Coronavirus: What to expect if France declares an official epidemic

Coronavirus: What to expect if France declares an official epidemic
Photo: AFP
French officials have said for some days that they expect a full epidemic of coronavirus. We take a look at what that means and why it's less scary than it sounds.

France is currently at 'stage 2' or the pre-epidemic level, but both president Emmanuel Macron and the health minister Olivier Véran have said that they are expecting coronavirus to reach epidemic level.

They say officials are working towards this and are well prepared ever since the explosion in the number of cases in neighbouring Italy.

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What is an epidemic?

For a disease to have reached epidemic level it needs to have a certain spread.

The designation refers to how many have been infected with it – not how serious the illness is.

So something could be an epidemic if a large percentage of the population caught it, even if no-one got seriously sick, was hospitalised or died from the condition.

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How common are epidemics in France?

It's not particularly unusual for the country to declare an epidemic, this year we have been officially at epidemic level for seasonal flu since the beginning of February.

There are also regularly epidemics declared in winter for 'gastro' stomach flu.

Is it the same as a pandemic?

Pandemics are epidemics of new illnesses that have affected multiple countries. So far the World Health Organisation has not declared coronavirus a pandemic.

Like epidemic, pandemic only refers to how far the illness has spread and not how serious it is.

So what happens when France declares an epidemic?

 

Well the fact that France has been at epidemic level for flu since the start of February and most people haven't even noticed shows that it doesn't always have a huge impact on daily life.

Coronavirus is likely to be a little different though.

As it is new and there is no vaccine yet, authorities are keen to contain it and stop its spread as far as possible, which means taking more drastic measures than for a seasonal epidemic such as flu or gastro.

France has been at stage 2 – pre epidemic – since February 28th and public health officials began then taking steps for containment.

These included the banning of all events involving more than 5,000 people in a confined space.

In areas with a high number of cases all public gatherings – including markets and Sunday Mass – were banned and schools were closed.

On February 1st the government passed a decree that anyone who was self isolating (or whose children could not go to school because of coronavirus) was entitled to sick pay, in the hope that people would follow the health advice without worrying about losing out on wages.

Most health facilities have already enacted their 'white plan' of extra readiness and the French government announced on Tuesday that it was requisitioning surgical face masks in order to prevent panic buying and make sure they get to the people who need them.

Stage 3

Once stage 3 begins there are extra measures that can be deployed if the government considers them necessary.

They include

  • Extra resources for health professionals and those working in law and order.
  • Possible restriction of public transport. As the moment the government says there is “no question” of stopping the trains but there is provision to do so in extreme cases. The government is currently advising against all non essential travel, particularly outside the EU
  • Financial support for households affected by the epidemic could be available, for example for self-employed people who cannot go to work, and schools will start introducing distance learning methods if they are forced to close
  • Provision to close schools, nurseries and community groups if necessary or impose movement restrictions and curfews

Then what?

After stage 3 comes stage 4 – the return to normal.

Exactly how long that will take is difficult to calculate, give that this is a new illness, however the flu epidemic plan allows between eight and 12 weeks at stage 3 before things begin to return to normal.


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