A Covid pass takes France by storm

A Covid pass takes France by storm

Posted: Sep 20, 2021 7:41 AM
Updated: Sep 20, 2021 7:41 AM

At our first meal in Paris, at a charming outdoor table on the Boulevard Saint-Germain the waiter immediately asked for our "pass sanitaire," or health pass, an app showing proof of either vaccination, a negative Covid-19 test or of past infection. Using a tablet, he scanned the QR codes on our iPhones, verified we were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and promptly delivered the food we'd ordered at the counter inside, where everyone -- guests and staff -- was masked.

On Sunday, at the European Cup 3 X 3 basketball finals, each of us had our passes scanned before we were allowed to enter an outdoor arena at the base of the Trocadero. We were packed cheek-by-jowl, but no one seemed too terribly concerned.

With the exception of weekend protesters, France has wholeheartedly embraced a new law, passed in July, that requires every adult to present a "pass sanitaire" before entering places like restaurants, cafés, museums, theaters and sports stadiums. While President Joe Biden has told businesses they must enforce vaccine mandates, French President Emmanuel Macron has successfully instituted vaccine passports for the whole nation.

During my first visit to France in 18 months, it became clear that the nation has benefitted from going the extra mile to make good on EU Chief Ursula Von der Leyen's plea that Europe take steps to avoid "a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

France's numbers tell a good part of the story. According to government data, 74% of the French population has received the first vaccine dose while 64% has received both. On Wednesday morning, the TousAntiCovid app, a government app that tracks Covid-19 statistics in France, was showing 81.7% of all French people over the age of 12 have received the vaccine.

Starting Wednesday, all French health workers must have received at least the first dose of the vaccine in order to continue to work (vaccine resisters face suspension without pay). They're joining members of the military and firefighters in France, all of whom, need to be vaccinated or be "assessed as unfit for their mission."

Beyond this, everyone I've seen has on the street has complied with the mask mandates that came into effect in Paris nearly three weeks ago. Every bus or subway passenger, every rider on the high-speed TGV train we took to Saint-Pierre-des-Corps down in what is known as "deep France," every Uber and taxi driver, every shopper or indeed virtually anyone inside any building, has been diligently wearing their masks.

So effective has this plan proved, that already Macron began talking on Thursday about lifting the pass sanitaire requirements in regions where the "virus is circulating less quickly."

Late last year, polls showed France had the lowest percentage of people expressing willingness to get vaccinated, with numbers that lagged even the United States. Barely 40 percent of the French expressed any intention of becoming vaccinated. That is no longer the case.

The wide acceptance of vaccines, masks and the "pass sanitaire" have boosted morale in France and invigorated the economy. The nation's GDP, which was down 8% in 2020 has been forecast to grow by 6% in 2021, according to the European Commission.

Schools have remained fully open for virtually the entire pandemic, which the government believes has contributed to the economic recovery as it has allowed parents to leave home and continue working. And while some shops have closed, at least in part due to reduced tourism, business activity remains robust. Still, tourism is an important part of the French economy, and if travelers are fully vaccinated, they won't be barred from the country -- at least for now.

The Macron government believes the French people will see the widespread economic benefits of the sanitary pass program. "I'm pretty sure that people in France are going to assess the success of this policy, but not only in terms of the sanitary pass, but also on the way it has been dealt with in terms of the economy," a top counselor to Macron, told me last week in a conversation in the Elysée Palace.

These preventative Covid-19 initiatives have provoked some nationwide protests, but with diminishing impact. So far, the Saturday demonstrations, which have been going on for more than two months, have shrunk to about half the size of the protests in August. And they seem to have little of the staying power of the yellow vest protests, which broke out in late 2018, against reforms to the nation's pension systems.

"The anti-vax movement is not that representative of the French population," the counselor told me. "It's a small portion of the population and we have more and more people that are now vaccinated."

Now, the pass sanitaire, the economic rebound, and the growing confidence among people in France that the country is on the mend may well prove vital to Macron when it comes to securing a second five-year term in the 2022 elections. Some of the president's opponents, however, are still clinging to compulsory vaccinations and health passes as a symptom of anti-liberal tendencies of the Macron government.

Marine Le Pen, his far-right opponent, called the health pass "a disproportionate interference with [our] liberty," in the opening speech of her campaign last weekend while pledging that she would be a "president of French liberties."

Now, with the pass sanitaire and the mask mandate serving as cornerstones of France's Covid-19 response, the country may wind up being one of the world's success stories of the pandemic. And with children back in school, their parents at work and the economy growing, France may be a useful model for Europe and the world.

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