Antihéros

You may have heard the name of Professor Didier Raoult in the media of late. He is an avid proponent of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

What you probably don’t know about the eminent Dr. Raoult is that he epitomizes the French love of the anti-hero: a renegade who doesn’t pander to authority, a medical doctor, a microbiologist and an eminent researcher who is among the most respected in his field. Raoult is also, most importantly to the French, a free thinker and forthright speaker who says his truth without compromise. That truth has been rather uncomfortable for many people over the past months of pandemic. It has divided the country along with the international scientific community.

The fact that he wears his hair long, collects art and generally comes across as an ageing ‘baba cool’ (the French expression for hippie), only adds to his charm. Along with the fact that he was born in Africa and hails from Marseille, a city known for being loved or hated in equal measure.

I had every reason to dislike him. Already early in the confinement the media were hinting that Raoult’s claims for a cure for COVID-19 were overstated, that there was little evidence to support his approach and that — most dubious of all — President Trump was touting it as a miracle cure. I was sceptical at best about the fellow. He sounded like what I hate most: a jumped-up counter-culture figure with a huge ego.

“I’m against information before knowledge. Our work is to obtain knowledge.”

Then I saw him being interviewed. In French. And my preconceived dislike evaporated. Didier Raoult speaks with surprising humanity and humility, advances arguments that are sound and does it all while expressing equal doses of conviction and reasonable doubt. Here is a thinker, a doer and someone who embraces his role as a clinician. That is, a doctor having direct contact with patients rather than being involved with theoretical or laboratory studies.

This is how he has defended his refusal to conduct a formal clinical trial during a pandemic. I must admit I sympathize with this view. It seems rather harsh to ask people who are diagnosed with a life-threatening viral disease to accept the risk of being randomized on a placebo rather than receiving the drug that could save their lives. Of course such trials are essential to medical science and the very foundation of our approach to safely prescribing drugs. But Raoult’s point is this: you cannot compare chloroquine, a drug that has been through clinical approval and prescribed as a treatment for multiple diseases for many years, to an as-yet unapproved drug that has yet to be found safe in humans.

All of which has led to Professor Raoult (‘professor’ in French trumps ‘doctor’ as a title) being elevated to the level of (anti)hero amongst the French populace. His ideas feed into the strongly held belief that Big Pharma is evil, the government cannot be trusted to tell the truth and that good, old-fashioned remedies will cure most ills.

The fact that recent studies have tended not to support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 has further divided opinion. Just this week, the government announced it would no longer authorize the prescription of the drug to treat coronavirus. But Raoult’s supporters believe him when he explains that the so-called studies are not randomized trials but observational, that dosing is an issue and that his protocol, used in his hospital, of treating patients in the early stages of the disease (and not when they have already developed a serious case), with hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin, along with zinc, works.

Here’s an interview (from mid-April). Long, and not great quality but worth a watch if you’re interested. Note: he speaks English like a Frenchman!

Time will tell if he is right. In the meantime, if you were to ask the average French person on the street who they would trust to treat them if they were to catch the virus, you know the answer.

Who would you trust?

La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?

A quelle sauce on sera mangé

With which sauce will we be eaten? This is the question the French have been asking themselves ever since Macron announced that the coronavirus lockdown in France would be lifted starting from May 11. If we all behave ourselves and stay home until then, that is.

The political system in France is based on a President, who makes high-level decisions, and a Prime Minister, who puts them in motion with the ministers in his/her cabinet. The hierarchical nature of such relationships was first made clear to me in an interview with the late French President Jacques Chirac, who, when asked to describe his relationship with his then-Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was famously quoted as saying: “Je décide, il exécute.” (Basically: he does what I tell him).

No one was really surprised when PM Edouard Philippe began presenting his detailed plans for deconfinement with a warning that May 11 could easily be pushed back if there is a spike in new cases before then. Meaning: stay home now or forget about going out again any time soon.

The plan is based on three pillars: protect, test, isolate. It is a phased approach in which schools, stores and most everything else will reopen and get back to business over May and June. As of May 11, people will no longer require a document stating their business when outside home. But we will have to stay within a 100-km radius for now, unless for work or family emergencies. This is to prevent the entire country from racing to the coasts for the May-June long weekends and causing a new wave of COVID-19 to spread.

In the meantime the goal is to step up testing to 700K tests per week. Tracking and tracing through an app is also planned so that any new outbreaks can be contained. Masks will be available, and required in some public places like the trains and métro, although people will have to buy them, a concept that many of my state-reliant fellow citizens find abhorrent.

Restaurants and beaches will remain closed until further notice, probably reopening sometime in July for a later-than-usual holiday period.

All in all, people in France will still have to be patient but there is hope that things will return to a ‘new normal’ by summer.

As sauces go, it could be worse.

There is a consensus among many of the media that France has fucked up in its management of the pandemic. The dearth of masks and hand sanitizer, the earlier confusing messages about whether or not to wear a mask, to go out and vote in municipal elections or stay safely at home — all of these critical points and failures are true. It’s their interpretation that is somewhat open to debate. Yes, our leaders could have handled many things better. But when I look around at what has happened everywhere else in the world, it could also have been a lot worse. It seems this healthcare crisis has exposed the worst cracks in our society at every level, like fault lines in an earthquake. I only hope we will learn from it and that these mistakes will be lessons on how to do things better in the future.

In the end I suppose I’d rather be eaten in a French sauce, even mediocre, than a Chinese or an American one.

Et toi?

Torticolis

Stiff neck. Leave it to the French to give it a fancy name!

How can something so much fun to pronounce be so painful to endure? That is the question I’ve been asking myself since being plagued by a stiff neck for the past week.

‘Torticolis’ is the term for a stiff neck in French. I find the French always prefer a highly technical medical term to describe even minor ills: a sore throat is ‘une angine’, an ear infection ‘une otite’, a chest cold ‘une bronchite’ and stomach flu is ‘une gastroentérite’. Note that all such afflictions are feminine in gender. (But that is worthy of another post.)

I am not sure why my neck would choose to play up now. I’ve never had a healthier lifestyle than in the past few weeks of confinement. My workload is low, so no stress there. I’ve been getting lots of sleep, eating healthy home-cooked food and exercising a reasonable amount each day. The only thing I may be doing a bit more than usual is sitting. And looking at my phone. And, come to think of it, worrying about running out of time to do all of the million things I would like to do in life before possibly dying on a respirator.

So maybe I am a bit stressed.

But, unlike the novel coronavirus, there is nothing all that new in this for me. I am a worrier by nature, constantly fighting down negative thoughts. Overall I do pretty well. Stay upbeat and mostly keep the demons away with a good balance of healthy living and therapeutic alcohol.

But back to the torticolis… (Seriously? doesn’t it sound like a fun type of pasta?) It seems I probably have some sort of cervical osteoarthritis, surely exacerbated by being deaf on one side and turning my head all the time to the right. Also sitting in front of a computer and right-side mousing. I spoke to my doctor about this on a video consult yesterday (the only kind he’s doing during the lockdown), which probably didn’t help my neck as I was staring at a screen again. He suggested the possibility of regenerative medicine, and platelet-rich plasma injections.

It certainly sounds promising and I intend to investigate further. While also trying to improve my posture at work, sit less and spend less time online. In the meantime, thanks a million to my friend Meeka for sharing a wonderful video of stretches to help correct forward head posture, along with much helpful info about COVID-19 on her blog.

Hope you are all staying healthy! Anyone else got a pain in the neck, back or other?

Photo by Aidas Ciziunas on Unsplash

Sage comme une image

As pretty as a picture or as quiet as a mouse? It depends from which side of the Atlantic you hail. What I understand this French expression to mean is that sometimes life imitates art (et non pas le contraire). So an especially tranquil child can be said to be ‘sage comme une image’. Here is a link to translations in various languages (just scroll down past the French).

This week I made an unexpected discovery, one that I found to be especially ‘sage’ (wise). The Museums of Paris have digitized and made a massive collection of art works available, free, online. These works whose rights are in the public domain offer an incredibly rich source of inspiration for blog posts, websites and more. And it’s absolutely free, so indulge!

Here’s a link to explore the collection. And a translation from the press release courtesy of Google:

This opening of data guarantees free access and reuse of all of digital files, without technical, legal or financial restrictions, for commercial use or not.

Images representing works belonging to the public domain under CCØ license (Creative Commons Zero) are made available to all internet users via the Paris Musées collections portal. Initially, reproductions of 2D works which are not subject to rights are available in Open Content, the images subjected to rights remain in low definition in order to illustrate the files of the collections website. Art lovers can for example download the works of the big names in photography (Atget, Blancard, Marville, Carjat …) or painting (Courbet, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Van Dyck …).

Paris Musées: http://www.parismusees.paris.fr/en/presse

I chose the above image to illustrate this post for fairly obvious reasons. Confinement is evocative of a bohemian life in which we lounge around, read, relax and indulge in otherwise forbidden sloth. The reality is somewhat different for us. Husband is home and we are both working, in my case sporadically and mostly on administrative and creative projects for which I normally have no time. Catching up on my accounts and looking at revamping my professional website. Husband is, as usual, glued to his calls from morning to night, taking short breaks for exercise and dog walks.

We are healthy, touch wood, and for that I am immensely grateful. Had news from a friend, in her forties and otherwise in good health. She and her husband have just passed the worst of a ‘mild’ case of COVID-19. The symptoms peaked ten days in, and included fever and muscle pain, coughing and shortness of breath. She is hoping to feel better in another few days and be clear of the virus in about a week. But if that’s how healthy, relatively young people are affected, I hate to think of what it does to those who are fragile.

So I will try and be ‘sage comme une image’ for the next days and weeks, keep my spirits up in this space and only make grocery runs when needed. I’d love to help out in some way, if only I knew how. Online or by phone? Surely even in confinement there must be ways we can reach out to those in need of moral support. Any ideas?

Hope you are all staying well. Please share your tips and tricks for staying sage!

Image credit: Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931). Imprimerie H. Herold. “La Vie de Bohême” par Puccini, G.Ricordi & Cie Editeurs, Paris. Affiche. Lithographie couleur, vers 1895. Paris, Musée Carnavalet.