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As the coronavirus crisis escalates, the UK could learn from France

Two weeks ago my phoned buzzed, waking me up. It was my sister. She was calling off her trip to Lyon in France. It seemed a shame to waste the opportunity it’s an Erasmus year, I’ll have moved out by summer. I thought hysteria had got to her, that she was overreacting. 

Fast forward two weeks. I’m no longer in Lyon. I’m living in Paris with my French exchange from year nine. We are under lockdown, we cannot leave the house, unless leaving for work or a medical reason, exercising, doing a ‘necessary activity’ or helping the vulnerable.

Police will stop you if you’re caught outside. Moreover, you must carry this document on your person. If you fail to produce this, you are liable to be fined €135. Repeat offenders are hit with a €1,500 penalty. In the case of four violations within the same 30-day period, there is a fine of €3,700, buttressed by six months in prison. 

Social activities in France have ground to a halt. But the French public as far as I can glean from my conversations with my quarantine co-habitees agree with these measures. They think it is a necessary step towards preventing total meltdown as is currently being experienced in Southern Europe.

For right or wrong, the UK always insists on doing its own thing

Living in Paris under lockdown provides a stark contrast to my family’s experience of the pandemic from leafy Gloucestershire where, up until today, social isolation was merely advised, not imposed. Since my arrival in Paris amidst the drama of the mass exodus from Lyon, I have been intent on making sense of Britain’s response to the outbreak.

What on earth is the UK doing? Not just the government, but the British public too. Why are we hoarding food from supermarkets? One only needs to scroll through Twitter to see single parents in tears over the lack of pasta on the shelves. According to friends in the UK, this has been the case for weeks. This places the most vulnerable at risk. In France, despite there being four times as many confirmed cases, there has been no such panic buying. The shelves remain stocked. Why are the French capable of shopping without excess while we are not? As for Boris, why has it taken so long for his government (and the British public) to recognise the seriousness of the situation?

With the ever-growing number of confirmed cases, the UK is set to reach the levels of infection of France in the coming weeks. This is with the NHS at full working capacity, yet to be overwhelmed by the demand for ventilators experienced by Europe’s health services.

The historic individualism of Britain and our insistence to go it alone is reflected in this determination to look after one’s nuclear family, rather than the wider community

The French blame “British exceptionalism”: our belief that not only is our way the best way, but that, in contrast to the communitarianism of mainland Europe, the British way should be accommodated: ‘we know best’. We only need to cast our minds back to the curious made-to-measure relationship we held with the EU to recognise our national habit of seeking exception. As a case in point, after explaining this article to my adopted mother, Florence, she whispered with a grin, “c’est l’isolationnalisme de L’Angleterre”. This sums up much of Europe’s attitude towards us. For right or wrong, the UK always insists on doing its own thing.

There is a common thread to draw between shopping habits in these times of crisis and our national cultures. The French supermarkets are well stocked; shoppers are calm. Every morning, Parisians eat fresh baguettes. Compare this to England, where my mother hunted for days to find a tin of chickpeas for my vegetarian sister. People snatch and grab trolleys of food leaving nothing on the shelves for others. Tinned foods are all the rage. The historic individualism of Britain and our insistence to go it alone is reflected in this determination to look after one’s nuclear family, rather than the wider community.

The British government’s feeble plea for people to stick to ‘social distancing’, with ‘warning’ of stricter measures was too little, too late

The British government’s feeble plea for people to stick to ‘social distancing’, with ‘warning’ of stricter measures was too little, too late. Isolation and quarantine must be strictly enforced before the crisis worsens and cripples our fragile NHS. Furthermore as the son of medical staff, I worry about the impact the selfish actions of the general public will have on their mental and physical health over the coming weeks.

I will continue to enjoy my time in France under house arrest. However, much like my family and friends I am nervous for what is to come. My home country is still to recognise the gravity of the situation. Perhaps we will learn to live like the French. If not, we may die stubbornly English.

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