What an absurd journey from Paris to Oslo taught me about coronavirus

What an absurd journey from Paris to Oslo taught me about coronavirus
A girl jumps into the water outside Oslo, in Norway, in July this year. All photos: AFP
Travelling from Paris to Oslo during the coronavirus pandemic was a lesson in how different European countries are tackling the pandemic, as Ingri Bergo discovered.

“Sorry, Madame,” an Air France flight attendant said as she pointed a plastic gun at my forehead at the gate of the Charles de Gaulle airport.

It was over in a second and I felt nothing, except immense relief when she nodded me towards the plane. I did not have a fever and was considered Covid-19 symptom-free – safe enough to travel.

This was mid-July, just a few days after Norway dropped the mandatory 14 day-quarantine for people travelling in from France.

I had bought a one-way ticket as soon as I heard the news, aware that things could change quickly and that I might not get another chance to visit my family in the foreseeable future.

MAP: Which countries are open for tourism to and from Norway?

As the plane soared north, I felt ashamed. Paris had more coronavirus cases than Oslo and I had not been tested for the virus before travelling. Could I be an asymptomatic, young reckless person on the way to contaminate my statistically less resilient parents? 

I looked suspiciously around the plane to see if any of the passengers were sneezing or coughing. A woman in the row in front of me smiled and I glared angrily back. She had pulled the mask below her nose so it didn’t cover her face properly. She was Norwegian and it was clear from her jokes to what appeared to be her husband that she found the whole mask thing a little excessive. 

In France, masks have become key to the strategy to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Everyone wears a mask when entering shops, bars, restaurants and on all public transport, and many people wear them on the street too.

Checking to see that I had at least one clean mask whenever I left the house had become a habit equal to checking for my phone.

While I was in Oslo, the French government announced that masks would be made compulsory inside all public spaces. A long list of local authorities later supplemented this general rule with other, local rules making masks mandatory in some outdoor areas too (like markets, city centres or other crowded areas).

MAP: Where in France is it compulsory to wear a mask in the street?

In France, masks have long been a common accessory for people out and about. 

In Norway, no one wears masks. Not on the streets, not inside cafés, not while queuing in lines. Not your hairdresser or bartender. Masks aren't even worn on public transport.

On the train from the airport into the city centre, a bunch of Norwegians returning from holiday sat next to me, chattering happily without anything covering their mouths. I edged towards the window, trying to breathe in the air from the other side of the train.

Norway never suffered like France and other countries in Europe did at the height of the pandemic. Today, Norway has reported a total of 256 deaths from coronavirus, which is about 47 deaths per million. France has more than 30,000 deaths, or 465 deaths per million.

READ ALSO How worried should we be about the new rise of Covid-19 cases in France?

The difference was a result of a mixture of circumstances and policy. With its 5.4 million people spread out over a vast territory, Norway is much less densely populated than France, which has over 65 million inhabitants, and it was easier to stop transmission chains early on in Norway.
 
But it wasn't all luck, and the Norwegian government acted quicker than France to curb the spread of the virus. 
 
Spooked by the situation further south in Europe, Norway closed schools, hairdressers, gyms and bars and asked people to work from home on March 12th. This was one week before France locked down, and Norway only had one confirmed Covid fatality and at this point.
 

France at that time had 61 deaths and about 3,000 confirmed cases – although the real number was likely much higher – but the atmosphere in Paris was far from panicky. On March 14th, two days before France announced its nationwide lockdown, I was at a bar with friends.

Norway's national health agency later concluded that the strategy of introducing a lockdown “light” version early on successfully decreased coronavirus rates in just a few days.

Oslo's beaches have been full of people this summer, but no masks. 

In France, achieving the same results took weeks. Our penance for our late reactivity was eight weeks of strict confinement, which I spent inside a seemingly ever-shrinking flat with two bedrooms, one bathroom and three other people, filling out a form every time I went to the store while Norwegian friends posted pictures of themselves going on long hikes in the mountains. If I had to wear a mask to avoid going through all that again, I considered that a very small price to pay.

During those dreadful weeks of confinement we learnt how to see the world through new Covid-19 glasses, perceiving everything around as a potentially deadly invisible threat.

When I first saw the crowded city-beaches of Oslo, where people laid scattered without masks, hand sanitising gel or regard for social distancing, it all seemed awfully dangerous, like they were playing some kind of twisted collective Russian roulette, just with a virus instead of actual bullets.

As I clumsily climbed the ladder up from the water after a dip in the fjord, a young man reached out his hand and asked if I wanted help, setting off the familiar French voice yelling “ALERTE CORONAVIRUS” (coronavirus warning) from every commercial break on French TV and radio in my head. I politely declined the offer.

ANALYSIS: Is France heading towards a second wave of coronavirus infections? 

It only took a few hours before I had unlearnt this fear. The more I swam in the fjord the more the memory of contagion and death seemed distant.

When my French boyfriend came to visit one week later, I laughed at his face-mask and said, “why on earth would you wear that here?”

My mother launched at him with open arms, exclaiming “I MUST hug you,” grabbing my boyfriend before he had a chance to offer the same elbow-bump that he had given my father a little earlier.

(In Paris, we would visit my boyfriend's mother keeping a minimum 1 metre distance between her and us, sometimes wearing face-masks and scrubbing our hands with dizzying amounts of hand sanitising gel.)

I knew very well that just because I could not see the traces of the pandemic printed on the faces of the people around me in Oslo, it did not mean that it was not there.

But I had also learnt that Norway kept with many other, less visible health rules to hinder further spread of the virus.

Going out for a drink in Oslo was different than in Paris, as you are not allowed to order at the bar and have to wait for the bartender to come to you.

Norwegians who are able to are still working from home, and will likely continue to do so all through 2020.

In Paris most of my friends have gone back to work in their offices – even though workplaces have been identified as the most common source of coronavirus clusters.

MAP: Which areas of France are 'of concern' to authorities as Covid-19 cases rise?

Does it matter that people wear masks at when travelling when they remove them for a snack during the flight? 

“I don't get this mask-hysteria,” a Norwegian nurse and friend told me.

Echoing what I found to be a common view in Norway, my friend said she worried about people not using the masks correctly – taking it off and putting it back on again, touching something and then touching the mask, potentially contaminating it and making it more dangerous than just breathing unfiltered air.

READ ALSO: Why are the Nordic countries still not recommending face masks?

I tried to explain that France ran out of masks at the height of the pandemic, meaning nurses, doctors, police and other key workers operating on the front line of the pandemic sometimes had to do their jobs unprotected. 

During the lockdown I had interviewed medical staff telling horror stories of how colleagues used plastic bin bags to cover their faces when treating coronavirus patients. No wonder France became a bit obsessed with the mask. They had become the main symbol of the country's unpreparedness for the virus.

“But do people wear them right?” my friend pressed me.

I thought about the seen Parisians I had seen pull down the mask to have a sip of their coffee, a drag of their cigarette or a bite of their croissant.

“No,” I said, “but I guess it's just as much about the act of solidarity as it is about protecting yourself?”

Back on the plane back to Paris, the crew served drinks and snacks. As the passengers pulled down their masks, one by one, to sip their coffee and eat their dry biscuits, I could not help but wonder: Were we fooling the virus or ourselves the most with the masks?


Member comments

  1. TYPOS!!! Proof your work!

    Does it matter that people wear masks –at– when travelling when they remove them for a snack during the flight?

    I thought about the —seen— Parisians I had seen pull down the mask

    Back on the plane back to Paris, …

  2. I find this article so very bizarre, because coming from the UK to Southern France, I had exactly this experience! I’d come from a place where social distancing meant two metres and all shops and restaurants felt like safe places because everyone followed the rules. Here in the Côte d’Azur I was shocked by the complacency and the lack of safety measures. I was told by friends that they’d bought one disposable mask and had reused it since lockdown ended – but only when a shop ‘insisted’. Cases are rising fast here and it’s easy to see why. The local town and beaches are heaving with holidaymakers crammed into restaurants and bumping into each other in the streets. It feels very unsafe. I think maybe northern and southern france have very different attitudes.

  3. Great article! A couple of the Scandinavian governments responded very quickly to the threat and luckily for them closed down early. Unfortunately this has led to a widespread complacency which I hope does not manifest itself in a deadly second wave in Scandinavia.

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