explainer

"I left Australia for a country that's 'learned to live' with the virus. This is what it's like."

What it is like moving from Australia to a country that “lives with the virus”?

Six weeks ago I landed in France with my partner and kids, after an eerily quiet trip from Sydney on empty planes and through empty airports, and stepped out into warm summer temperatures. 

We were moving back to our country of origin, a decision largely impacted - in its timing at least - by COVID-19. 

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France was just emerging from its third lockdown, following countless weeks of various curfews and restrictions, and combined with the approaching summer holidays there was a sense of excitement and freedom in the air.

I left New South Wales a couple of weeks before the current outbreak, when COVID cases were pretty much zero and there hadn’t been any lockdowns since December 2020, so I was a bit nervous about what life would be like in a country that didn't go for the “zero case” approach. 

It turns out some things are very different. And some are pretty similar. 

People are coming and going in and out of the country

You need to have “pressing grounds for travel” in order to enter France, but that's unless you're a French citizen, or coming from the “green zone” (countries in the European Union or countries with few COVID cases, including Australia). 

That means the borders remain open to quite a few people. 

Upon landing no one asked us for the paperwork that was supposed to include our pledge to quarantine, our quarantine address and country of origin. 

Fearing a last minute rejection or change in regulation, I had printed multiple copies for every family member… which all remained in their folder. 

No one seemed to register where we were coming from or where we were going next. 

The only paper that was of interest was the results of our PCR tests, which we’d taken 48 hours prior to flying. 

Flying in from across the globe in COVID turned out to be a lot less hassle and paperwork than getting a French mobile number a few weeks later.

Quarantine is… different

Travellers coming to France from the “green zone” don’t need to quarantine at all. 

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If coming from most other countries, they must pledge to do a 7-day quarantine... at home. 

I heard many stories of people whose pledges had not been checked upon arrival either, or of people known to have skipped the 7-day quarantine - which is mostly unpoliced - altogether. 

When people do comply, the quarantine rules look nothing like Australia’s. 

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I called the French COVID hotline before flying out and naively asked if and when we would be allowed to go in the backyard; they practically laughed at me: “Of course you’re allowed to go outside any time!”. 

They might as well have added “we’re not monsters!”. I had to educate them on the realities of the Australian hotel quarantine.

The reason we were quarantining despite coming from Australia was because we’d flown through the United Arab Emirates, which a week before was among a few countries requiring a special, 10-day quarantine (even for travellers in transit), with regular police checks.

Two days into our quarantine (in a nice house with a backyard and no one in Hazmat suits checking our temperatures ever), we found that as of a few days prior there were no more quarantine requirements to follow for travellers from the UAE after cases had gone down.

At that point the Australian mindset still prevailed and we were still hesitant to leave the house: we made another call to the hotline to check if that really meant we shouldn’t quarantine (a move that is clearly perceived as overdoing it by the locals, we later found out). 

We were told we didn’t have to isolate at all.

While those quarantine rules may appear shockingly loose when flying from Australia, and likely contribute to some extent to the impact of the pandemic in France, it is worth remembering that because the virus is already well implanted here, there is a lot of focus on limiting local community transmission, and much less of a sense that traveller quarantine is the silver bullet. 

It is also much harder to fully isolate a country that was hit early on, has borders with multiple others, and is part of the Schengen Area within which European travellers have been travelling freely for decades.

Number of cases is not the key metric

Number of new cases is certainly a statistic that is closely followed, mostly as a weekly average per 100,000 inhabitants, and mostly at a regional level to identify the need for tighter local restrictions at any given time and anticipate pressure on local hospital capacity. 

But equally if not more important is the number of hospital admissions and patients in ICU. 

There is no pretense that the country will get rid of COVID anytime soon, and what vaccines and restrictions are trying to ensure is limitation of severe cases and avoiding hospital saturation. 

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The goal is to ensure that remaining severe cases can be treated properly, relieve the pressure on medical staff, and allow other health procedures to go on as planned.

Masks are a part of life

Although by the time I write these lines, masks are largely back in most of Australia, that wasn’t the case when I left. 

In France, masks have been in use for so long by now that people have them handy everywhere, in the pockets of every coat, in bags, hanging from the rear-view mirror or stored in the glove box in cars. 

Even little kids have been wearing masks in school this past school year. 

It appears that they have gotten pretty used to them, better than I would have expected - I can’t decide if that’s even more sad, or comforting.

The government is going hard on vaccines

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on July 12 that vaccines would be mandatory for all health workers as of September. 

He also announced that a “digital health pass” would be required for everyone wanting to access cafes, restaurants, museums, entertainment venues etc. from early August. 

Image: Supplied. 

The digital health pass indicates either full vaccination or a recent negative PCR test, and as tests will cease to be free soon, the move is one step away from making vaccines mandatory for all, something the government is still reluctant to do. 

The announcement caused a rush to the vaccination centres as people tried to ensure they would be able to do the activities they’d planned for the summer holidays.

Anti-vaxxers' rhetoric is not shaken by numbers

I know, shocking. 

Don’t expect the anti-vaxxer rhetoric to weaken in Australia if the number of cases keeps increasing.

In a country like France where close to 20,000 new cases are still recorded daily, with a tally of almost 6 million cases and 112,000 deaths since March 2020, with exhausted health workers and multiple industries such as entertainment and hospitality beyond struggling, anti-vaxxers are just as entrenched as elsewhere. 

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Here too, vague arguments prevail. Popular classics include, “I have my reasons”, “don’t be a sheep”, “do your research”, as well as the Big Pharma/Bill Gates conspiracy, or even the mind-boggling “it’s no worse than the flu” - which, in light of what the country has experienced in the past 18 months, shows a reasoning very unbothered by facts and statistics. 

There is a sense of hope in the air

As I write this, it is likely another wave is coming, with the number of cases on the rise and the highly contagious Delta variant propagating. 

There may even be another lockdown in September at the end of summer. However, I take comfort in numbers - 60 per cent of the adult population is now vaccinated, and the recent announcements will likely accelerate the trend. 

Looking at how efficient the vaccine already appears to be in limiting serious cases and deaths, I feel a sense of hope that the French may soon be able to go back to schools, cafes, theatres, museums, schools and hospitals as they used to.

I will always be very thankful to Australia for protecting so many lives in 2020 with the “zero case'' approach, but at this point in time and looking at it from here, it looks very much like vaccinations are the way out of the pandemic.

There is never any certainty with this virus, but now there is something we can do as a community, and that gives me hope. These days, I’ll take hope.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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