When this is over, if ever it is, they will mark the long-awaited day with televised displays of emotion and solemnity. Ministers, in their dark blue suits, will congratulate themselves on having won the war.
They will adopt the appropriate tone, neither too soft nor excessively belligerent. We know the score. They will play with words, bend the truth ever so slightly, and make careful inflexions so as to make this ordeal look like a collective victory. Toilet paper roll and pasta grabbers will be so chuffed to be counted among the heroes.
The President said, “This is a war”, and of course, we would have won it. No-one will remember the profiteers, the cowards or those who rushed to stockpile pasta and rice. We will forget all about the stirrings of those rotten to the core parasites as well as those who called the emergency number, with a glint in their eye, to denounce their neighbours or snitch on some Chinese man. Or, worse still, those pathetic landlords, barricaded in their homes, with their stockpiles of preserves, pissing their pants while waiting for their tenant to move out because she’s a nurse. Or for her to drop dead. The thought of having a nurse staying in their 2-3 roomed apartment, while an infectious virus was on the loose, stirred up a flurry of dark thoughts and sickening ideas like a stink bug’s nest. We will forget that some people are just empty vessels. “Brigadier, my neighbour is a nurse, and when she gets back, unless she dies on the way that is, she’s going to give us the Clod-onavirus, don’t you think she should move out, you know, in the interest of public health? General, my neighbour goes shopping without his ausweis, and there’s a guy on the street, Chinese or something, eating pangolin pâté. Yes, yes, yes, he has it flown in from Shanghai. Officer, I don’t want to slander anyone, far from it, but you know… Chinese, for crying out loud!” There has been a 300% increase in anonymous reports to the police since the lockdown began…
But when it’s all over, politicians will deliver speeches in their deep, plummy, smooth and honeyed voices. They will refer to “our” hospitals, “our” carers. “our” doctors, and “our” dear nurses. Much like you would say our monuments, our great men, our war veterans, our sportsmen, our footballers, our army. Our ‘Poilus’, our beloved hairy ones. They will extol the hospital and the people. There will be no mention of the bravery of some or of the cowardice of others. They will lump everyone together to make the lockdown – spent munching peanuts on the couch while watching Netflix in our boxers – look like a black and white epic, just like other wars, the real ones.
The memory will evoke visions of dedication, of collegiality and mutual support. We will emerge from this war better and stronger: 66 million French men and women, 66 million Résistance fighters, facing the virus together as one, impervious, united and strong, standing behind those who fought on the frontline.
What about the nurses? What will they think? What will “our” nurses, “our” carers think? All “our” this and that, all the possessives, the adjectives and personal pronouns, will serve to depersonalise them. They will each be stripped of the days they spent on duty, of sleepless nights spent among the sick, of their exhaustion, their fear, of the hours they spent holding the hand of the dying so they would not have to die alone. Mother, sister, wife. Human, so very human. Who can imagine that? Do the politicians in their stiff, dark suits know what these people went through? What they really felt when the masks were not delivered? When they were making protective clothing for themselves out of garbage bags? When they read the communiqués issued by this or that Prefecture appealing for charitable donations to help equip them? In 1914 they collected gold to make ammunition; in 2020, we collected cotton sheets to make protective clothing for our nurses…In France!
When this is over, if ever it is, we will have forgotten that this war was to the health sector, the equivalent of the Battle of Verdun; one where the role of the humble soldier was by far more significant than that of the General. The foot soldiers were at the ready in their respective positions: in hospital, behind the wheel of a heavy vehicle, manning the cash point at a supermarket, collecting garbage, in a police car, or wearing a fire fighter’s hat, wielding a broom, at home making protective masks and so much more. This army of anonymous people, invisible heroes, optimists in the face of desperation, so far removed from the Generals and self-satisfied strategists devising battle plans from on high. And the same incredibly fierce determination as at Fort de Vaux: that the virus would not prevail. What a lesson! These workers proved to us that it is indeed the little ones who are the backbone of society. More than that, they reminded us of a beautiful word: solidarity. Because the threat was a common one, thanks to them, we witnessed the return of something we had long stopped believing in: a collective consciousness. Just like bees in a hive, united to defend themselves and to build. I think it is beautiful that this resurgence of a collective consciousness should have started at the bottom rather than the top. It will serve as a solid foundation for what will come after.
That is why, when this is over, if it ever ends, when we find our place again as the man in the street or the man at work (the very fact of being alive and well is no small thing you know!), we must not forget our nurses, our doctors, our street sweepers, our refuse collectors, delivery men, truck drivers and all those who, in one way or another, found the courage to get involved, to be generous and to make themselves available. I hope we will not forget all the lowly ones who stayed the course and kept at it without ever giving up; often working without any protection, because these people went far beyond the call of duty. They kept our nation in good health while it tottered on its foundations. It is thanks to them that one day we will be able to begin our journey back to recovery. What a beautiful thought!
If we forget this, it would mean that we have learned nothing from this crisis.
* Journalist and essayist, former executive director of Figaro Magazine.