” saying that “there’s no other mechanism for a political dialogue.”

Nebenzia supported Pedersen’s efforts to get agreement from Syria’s government and opposition on an agenda so a constitutional committee can start discussing a new charter for the country, which is seen by many as a first step toward elections and formation of a new government.

“What needs to stop is protection of fighters, insurgents,” he said.

Britain’s ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russia and Syria need to stop “indiscriminate and inhumane attacks” in the northwest that are killing and injuring innocent civilians.

During closed consultations after the open meeting, French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said he proposed that the Security Council issue a statement on the escalating situation, but Russia blocked it.

According to council diplomats, the proposed statement called for a cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, but Russia insisted on an additional line that would have allowed the fight against “terrorists” to continue. That was unacceptable to the vast majority of council members, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.

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‘Catastrophe’ looms as displaced Syrians flee toward closed Turkish border

“The children. Thousands of children under the trees.”  

That’s the answer that came crackling back from Dr. Tammam Lodami on the phone from the northern Syrian town of al-Dana when asked for a description of conditions on the ground.  

North of Idlib city and west of Aleppo, the town is caught between a two-pronged advance by Syrian government troops and their Russian backers as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeks to regain control of the last opposition enclave in the country.  

“This is the case,” Lodami said as he struggled to convey the scale of the crisis he’s witnessing, the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the conflict and headed towards a closed Turkish border with no shelter and temperatures dipping as low as –7 C.  

“My English is humble,” he said. “I want to reach my voice to the world.”  

But very little seems capable of permeating the indifference of the world and that elusive body known as the diplomatic community these days, not even when warnings sound of another possible escalation in a war about to enter its 10th year.  

Dr. Tammam Lodami, a dentist who now works as an administrator for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations in the northern Syrian town of al-Dana, says the town where he normally practises is overflowing with people displaced from elsewhere in the country. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

“You can consider these days as a catastrophe,” said Lodami, a dentist by trade who now works for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).

“Families leave their towns and homes for fear of indiscriminate bombardment. [The Syrian regime forces] target hospitals, medical centres, ambulances, schools, markets and civilians. Everything.”

‘Fastest-growing displacement’

Syria has spent the war systematically corralling rebel opposition fighters, extremist groups, political activists and hundreds of thousands of displaced people into Idlib province.

Now the Assad regime seems to be coming for its opponents, among them al-Qaeda-linked miliants, with Russian airstrikes paving a brutal path for troops on the ground.  

Regime forces began their advance in April 2019,  but it has been picking up steam.  Some 800,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northwestern Syria since early December, according to the UN’s office for humanitarian affairs.

On Tuesday, spokesperson Jens Laerke described it as the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the start of the Syrian crisis almost nine years ago.

It’s “the fastest-growing displacement we’ve ever seen in the country,” he said at a news conference in Geneva.  

An internally displaced girl looks out from a tent in Azaz, Syria, on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

It’s not difficult to understand why when faced with the daily images of the damned coming out of Idlib:  relatives weeping over the charred bodies of loved ones killed in airstrikes, White Helmet rescue workers plucking bloodied and crying children out of the rubble.  

Roads leading toward the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families lucky enough to have them or to clamber on carrying what they can.

Many are headed toward Atmeh, a sprawling camp of about one million people along Syria’s still-closed border with Turkey.

‘Emergency conditions’

Dr. Okbaa Jaddou, a pediatrician there, said their hospital has only 40 beds.

“On [these] beds, we put 80 [children] or maybe 120 [children], because [there are]  so many people now,” he said in a Skype interview on Wednesday. “We are operating in emergency conditions.”

Originally from Hama, a city further south, Jaddou has been living at Atma for two years.  

“I was displaced and I [haven’t] found any place more safe than the Syrian-Turkish border because the [Syrian] regime has bombed everywhere.”  

“If the situation [continues], we are going to see a very big crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border.”

Internally displaced people receive bread at a makeshift camp in Azaz, Syria, on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Idlib was supposed to be a “de-escalation zone,” agreed to in a ceasefire deal worked out between Turkey, which supports some rebel groups inside Idlib, and Russia.

An estimated 1,800 civilians, according to new reports, have been killed since then.  

The recent deaths of a number of Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian shelling has raised tensions considerably. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troop reinforcements to the border.

Alarm bells

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today,” he said to thundering applause in the Turkish parliament, “regardless of the lines of the [ceasefire].”  

The prospect of Syrian and Turkish troops trading fire in a direct confrontation has sounded alarm bells.  

“What we must absolutely prevent is this developing into wider conflict between the Turks, the Syrians and the Russians,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a director of the group Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to NGOs working in Syria.

An ex-soldier and chemical weapons expert, he would like to see NATO countries, including Canada, do more to support Turkey in the current crisis.

But Turkey has also angered Western allies in recent months by moving against Syrian Kurds in the northeast credited with helping allied troops fighting the Islamic State or ISIS.  

Roads leading towards the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

De Bretton-Gordan said the view in the United Kingdom at least is that it shouldn’t get involved until it’s all over and then help to pick up the pieces.  

“You know, I’ve had meetings with British government ministers asking for this but there is a view certainly here in London that the whole of Idlib that’s not under Turkish or Russian control is being run by the Jihadis. That’s just not the case.”  

Doctors on the ground at the Bab al Hawa hospital near the Turkish border estimate that 95 per cent of the victims of the latest offensive are civilian, with two-thirds women and children.  

Morale threatened

“Three million civilians trapped,” said de Bretton-Gordon. “If there’s no medical support to help them, their morale completely goes. And as we know at the moment, most of them are rushing towards the Turkish border.”  

The presence of a stronger Turkish military presence along that border offers comfort to those sheltering nearby, according to Jaddou, but few believe Turkey is strong enough to face Syria given the Russian and Iranian allies supporting Damascus.  

“Ten minutes ago, I heard four bombings from Turkish cannons,” he said.  

“But these four bombings cannot change the situation because Russia supports the Assad regime with their war planes.

“Idlib, the last opposition castle, is going to surrender. Because people with only rifles cannot fight war planes.”  

Lodami described an ever-growing ‘catastrophe’ to CBC News by phone from al-Dana in Idlib province, where for the past few days he says he’s witnessed thousands of Syrians trying to escape fierce fighting. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

In al-Dana, Lodami doesn’t want to talk about the Turkish-Syrian confrontation. It’s a political question and he is concerned with helping the needy, he said.  

“How we will [face] our God with the children?” he asks. “All the world.  All the world there is a very big problem. They don’t give any care or interest in these children and women under the trees.”  

Ask him what their immediate needs are and the answer comes without a pause.

“We need peace. Just peace.” 

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