From the fear of the virus to the virus of fear, some French people give in to paranoia. Their pessimism and their distrust of public authority, very French specificities fuel doubt and anxiety. A puzzle for the government. But history shows that it is a temporary moment and that, after the first whiff of panic, society is rather resilient in the face of health crises.
Barely affected by the coronavirus epidemic, the French economy is already affected by a collateral symptom: the contagion of fear. For two months, the French kept a cool head. Admittedly, there have been sporadic anti-Asian slippages, reluctance expressed during the arrival of Tifosi from Turin for the Juventus match against Lyon, a political recovery by Marine Le Pen demanding to close the borders with Italy. But there is no panic in public opinion.
And then, all of a sudden, the feverishness hit the stock markets which unscrewed by more than 10% in one week at the end of February. And, during the weekend of March 1, the tension increased. We crossed the symbolic bar of 100 cases in France. The Paris half-marathon and a hip-hop concert in Bercy were canceled the same day, the Book Fair and the Cannes Real Estate Fair will not take place. On TV, prevention spots from the Ministry of Health have appeared, and Minister Olivier Veran recommends no longer shaking hands. And today Emmanuel Macron announced to requisition masks for health workers and the sick. “There was a tipping point and the coronavirus became a concrete threat, affecting people’s daily lives, which feeds their conversations,” notes Francois Kraus, pollster at the Ifop institute. The government therefore no longer manages only a health crisis but also a psychological crisis which can add to economic destabilization. “
61% of French people are afraid
Carried out on February 27 and 28 (just before the weekend, when anxiety has crystallized) the Ifop survey for the medical information site Illicomed, shows that 61% of French people are worried about coronavirus, a level fear much higher than during previous epidemics (55% worried in October 2014 during the Ebola peak, 35% at the height of fears about the H1N1 flu in July 2009). More than half of French people say that they are worried about taking public transport. To fear is added distrust of public authorities, who engage in a balancing communication exercise to inform without panicking, and with variable geometry as the epidemic and therefore the measures to combat it evolve from hour to hour. Questions arise: why ban a running race and allow football matches in crowded stadiums? How to explain that, while the contagion wins, it is no longer imposed to confine in “fourteen” people returning from risk areas? 57% of French people believe that the government “Has hidden certain information” and they are only 46% (against 60% on January 30) “Took the necessary sanitary measures”. As Firefox and conspiracy theses contaminate social networks, “Suspicion of power is particularly strong among young people, in the lower classes, among those who recognize themselves as yellow vests, who vote at the extremes”, notes Francois Kraus.
This emerging psychosis generates unpredictable disturbances. Thus, against the advice of their management, the frightened Louvre employees invoked their right of withdrawal to force the closure of the museum since Sunday March 1. More annoying for the daily life of Ile-de-France residents, since Monday March 2, drivers of three bus networks have also exercised their right of withdrawal, Cars Meyer (34 lines) and Cars d’Orsay (24 lines) in the Essonne, as well as the Couriers of Ile-de-France in the north of the region. According to the Director General of Health, Jerôme Salomon, at this stage, the right of withdrawal which, as we recall, is enshrined in law to react to a threat of “Serious and imminent danger” is “Not justified”… Which could lead to deductions from wages for employees who refuse to work.
Razzia on pasta and toilet paper
If, nationally, crowds continued to crowd in shopping centers in February, their attendance fell by 10% in the Southeast, near Italy. And beyond the rushes on masks (to the point that the government should soon impose a prescription for their purchase) and on hydroalcoholic gels in pharmacies, almost all out of stock, some hypermarkets are now undergoing raids on precautionary purchases . “This past weekend, the pulp, mineral water and toilet shelves have been stolen from our supermarkets in the Paris and Lille region,” confirms us at Auchan. Elsewhere, it is our Drives who see an influx of orders from +50 to + 100%. We had anticipated, we have stocks and no supply problems. But if these irrational mass purchases multiply, it will put certain supply chains in tension … and will create shortages which would not normally take place. On the travel agency side, anxiety is on the rise. “We are overwhelmed with calls from customers who inquire about the cancellation conditions even if they go to Peru or Tunisia where there are zero cases and even if it is for the summer, we tell you at Selectour. Few are already taking action, but they need to be reassured and ready to retract. It must be said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has just invited travelers to “postpone travel abroad” (wording that pisses off the entire tourism industry) and that, in the name of the precautionary principle, the Ministry of National Education suspended all school trips. Not very reassuring.
“Overreactions are inevitable in crises because the human brain typically has a strong aversion to uncertainty and tends to greatly overestimate the risk when it cannot properly estimate and calculate it, explains Marie-Claire Villeval, specialist in behavioral economics at CNRS in Lyon. This cognitive bias is particularly valid for French people known to be, in a comparable situation, more pessimistic and also more defiant among themselves and a fortiori towards institutions, than the others. If we add the overflow of information between sometimes confused official messages, the words of politicians and the sometimes anxiety-provoking hype, the amplification and disinformation of social networks, fear can quickly become viral. But it should be noted that, over time, societies are resilient: AIDS, mad cow SARS, H1N1, Ebola or disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima, there has never been a panic movement so strong that it generates chaos , implode a regime or destroys an economy. If some sectors – tourism – will suffer permanent losses, overall, history shows that anxious consumers, folded up to eat pasta at home, come out as soon as the alarm went down to catch up on their purchases!
Hysteria on social networks
The rumor pandemic is spreading much faster on social networks than the coronavirus on the planet. According to the media research institute Cision Insights, the occurrence #coronavirus has been mentioned nearly 4 million times in France since January 20 on Facebook, Twitter, in forums, on blogs, in news feeds online and these subjects have been resumed, shared, commented on, liked, retweeted more than 33 million times. With, since the emergence of evil in China, the usual evils of the digital rumor, which rages against a background of rejection of the elites and experts and of discredit of the public speech. Conspiracy theories (not the virus was not designed in a laboratory in Wuhan nor invented and inoculated by the American CIA), imaginary patients (no, there are no hidden cases of infection at the University Hospital of Rouen or in Lorraine, which the prefects would forbid to disclose), fanciful remedies (no, washing your hands with child’s urine does not prevent the disease or take cocaine to cure it), even scams to the products miracle (stop with sesame oil, aluminum capes, false screening tests …). US officials have even claimed that thousands of Russian-linked accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were spreading anti-American misinformation about the new coronavirus to sow contention. Moscow has denied. At the beginning of February, the WHO described the overabundance of misinformation on the subject as a “massive infodemia”, which complicates its task and that of the health authorities. This false information can lead to panic movements, such as a rush for surgical masks, crowded emergency services, or, on the contrary, people with symptoms who prefer not to report themselves for fear of imaginary retaliatory measures. To coordinate the fight against this “infodemia,” on February 19, WHO brought together representatives of web majors at Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley. Since then, Amazon has taken steps to remove products that wrongly claim to cure or protect against the new coronavirus. Facebook-Instagram, Twitter and Google-Youtube have also stepped up their policies to remove advertisements for dangerous fake remedies and highlight reliable messages like those of the WHO. But the means devoted are far too weak to stem the viral contagion of the infox.