« We are at war. » Six times during his speech (on March 12th), Emmanuel Macron used the same expression, trying to take a martial tone. The anaphora wanted to provoke a stunning effect. With two underlying objectives. One sanitary : to ensure that the containment measures - a word not pronounced by the President of the Republic - are now implemented. The other is a classical political one : to try to establish a form of national unity behind the head of state. All this also to make people forgetting the contradictory measures and guilty hesitations of the last few days.
Yet words have a meaning. And let’ say it clearly, one time for enough : we are not at war. We are in a pandemic. That is enough, and totally different. No State, no armed group has declared war on France, or on the European Union. Nor has France declared war (Article 35 of the Constitution) on another State. The Covid-19 is not spreading because of the fire of its tanks, the power of its air force or the skill of its generals, but because of inappropriate, insufficient or too late measures taken by the public authorities.
The pandemic that we are facing requires measures that are rather the opposite of wartime measures.
No, the Covid-19 virus is not an « enemy, invisible, elusive, and advancing » as Emmanuel Macron stated on Monday, March 16. It is a virus. A virus that spreads within a non-immune population, carried by many of us and disseminated according to the intensity of our social relationships. It is highly contagious, spreads quickly and can have terrible consequences if left unchecked. But it is a virus. Not an army. You don’t declare war on a virus : you get to know it, you try to control its speed of spread, you establish its serology, you try to find one or more anti-virals, or even a vaccine. And in the meantime, we protect and care those who are going to get sick. In short, we learn to live with a virus.
Yes, words have meaning. We are not at war because the pandemic we are facing requires measures that are rather the opposite of those taken in wartime : slowing down economic activity rather than speeding it up, forcing a significant proportion of workers to rest rather than mobilizing them to fuel a war effort, drastically reducing social interaction rather than sending all the forces on the front line. To say it frankly, let us put it this way : staying confined to one’s home, on one’s couch or in one’s kitchen, has absolutely nothing to do with a period of war where one has to protect oneself from bombs or snipers and try to survive.
It’s not about sacrificing medical personnel, it’s about protecting them.
This reference to « war » also conjures up a virile imagination populated by male heroism - although largely denied by the facts - and by sacrifice that has no place. Faced with the coronavirus - and any pandemic - it is women who are on the front line : 88% of nurses, 90% of cashiers, 82% of primary school teachers, 90% of staff in EHPADs (institutions for the elderly) are women. Not to even mention the crèche and nursery staff mobilized to look after the children of all these women mobilized on the front line. The medical staff say it clearly : we need support, we need medical equipment and we need to be recognized as professionals, not as heroes. It is not a question of sacrificing them. On the contrary, we must know how to protect them, how to take care of them so that their skills and abilities can be mobilized over the long term.
No, definitely, we’re not at war. We’re facing a pandemic. And that’s bad enough. We are not soldiers, we are citizens. We don’t want to be governed like in war. But like in times of pandemic. We have no enemy. Neither outside nor within our borders. Confronted for weeks by a government incapable of delivering clear speeches and coherent action, we are just citizens gradually coming to understand that the best thing to do is to remain confined. Having to learn to live in slow motion. Together but without meeting each other. Against all the demands of competitiveness and competition that have been imposed on us for decades.
Let’s institute solidarity and care as cardinal principles, not martial and warlike values.
Fighting the coronavirus pandemic is not a war, because there is no question of sacrificing the most vulnerable in the name of reason of state. On the contrary, in the same way than for those on the front line, we must protect the vulnerable and take care of them, including by physically withdrawing so as not to contaminate them. Homeless, migrants, the poorest and most precarious are among us : we owe them full and complete assistance to shelter them : requisitioning empty housing is no longer an option. Fighting against coronavirus means instituting solidarity and care as the cardinal principles of our lives. Solidarity and care. Not martial and warlike values.
This principle of solidarity should have no borders, because the virus has no borders : it circulates in France because we circulate (too much) in the country. In opposition to the national, even nationalistic, measures wielded here and there, we should collectively extend this principle of solidarity to the international level and ensure that all countries, all populations can cope with this pandemic. Yes, the mobilization must be general : because a global health crisis demands it, this mobilization must be generalized to the entire planet. So that the pandemic does not rhyme with inequality and carnage among the poor. Or simply among neighbours.
There is no need for a war economy, just to stop sailing on sight.
So, yes, perhaps we need to take exceptional measures to reorganize our economic system around a few vital functions, starting with feeding ourselves and producing the necessary medical equipment. Two months after the first contaminations, it is moreover incredible that there are still shortages of masks to protect those on the front line : redirecting, by requisition if necessary, means of production in this direction should already have been done. So as not to have to refuse to export masks as the EU is now doing, including with Serbia, which has nonetheless begun its accession process : where is European solidarity ?
There is no need for a war economy for that. All we need is to stop sailing at sight and to finally take measures that are consistent with each other, based on this principle of solidarity, which will enable every population, rich or poor, to face the pandemic. The conscious and voluntary participation of the entire population in the necessary containment measures will only be facilitated. And the dynamics of the epidemic will be all the more easily broken. Tomorrow’s world is being played out in today’s exceptional measures.
Maxime Combes, economist and member of Attac.
Picture : Emmanuel Macron (Touquet, 15 March) / © Pedro Brito da Fonseca
– This op-ed was originally published in French by Basta! on Wednesday 18 March : « Being confined to one’s home, on one’s couch, has absolutely nothing to do with a period of war. »