-OpEd-

PARIS — The COVID-19 health crisis is hitting the human race with incredible violence. Governments of developed countries were caught by surprise after China lied at the outset about the pandemic and its lethality.

China announced a death toll of around 3,000, but independent sources say the number is somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency on January 30 and a global pandemic on March 11, but the evaluation of the virus fatality rate is still based on these false Chinese figures, which left Western governments unprepared.

When the pandemic struck with full force in March, countries in Europe faced shortages of masks, tests, intensive care beds and respirators. France is a textbook case. The country's health expenses, both as a percentage of GDP and per capita, are higher than those of Germany and much higher than the EU average. And yet, France faces this crisis equipped with only 5,000 intensive care beds while Germany has 28,000.

A looming economic and political crisis risks being far worse than the health crisis.

Also, this country destroyed the major part of its face masks stocks between 2013 and 2017 and found itself unable to produce masks, tests and respirators in sufficient quantities, as it has undergone a massive deindustrialization process for more than 20 years. The French hospital system is laborious, understaffed and saddled with too many administrative layers. It only manages to deal with the pandemic — and still, with great difficulties — thanks to the heroism of its healthcare workers.

Yet in the meantime, we are also facing a looming economic and political crisis that risks being far worse than the health crisis — a fact that our leaders don't seem to fully comprehend. With the lockdown now slated to end on May 11, the GDP will drop by at least 8% this year, the public deficit will be 9% higher than the GDP, and unemployment will increase by 1 million in real figures. Even with a 4% economic rebound, the debt will be close to 120% of GDP, and the real unemployment rate will be higher than 12%. The political consequences in the spring 2022 presidential election will be incalculable.

For people under the age of 65 with no pre-existing condition, we instead must end the lockdown before the end of April, even while maintaining the ban of gatherings of more than 20 people apart from work spaces until the end of May, and maybe longer. Cultural and recreational sites, squares and gardens should probably stayed closed for even longer. Schools are expected to reopen throughout the month of May, while restaurants may reopen but under strict social distancing measures.

We need to provide masks for workers in public transports and perform 100,000 tests everyday as soon as possible, while booking 200,000 hotel rooms to quarantine people who have tested positive, if they don't live alone.

The economic and social risks of extending the lockdown until May 11 — or even beyond, as the interior minister seems to want us to be prepared for — aren't being taken into account.

I measure the health risks as my own family was fatally affected by the COVID-19. But I also know the effects of a severe economic and social crisis. Think about Germany in the 1920s, and the United States and France in the 1930s. A blunt crisis of public finances could lead to a 10% wage cut for public servants and 20% for pensions.

Weighing the risks between a health crisis and economic and social crises is difficult. But the French government's excess of caution may become more terrifying that the virus itself.

*Christian Saint-Etienne is a professor of economics at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.


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