FRANCE CULTURE
France Culture is a French public radio channel part of the French public service radio broadcaster Radio France. It was founded in 1946 and is based in Paris.
Ready for season 2?
FRANCE CULTURE
Anne Sophie Goninet

A Year For COVID: Why Our Political Leaders Were Bound To Fail

Up against a microscopic virus, the world's leaders have failed myriad different ways to do what was necessary to beat the pandemic. Was another fate possible?

PARIS — When did the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis first become real? For some, it was the moment their president or prime minister first appeared on television to speak to the nation about the pandemic. Italian photographer Tommaso Bonaventura captured this shared experience in Address To The Nations, a visual collection of the faces of dozens of world leaders at the instant they appeared on screen to confront this new invisible enemy.

One year later, with the virus still very much hiding among us, it is worth looking again at those faces. Several have since contracted the coronavirus, from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to French President Emmanuel Macron; others have lost power, like Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and U.S. President Donald Trump. Last week, Tanzanian President John Magufuli died at age 61 among unconfirmed reports that COVID was the cause of death.

UK PM Boris Johnson at a London hospital on March 22 — Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/ZUMA

But the collection of prime ministers and presidents, royals and supreme leaders is even more relevant as a reminder of how inadequate political leadership has been in the face of a global health crisis. From mask policy and lockdown rules to health care and vaccine distribution, governments have been accused of mismanagement, incompetency ... and worse.

Some leaders will be judged cruelly by history (and the death counts on record) for having downplayed the threat of COVID-19, be it Bolsonaro calling the virus a "fantasy" of the media, Donald Trump repeatedly comparing it to the flu, or Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saying amulets and prayers were enough to protect him from the virus.

Governments have been accused of mismanagement, incompetency ... and worse.

The great success of the pandemic was scientific, as researchers developed vaccines in record speed, offering hope that the crisis could soon come to an end. But even as the global situation seems to improve and become more manageable, governments are still failing to act adequately. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Igor Matovic is accused of a secret deal to purchase 2 million doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which hasn't been approved by European health agencies. Peru had its own "vaccine-gate" after it was revealed that the then-president Martin Vizcarra, his wife and other politicians secretly received doses in October 2020, before shots were made available to the nation.

At stake are both the emergency of saving lives today and the citizen trust of governments eroding over the long-term. Still, one year into the crisis, it is worth putting the challenge in perspective and acknowledge the impossible dilemmas our leaders have faced: saving lives vs. saving the economy, imposing restrictions vs. allowing freedom.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking in Tehran on Feb. 7 — Photo: Salampix/Abaca/ZUMA

For French philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, citizens who are so quick to criticize their leader ought to ask themselves, "In his place, what would I do?" In an interview with France Culture, Tavoillot noted the extreme solitude of political leadership and the "tragic" nature of making decisions on behalf of the public: "In politics, the choice is never between a good and a bad decision, but between a bad and a worse one. If that choice existed, there would be no need for politics."

In times of emergency, not taking decisions is not an option. "Are they good, are they bad? The problem doesn't arise at that moment, it will afterwards. Our leaders are accountable for their actions," says the philosopher. In March 2022, we hope, we'll be able to look back at the pandemic as a closed chapter of history. But no matter when or how it ends, we'll be studying the way we were led, and followed, for years to come.

Disinfecting an Indonesian underpass last March
FRANCE CULTURE
Jeff Israely

Radio 2020: A Year For The Ages, Time Turned On Its Head

Worldcrunch's editor reflects on how we lived through - and covered - a year that we might have known was coming.

-Essay-

PARIS — I've always been a radio guy: for its ease of access and stripped-down delivery of the news, for the direct connection of the human voice and the serendipity that comes when programming lineups intersect with your own day's schedule.

Yet this past year (for all the obvious reasons when referring to this past year) I've finally picked up a podcast habit. The medium offers the control and convenience of choosing from what initially seems to be an infinite number of shows and subjects — and searching and finding a favorite comedian or a historical topic or an interview of a news industry maven has helped fill the extra alone time and respond to many shifting moods of these strange times. Whatever I want. Whenever I want.

Still, for the very fact that live radio decides the what and when, it remains the medium that can occasionally give me what I may actually need. That's especially true here in France, where a public broadcasting structure guarantees an eclectic mix of high-quality (and sometimes high-brow) programs that can carry me somewhere else.

And so it was this past Saturday afternoon that I turned on national broadcaster France Culture just as I was setting off for a weekend run. The host was returning on air from a station break: "We're back, speaking today about … time." Well, voilà!

The historian François Hartog was indeed the end-of-the-year radio guest we all need. His new book "Chronos" explores how contemporary society is grappling with a changing notion of time: caught between instantaneous information technology accelerating what he calls presentism (where all that matters is right now) and the growing apocalyptic angst generated by man-made risks for the planet. Call it: Real-time v. end times.

The programming, on the last Saturday of 2020, was of course intentional. Hartog had completed his book just before the arrival of the coronavirus, but had delayed publishing in order to add a commentary on how his theories hold up in light of the pandemic.

It's both momentous and somehow blank.

As we wrap up 2020, it can all appear both so momentous and somehow blank. It's also true that the year didn't exactly "fly by," as we so often remark in late December. Professor Hartog explained the difference between the Greek concepts of Khronos (ordinary "elusive" time) and Krisis, where the proverbial merde hits the fan. Instead, he says, the pandemic has left us somewhere in between, where "time is suspended"...

For those of us, like Worldcrunch, whose daily bread is delivering international news, there was plenty ostensibly disconnected from the pandemic to fill the time: from the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early January to the global awakening of the Black Lives Matter movement to the final (final) deal on Brexit in late December.

Still, the year has essentially been in the hands of a microscopic virus that has criss-crossed the planet, killing more than 1.7 million people, shrinking life's confines and threatening livelihoods for billions of others, swaying national elections, changing individual habits at work and at home.

Faced with unprecedented circumstances and unrelenting reader demand, those of us delivering the news hustled to try to understand what was happening — and what was going to happen. The Italian news site Il Post recently chided fellow media outlets for inventing a new journalistic format: the draft, where reporters publish information they know is incomplete (or non-existent), expecting it to be revised or reversed soon after.

For Worldcrunch, the onus is less on time than on space, as we try to connect the dots from around the planet. Whether it was the spread of the virus or new lockdown rules, knowing what has happening elsewhere could feel empowering — especially earlier in the crisis.

This year taught us what we already knew.

In the U.S., my native country, the pandemic shaped the final year (and election loss) of President Donald Trump, a leader whose dictatorial tendencies threatened the world's oldest democracy. There was also the connection between the health crisis and the reckoning with centuries of racial injustice and newer tensions over the power of America's big tech companies and the impact of global warming which was blamed for a month when the entire West Coast seemed to be covered in flames. End times indeed, with cartoonist Barry Blitt drawing himself knocked over by the "news cyclones" arriving one after another.

Photo: Dan Gaken

Yes, it was a lot. But we might also look at 2020 as the year that taught us what we already knew. That starts with the risk of infectious disease itself, which experts had been warning us about for years. We've also learned (anew) that the immediate protection of human life supersedes economic concerns, but for only so long. We've learned (anew) about the fundamental weaknesses of liberal democracies, but continue to prefer them to the alternative. We learned in new ways how much the world is intimately intertwined, but that nations are ready to shut themselves off to protect their own. And finally, and most encouragingly, we learned that advances in scientific research, and a dose of global cooperation, can find cures in record time for the worst scourges we might imagine.

And finally, we learned that time is in fact not only measured in 24-hour news cycles, or 15 minutes of fame. "What disturbs us is that we have extra time that we can control, but we can't project ourselves into the future," France Marchand, a psychologist based in the French coastal city of Brest, told Le Monde in November. "Not being able to be sure of anything refers to ancestral fears...of emptiness, of missing, of dying."

So how will 2021 unfold? With infection and death rates hitting new highs just as the rollout has begun on an unprecedented mass global vaccination campaign, we can expect a different kind of anxiety in relation to time. Hopefully that will only last a few more months. Then, we are told, we will begin to emerge from our hives. We will start to travel again, and reunite with our loved ones. The economy may pick up or it may implode. Some old habits will return, others may not.

And as for the future of Khronos and Krisis ... and "time suspended"? Some of the finer philosophical points from that French radio show may have eluded me, but these final days of the year brought back some words I first heard a long time ago on an American station, from a different kind of philosopher: it's Willie Nelson singing "ain't it funny how time just slips away." Who could have known how much we'd miss the ordinary, bittersweet passage of life.

Telework, making things worse
FRANCE CULTURE
Anne Sophie Goninet

Get Up! New Studies Warn About Taking Pandemic Sitting Down

PARIS — Are you sitting down? Probably. Yes, there are new studies that show the collateral health effects (beyond the virus itself) of COVID-19 and the rolling lockdowns include serious maladies linked to an increase in the sedentary lifestyle. For millions of people suddenly forced to telework and spend more time sitting down, and far less time outside the home, there are a range of negative effects on our health that can potentially be catastrophic across society as a whole.

The risks: Some researchers say the lack of physical activity is the hidden new health risk of this century.

• When inactive, we don't stimulate our muscles as much as we should, but we also tend to eat more, which means that our body, instead of eliminating calories, accumulates them.

• "All the nutrients go directly into the body fat and with a lack of sufficient blood pressure in the arteries of the lower limbs, arteries are not stimulated enough." "When you stay seated, the numerous muscles in your thighs and calves are completely inactive," Martine Duclos, a professor and hospital practitioner in Clermont-Ferrand, France, told Les Echos.

• This leads to a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well cardiovascular disease and cancers, but also higher risk of depression and lower cognitive function.

Getting worse: Before the coronavirus, an increasing number of people were already spending several hours every day sitting down, whether it was in an office, in transportation, when eating, in front of a screen … And with telework, stay-at-home measures and the inability to take part in certain sports, this trend has gotten worse. In France, the National Academy of Medicine even published a statement at the end of March to warn citizens that "lockdown doesn't mean inactivity."

• French people spent on average around 6 hours, 30 minutes sitting down per day during the spring lockdown, a study conducted by Santé Publique France found.

• 61% of people surveyed said they spend more time inactive during this period and at least a third adding they actually spend more than 7 hours sitting down each day.

• This was especially true for young adults, people who teleworked and those who live in urban environments. The country counted around 250,000 teleworkers before the pandemic and around 3 million during the lockdown in the spring 2020, France Culture reports.

California step count: A research study led by a medical team from the University of California in the U.S. reviewed more than 19 million daily step count measurements registered by smartphones in 187 countries and found that physical activity dropped sharply in several countries after lockdown measures were implemented — some as much as 50%.

• For instance, Italy saw a 48.7 % decrease in steps, 30 days after the lockdown was declared at the beginning of March.

Don't forget the kids: Sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing video games and browsing on the Internet have progressed from 22.6 hours/week on average before the lockdown to 33.3 hours/week in May and June 2020 for children between 6 and 18 years old, according to another study by Harris Interactive in France. More worrying, around 14% of young people didn't practice any sport during the lockdown as some "didn't even go out all for three months', "finding themselves with a deficit of their capacities," professor Jean-François Toussaint, director of research institute IRMES, told 20 Minutes.

Photo: Annie Spratt

A way out: Fortunately, there are solutions to curb this trend and it doesn't necessarily involve running a marathon every week. There is actually a scientific difference between being sedentary and inactive. "We can be active 30 minutes every day or 150 minutes every week, but also sit down 10 hours every day. It's possible to be both sedentary and very active. In English we call them ‘active couch potatoes'," Jean-Philippe Chaput, professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa, told Radio Canada.

• The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSPE) has recently published 24-hour movement guidelines that include recommendations on sedentary behavior such as limiting sedentary time to 8 hours or less and breaking up a long period of staying seated by getting up every 30 minutes to walk for 2 minutes. "We've seen that just simply reducing or breaking up your sedentary time can lower some risk factors for heart disease and diabetes," Travis Saunders, an assistant professor in applied human sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island, told CBC.

• A team from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin also recommends doing five four-second "sprints' on an exercise bike every hour over the course of 8 hours as a way to offset the harms of a very sedentary life. This kind of physical activity proved to increase fat burning by almost half compared with measurements taken after spending 8 hours sitting.

• If you telework it is also recommended to stand up while working on your computer, in your kitchen or by buying a standing desk, install a DeskCycle or sit on a stability ball. It is also better not to use any screen in the bedroom and watch one's diet.

A role in immunity? The COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be useful to conduct more studies on physical inactivity and measure the effects of sedentary lives have on our health but also allow us to draw guidelines for the next lockdown crisis. This summer, an international team of scientists and researchers called for an ambitious research agenda: The authors believe that physical activity has a major role to play in combating the virus by improving immune functioning as well as enhancing the efficacy of vaccines.