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COVID-19: Mea Culpa, From the Former French Health Minister by Hélène de Lauzun

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COVID-19: Mea Culpa, From the Former French Health Minister

An unexpected confession has just been made by Olivier Véran, the current spokesman for Elisabeth Borne’s government and former health minister, on the subject of the pandemic: “I ask for forgiveness because we were wrong,” he explained on the set of national France Inter radio.

“We were wrong. We followed recommendations that were not the right ones,” he added. This belated mea culpa comes on a specific subject: the wearing of masks and the French government’s multiple hesitations about their genuinely prophylactic nature at the start of the pandemic.

In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the French authorities communicated extensively about the ineffectiveness of the mask. The minister of health at the time, Agnès Buzyn, declared in January 2020 that “the blue mask does not protect in any way.” In March 2020, the then government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also declared that the mask “is not necessary when you are not sick.” 

The government went so far as to suppress its distribution, sale, and use. In April 2020, a pharmacist could face up to six months in prison and a €10,000 fine for selling masks to the public. This protection could only be given to health professionals, for whom masks were sorely lacking. Many French people started making homemade masks from scraps of fabric to protect themselves before these also were eventually banned. The government then made a radical change of decision: masks became compulsory everywhere and at all times, not only in shops and transport, which intuitively makes sense, but also outdoors, even in wild or deserted places. These extreme choices led to excessive verbal abuse toward France’s public servants, and have caused deep misunderstanding on the part of the French.

In the face of this procrastination, the rumour ran that the government had initially taken these measures to hide the shortage of masks. Olivier Véran vigorously defends against this accusation today and denies having “knowingly hidden the mask shortage by saying that it was useless.” The only reason for the public discourse restricting masks was erroneous international scientific recommendations, he insists. Unfortunately, the rumour was fuelled by the proven fact that France consistently destroyed its strategic stockpile of masks between 2017 and 2020, including after the start of the pandemic, as revealed by Le Monde investigative journalists Fabrice Lhomme and Gérard Davet. 

To date, however, Olivier Véran’s official acknowledgement of public mismanagement of the pandemic only concerns the relatively limited issue of masks. 

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).