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The Covid Occupation

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from the magazine

The Covid Occupation

Reflections on the recent lockdown in Paris Summer 2020
The Social Order

During the many years that I worked as a prison doctor, never a day went by when I did not ask myself how I would react to imprisonment. “There but for the grace of God go I,” was a constant refrain in my mind, or, alternatively, Hamlet’s question to Polonius: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Surely everyone has done something in his life that might justify imprisonment. I never dreamed, however, that 15 years after my retirement, I should experience a type of imprisonment, admittedly of a lenient kind, in Paris, not being allowed out of my small apartment for more than one hour a day—and then only with a permit, or laissez-passer. In just one respect was my imprisonment harder than the real kind: I was to have no visitors and no casual social contact.

I was surprised, working in prison, to discover that the type of person who one might imagine would find prison particularly awful was able to endure it with comparative ease, if not with pleasure, exactly. I mean people like me: doctors, professionals, and academics, who occasionally (and to my great embarrassment) ended up incarcerated. Surely, prison would be an insupportable torture to them, humiliated by their loss of status; forced into social promiscuity with people with whom they would not normally associate; experiencing constant noise that made concentration impossible; deprived of the sense of agency that, until then, they took for granted; and with little choice now as to what to eat, read, or do, and subject to the favor of men much less educated than themselves. Yet they settled in without special difficulty. They were not, as so many first-time prisoners were, subject to suicidal thoughts. In the cant phrase used by old lags to advise younger convicts, they “got their head down and did their bird.” In other words, they did not make themselves conspicuous to the authorities, complained little, and did not stand on their dignity.

Why were they able to adapt so well? Whatever the advantages—as well as sometimes the disadvantages—that education and intelligence might confer outside prison, on the “in” (as prisoners call it), they permitted the prisoner to distance himself from his own situation and to take an interest in the foreign country around him: for like the past, prison is a foreign country; they do things differently there, and difference has an interest in itself, even when it represents a worsening.

I was surprised also that the generality of prisoners expressed no antagonism toward those of patently higher social class. They were not averse, as such, to expressing antagonism: an imprisoned policeman or prison officer could expect a very rough time. But professors, doctors, and lawyers did not experience such harsh treatment. Perhaps my surprise testified to the thoroughness with which educated people have absorbed the notion of class war, which they now expect to manifest itself on every occasion. But educated people were precious assets to the other prisoners: doctors could be asked for medical advice, lawyers for legal counsel, and all could help in writing letters, especially to the authorities (but sometimes love letters, too), for good letter-writing was not a talent common among prisoners.

It became penological doctrine during my career that deprivation of liberty was the sole punishment to be imposed on serious or habitual lawbreakers, rather than any particular hardship of the prison regime itself. Therefore, physical conditions improved in prisons—so much so that some may have become more comfortable than the home conditions of at least some inmates. This breaks the rule of less eligibility, the principle of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which holds that relief of poverty in a workhouse should be less attractive than that afforded by any possible way of earning a living outside. Still, for most prisoners, deprivation of liberty remains deeply unpleasant. The educated, however, are on the whole better placed to endure that deprivation, for they are better able, as Richard II puts it, to “people this little world” with their thoughts.

Confinement to a small apartment in Paris was not, of course, directly comparable with the type of imprisonment I had witnessed as a doctor. A small apartment is not a prison cell. I could at least move between rooms. Moreover, I was no more (though also no less) of a prisoner than anyone else. The experience, awareness, and continued existence of a free world outside prison is a torment to many prisoners, insofar as it is comparison with those more fortunate than oneself, and not one’s actual situation, that leads to misery. That everyone in Paris was in the same boat—equality of misfortune—was a kind of consolation. The choice of food and the availability of wine remained unimpaired, and I could communicate electronically with whomever I pleased, which true prisoners cannot do.

But if important differences held between prisoners and myself during the confinement, similarities existed, too. Under the regulations, I was allowed, like a prisoner, an hour’s exercise outside every day, and though there was no enclosed yard to walk in, like a caged animal, I was not supposed to stray more than 1,000 yards or so from my home. While outside, I also had to carry with me a special form, stating my name, date of birth, address, and the time when I left my domicile, which I would have to produce, together with proof of identity, if asked by a policeman.

When I arrived in Paris, the government had not yet imposed a full lockdown, though all restaurants, cafés, and public entertainment had already been closed down. The train from London was full of young French workers, who feared that they might soon be unable to return home; and the Paris stations were full of people fleeing the epidemic, taking trains (perhaps the last trains, they thought) into the countryside, where they would be safer. About a tenth of the city’s population fled, bringing to mind the Exode of 1940, the flight of millions of French before the advancing German forces, or perhaps the flight of the rich from the plague in medieval cities, though this new population movement was both much smaller and less panic-stricken—the threat being, in fact, only half-believed in.

The taxi driver from the station made light of the whole thing, joking that at least essentials other than food, such as cigarettes, would still be available—the tabacs being excused from the shutdown. He was clearly not afraid for himself; but the streets were already empty and comparatively dark. A few days later, we weren’t allowed out without good reason, such as shopping for essentials, providing care for a dependent relative, going to work (with the necessary proof from employers), or taking an hour’s exercise. The initial form made you swear on your honor, but reference to honor was soon dropped. It was too old-fashioned.

In one respect, we were now worse off than prisoners: face-to-face contacts for us were basically impossible, for we were supposed to remain at a distance of two meters, or a little over six feet, from anyone with whom we did not live. The nearest analogy to this in prison was the distance that ordinary prisoners had to keep from sex offenders getting escorted through prison to the chapel or to the visitors’ area. This was to protect the sex offenders from attack.

Except for a few refractory persons (few, at least in my district), who took little notice of the regulations, we all conducted a kind of pas de deux as we passed in the street, to ensure that we kept our distance. Outside supermarkets, men appeared whose function was uncannily like that of nightclub bouncers: they decreed who in the line could enter, and when. A man outside the post office conducted a kind of triage of those waiting, according to what service they required. The smaller shops, such as the fishmonger’s, set up stalls at the entrance; you could not enter and look at what he had on sale, but had to tell him what you wanted outside.

What most astonished me was the swiftness and completeness of the transformation of life, and the passivity with which it was accepted. Was this an instance of laudable social discipline, or a confirmation of Tocqueville’s characterization of the future citizens of democracy as a herd of sheep, which, accustomed to regulation in the smallest detail by a supposedly benevolent authority, has become incapable of independent thought and action?

The obedience was all the more surprising because the government gave every sign of incompetence or inconsistency just before the lockdown. It had “advised” the population to maintain social distancing—it is amazing how quickly a new term enters our vocabulary and becomes so familiar that we cannot recall a time when we didn’t use it—but then persisted in holding municipal elections, hardly the best method of keeping people apart, after which it castigated the population for not heeding its advice sufficiently, and then imposed what was previously advisory.

At first, confinement, as it was called in French, was almost fun. A little universal inconvenience is felt as an exciting variation from the flatness of normal daily life. We all like to think that we are living through momentous times. Few have lived through anything comparable to this epidemic, or at least to the reaction that it has occasioned. Those who remember the Occupation in Paris are now relatively few and very old. My mother-in-law did so as an adolescent. She remembers it as a time of cold and hunger, but also—oddly enough—of cultural intensity. The ghost of the Occupation, growing ever fainter, is still present in Paris: for example, in a story I have recounted before, my mother-in-law was traveling on a bus one day and started to talk with a stranger, a woman of her own age. “Where do you live?” the stranger asked, and my mother-in-law told her. “Which number flat?” My mother-in-law told her, whereupon the stranger burst into tears. It was in this apartment that she, Jewish, had hidden during the entire Occupation, not daring to look out the window, for opposite was the former police station, now a German Kommandatur. In the apartment above my mother-in-law’s lives an old woman whose brother was on the last convoy of deportees—in 1944 to Estonia, from which he never returned. Some elderly Parisians, therefore, know all about confinement under incomparably harsher conditions than any experienced now. Yet, to most people, the sight of the city eerily devoid of traffic, and almost of normal life, came as something entirely new and unexpected.

An inconvenience that is interesting because novel becomes irritating in some multiple proportion of the time that it endures. Friends from other countries would ask how things were in Paris, but what could I answer? I could speak only of what I had observed in the few streets around my domicile in the daily hour when I was permitted to observe anything. True, I was able, by watching from my window, to observe something that I had not previously seen: drug dealing in the sparse bushes around the building opposite. Whether this was called into existence by the new conditions, or whether it was an old tradition, I could not say: I had never looked out of my window so much before. I noticed an increase in birdsong, too—whether from an accretion in the number of birds or a decrease in traffic noise in competition with them, I also could not say.

Paris in the spring! The weather, day after day, was fine and sunny, often cloudless, calling to you like a siren song. Gray and blustery or rainy weather would have made it less depressing to have to stay indoors. Even during the hour of freedom—and one never appreciates the open air as much as when deprived of it—there was no green space in which to enjoy it, for all the green spaces had been closed to the public.

Was this closure based on anything that might pass for scientific evidence? Surely people in green spaces were less likely to catch viruses from one another than in narrow streets? On the other hand, the authorities presumably thought that crowds would gather and associate with irresponsible promiscuity, if given the space that might encourage it. For those without their own gardens—the great majority in central Paris—the lack of green space was an additional hardship, especially for children and the young.

At the end of my street is a little public garden, closed like the others. By the entrance was a warning notice that seemed from another, happier era: beware of processionary caterpillars. These caterpillars—Thaumetopoea pityocampa—which form long nose-to-tail processions and do great damage to pine trees, are covered in hairs that, when touched, give rise to severe urticaria. Ah, what would we not now give to be free to be stung by them, to fear hives as the worst thing that could happen to us!

The police were out in force to check that everyone had his laissez-passer in order. A young man, sitting on a wall drinking beer with his friend at a less-than-regulation distance, told us that he had just been stopped and fined 135 euros for having the wrong date on his paper. He seemed to take it in stride, perhaps because he knew that he would never have to pay the fine, perhaps because the amount was nothing to him (though, if he were affluent, he looked the type that could only have been so through drug trafficking), or perhaps simply because he was naturally good-humored.

My wife was stopped three times, but her papers were always in order. I was stopped once. I neglected to mark a relevant box to account for my presence in the street: “Brief outing for no more than an hour and within a radius of one kilometer from home, either for individual physical activity, excluding all collective sporting activity and all closeness to other persons, or for a walk with only the persons of the same household, or for the needs of a pet.” In fact, I was going to the post office to collect a book I had ordered, needed for my work, so I probably should have checked the following box: “Outing to effect the purchase of equipment necessary for professional activity and for purchases of goods of primary necessity in establishments whose continued activity remains authorized.” My excursion was in truth something in between these two, and, like Buridan’s ass, I could not decide, and left the apartment with my form unfilled. The policeman who stopped me was forgiving.

I observed several such encounters. While three police officers were checking the laissez-passer of a pedestrian, one noticed some others failing to keep the mandated distance between themselves. “Deux metres!” he shouted at them. Yet the officers themselves stood only a few inches from the person whose papers they were examining, and they wore neither gloves nor masks. The ironical truth that pecunia non olet (money does not smell) apparently had been replaced by the truth that the police harbor no virus.

Another time, lining up (at regulation distance, complete with mask and gloves) for my daily newspaper, a police car screeched to a halt nearby. Two officers jumped out, ready for action. Evidently, an emergency: a robbery, perhaps, or a murder? No; two young men, one black and one white, were sitting on a bench, dressed in international streetwear style, less than two meters apart. Judging by the aggressive way the police arrived, they sought a premeditated target: in other words, someone had informed on the two men. Such informing has historical resonance in France: during the Occupation, French citizens sent at least 5 million denunciations to the police and occupation authorities, informing on neighbors, friends, relatives, competitors, and enemies. If reports are true, denunciations of rule-breakers became common during the lockdown; it is always a pleasure for some people to create trouble for strangers.

On still another occasion, the police stopped a man of about 60 and demanded his papers. He scurried off. The police could easily have caught up, but they let him go. I concluded that the police had been asked to perform duties that were in one way pleasing to some of them, and in another, demoralizing. They were enjoined to harry ordinary people in the street, which doubtless appealed to those officers inclined to bullying, while at the same time relieving them of the difficult responsibility to do real police work, such as the prevention and detection of crime and the apprehension of criminals. On the other hand, many officers must have felt that what they were doing during the quarantine was unworthy of them, an exercise of power of doubtful justification—hence the nonresponse to the fleeing 60-year-old.

At eight o’clock each evening, people went to their open windows or to their balconies to applaud the hospital workers who risked their lives in caring for the sick. This was supposedly a gesture of thanks, or of solidarity, but it grated on me as being emotional kitsch.

First, the gesture was costless and without the particularity of true gratitude. The applauded did not particularly like it, either, it seemed to me. In a way, it detracted from their daily heroism in confronting not only the horror of the illness but also the danger of contracting it themselves: for heroism applauded while it is taking place, rather than in retrospect, loses its unself-conscious quality, taking on a tinge of self-righteousness, even exhibitionism.

Second, the applause felt slightly coercive. One was almost afraid not to join in, as if not to do so suggested that you were ungrateful for the work of doctors, nurses, and others in the hospitals, which, in turn, would mean that you were unfeeling. Not surprisingly, then, general expressions of support for the frontline workers during the outbreak became for a while more forceful, with whistles and ululations, but eventually, the enthusiasm waned, and the expressions grew more perfunctory. You can’t keep up artificial enthusiasm for long without strong external compulsion.

Further, the hospital workers were not the only ones to run risks. What about the bus drivers and the checkout clerks in supermarkets, whose protective gear was rudimentary, or the delivery boys, all of whom kept such wheels of commerce turning as were still turning? Were they not, in their way, dutiful and heroic—and even more in need of thanks, since their efforts usually went unnoticed? I could not help but feel that those applauding from their windows and balconies were really applauding themselves.

The gesture supposedly represented solidarity before an invisible enemy, with which, as President Emmanuel Macron said, we were at war. Certainly, the applause allowed for some social contact at a time when social life mostly had come to an end. But reliable reports also surfaced that, while hospital workers were applauded in the better-off areas of the city, some found themselves insulted, or even physically attacked, in the poorer areas, where the less well-paid staff lived, as if they were the bearers of the plague and not its healers. Solidarity is a matter not only of gestures; what brings a society together can also tear it apart, sometimes at the same time.

Unable to see much for myself, and yet with time on my hands, I resorted to reading papers, magazines, and Internet sites for news about the crisis. When I read that, in the type of banlieues where the 2005 riots broke out, residents were flouting the government lockdown instructions, and throwing stones and sometimes Molotov cocktails at ambulances or fire engines or the police when they showed up, I was not surprised: indeed, I would have been surprised had it been otherwise. But how serious was this disobedience? Was it that of a tiny minority, or was it a general rejection of the French state and society? What was the opinion of the majority of the residents? My imagination was free to run riot and imagine the worst or to dismiss reports as mere scaremongering.

The disobedient in the banlieues, however, were in the vanguard. As the lockdown continued, it also relaxed. More people started breaking the rules. Fewer wore masks, they spent longer time outside, and they failed to keep their distance as diligently as before. Shops began opening, with or without official permission. The police, previously visible in our area every second day, and severe in their inspections, disappeared.

I wonder now whether I should have been more understanding of, or sympathetic to, the plight of the prisoners with whose medical care I was entrusted. I have suffered little because of my confinement, but I would have suffered a great deal more if I had nothing to do and no access to the Internet—in short, if I had been a real prisoner. Further, one of the aspects of prison life that I would have found intolerable, or most difficult to tolerate—the constant noise—was absent from my experience. Recordings of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” which my neighbor played a few times, hardly count; the songs are hauntingly wonderful, though whether this was quite the time for them might be doubted.

Throughout my confinement, I kept the old prison saying in mind. I got my head down and did my bird. I counted myself fortunate to be able to do so.

Photo: During the lockdown, Parisians could leave their homes only with a laissez-passer, a permit to travel. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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