Pandemic Musings: 6. Entering (Early) the Fourth Wave in France (July 2021)

As of today, 21 July 2021, France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that we have entered the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in France. Less than two months ago we were eagerly phasing out of the lockdown measures of the third wave -ending the curfews, lifting the face mask requirements and mandatory forms and time limits for activities outside the home, gradually opening up the restaurants (outdoor dining only), fitness centers, museums, theaters, shopping centers and non-essential retail  establishments.  Although we are no  longer being called upon to reinstate any of these lockdown measures (at least not yet), the Prime Minister has described this fourth wave as worse than any of the previous three waves, with a “faster and steeper slope” in the spread of the virus than any of the previous waves.  Who expected this? How is it affecting us personally here at Villa Ndio?

In this sixth “chapter” of personalized “Pandemic Musings” since the pandemic arrived in our lives,  I must admit that my whole perspective has changed.  One could argue that this is not unusual. If one were to flip back through the previous five pandemic-related musings, one would clearly see a changed perspective on each occasion. But the progression is significant, such that this latest change in my psyche is different from all the others. To capture the contrast, I have gone back to reread them and to add a number to each one for ease of reference (Pandemic Musings 1 through 5,) as if they could become chapters in a book!

First (dated March 31, 2020), there was shock at the severity of the pandemic – I called it a new “March madness” – but an expectation that it would be brief.  That is to say, this was all about the first phase of the first lockdown.  In the second musing (dated May 14, 2020), describing the “second phase” of the first lockdown, I reflected on how the pandemic was taking longer but still seemed controllable. In the third musing (dated June 10, 2020), we were still dealing with one “lockdown”, but it was described then as a lockdown with three phases – short-term and full lockdown in the first phase, longer but somewhat less restrictive lockdown in the second phase, and a cautious process of “deconfinement” in the third phase. In retrospect, it seems more appropriately to be called the end of the first “wave” of the pandemic,

In the fourth musing (or “chapter” as one might eventually rephrase the series, dated October 30, 2020), I wrote about life at the beginning of the second lockdown – or more accurately now in retrospect, the second “wave” of the pandemic in France.  I actually wrote about “Covid fatigue” then. It was late October; we had experienced a relatively Covid-free summer but had nonetheless lived cautiously here at Villa Ndio, while the rest of the French world around us was falling prey to this second wave, largely brought about by letting up on lockdown living too quickly and recklessly. What it meant for us was no American English classes to teach, no visitors to host (we had had two sets of visitors in August before the second wave but no more after that), further postponements of trips abroad, and celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas by ourselves.  We did feel this matter of COVID-19 fatigue, which was subsequently (but perhaps misleadingly) relieved by the exciting prospects of effective vaccines becoming available in the near future.

In fact, the speedy arrival of several vaccines (plus some better therapeutic and diagnostic measures) did make the transitioning from the end of the second wave , the arrival of the third wave , and even the end of this third wave  relatively uneventful. We still operated with  no English classes, no visitors, postponement once again of springtime travel to or from the US, celebrating Easter by ourselves, but we were safe and vaccinated.. Health-wise, perhaps, it was disruptive in other ways than the pandemic. I did have my first surgery for arteriosclerosis on my right leg before the pandemic hit (way back in October 2019),. However, the first surgery on my left leg, which should have happened in March or April 2020 did not happen until  September. And meanwhile, the right leg had deteriorated to the point of the need for a second round that was delayed until December 2020. Then, when the left leg also displayed deteriorating symptoms in February and March 2021 (during the lockdown measures of the third wave or was it still the second wave?), I delayed seeing a physician until April,. He immediately concluded that urgent action was called for, and this fourth bit of surgery was done in the first week of May 2021.

Thus, the fifth chapter was done post-surgery (dated May 7, 2021). The COVID fatigue that I had described in the fourth musing was absent this time around. In this fifth musing on the pandemic, I was calm and optimistic about the safety and security of having been vaccinated, and my focus was more about how deeply preoccupied I – well, all of us actually – had been, through these second and third waves, with non-pandemic events.  The American Presidential election in November, the horrific resistance leading even to an insurrection on 6 January 2021 at the US Capitol, the alarming rightward tilt in French politics and elsewhere around the world , the actual arrival of Brexit, and a lot of naval gazing about gender, race, social media, Internet monopolies, growing inequalities everywhere, and yes, more commentaries on vaccine nationalism.  OK, a lot of this was tied to the pandemic – especially the commentaries  supporting the US return to the World Health Organization and President Biden’s embrace of the COVAX Facility. I was personally committed to the appointment of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new Director General of the World Trade Organization and her willingness to improve equitable access to vaccines through policy changes at the WTO.

So much has transpired since early May (but also since March 2020) that I am again motivated to record my thoughts and impressions of these events but with yet another, very different perspective.  I am motivated this time  by the recognition of – actually the revelation that – this COVID-19 virus isn’t going away.  Back in May, we were starting to face up to how we might be experiencing the end of the “acute” phase of the pandemic by the end of this year. But now we are looking , not just at the earlier-than-anticipated surge of the fourth wave, but also more fundamentally at the prospects of a chronic mode of living with the virus permanently. This has affected my whole perspective on life.

My family members and I are fully vaccinated (except for the little ones), and we are all anticipating some trans-Atlantic travel (in both directions) to reconnect with each other. Although the European Union had already recommended the opening  up of Europe to American travelers in early June, we are all awaiting its implementation through the easing up of different national barriers. These are still not fully freed up, even in  France, but even more uncertain is the opening up of the US to European travelers.  We thought this was surely imminent at the start of the summer months, and yet the Biden Administration is reportedly not yet ready for us – something about not wanting to impose a national mandate for a vaccine passport in the midst of all those anti-vaxers there.  In May, then, we booked our flights to Washington, DC , anticipating that it might take a bit more time than early or mid June to lift those travel restrictions by booking them for departures in August.

With some complacency, I also accumulated research materials for further commentaries on vaccine nationalism (the G7 and G20 communiqués in particular but also the important collaborative efforts in June among the executive heads of the IMF, World Bank, WTO and WHO). I kept an eye on the Generation Equality Forum, the prospects for a global corporate minimum tax, digital privacy issues, the unfolding challenges to voting rights in the US but with a special new project on “democracy in jeopardy”. The events in 2021 – a gubernatorial election in Virginia, regional elections in France, and regional elections in India – were important markers for democracy to survive and maybe even thrive. So I got started on that.

What has happened since then? Since May? Well, some of it is the heat of summer – and the attractions of outdoor living by the pool. There was all the clean-up of the yard for our first big social event since the start of the pandemic, a Fourth of July American-style picnic for our neighbors and friends. We had some lingering concerns about who might be vaccinated and who might not be, but we knew we were vaccinated – and did plan the event for the out of doors to maximize social distancing. We were, after all, past the third wave and not yet into the fourth.

I made the same arrangements for the last of our American English classes for the revived season – weekly classes indoors at the RAL Center starting at the end of May but culminating with the students coming over to sit around a table by the pool for our last class in mid-July.  Champagne, home-prepared tapenades and all.  And then there  was the mid-May Rose Festival in Grasse,  followed by Peppy’s surgery in June, driving to Geneva to sell our  (i.e. HRI’s) dear but old and scratched up VW, taking the train back down to Cannes, the opening up of shopping centers in June and July, celebrating my birthday with meals out and walking tours of St. Cezaire and Fayence and Vallauris.  There have been distractions galore, and perhaps I am using them deliberately to avoid any serious writing.

My notes are waiting for me to write them up into commentaries. I care about the global crisis of inequitable vaccine distribution for COVID-19 and want to say more about the importance of global collaboration through the COVAX Facility and multi-stakeholder engagement in all of that.  I have at least updated the accumulation of events for a timeline on this, and I am especially heartened by the moral outrage from the people like Richard Quest on CNN about  the continuing failure to act. Behind the scenes, too, it seems that bold leadership from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO and Kristalina Georgieva at the IMF is having some effect. Pfizer’s CEO, too, seems to be roped into expanding manufacturing capacity in South Africa, and perhaps other pharmaceutical company CEOs are moving, too. We shall see. But somehow, for now, it seems that events are fuzzier than ever, such as the escalation of US/China tensions on the origins of the pandemic, the mixed messages in both the UK and the US on such fundamentals as mask-wearing, criticism directed at the way that the COVAX Facility has been operating, the panic of the early onset of this fourth wave, and the uncertainty of it all. Maybe I’l try to tackle the messiness of it all. Soon.

The same applies to my other commentary interests – the elections in France, India and the US, gender, racism, immigration, Internet governance and reform.  I guess these are all still beckoning. The hard facts (and unknowns) of an unpredictable virus and of personal aging have put me into a funk, and I sense a complexity to how my values really matter that is keeping me from getting on with it.  At least I am still inspired by time with family – with Peppy, to be sure, -but also looking forward to time with children, grandchild, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews (and close friends, too, of course!).  The fourth wave is wringing its alarm bells big time, and it has awakened me to stay alert, concentrate on living and let the notes accumulate.


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