French Government Is Criticized For Slow Rollout Of COVID-19 Vaccine
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The death toll in France from coronavirus is over 66,000. Taking the population size into account, that means the French death rate is so high that it is approaching the death rate of the United States. Now many people in France are criticizing the government for a slow distribution of vaccines. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French Health Minister Olivier Veran tried to quell the outcry over the slow pace of vaccinations in a radio interview Tuesday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OLIVIER VERAN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "We're going to amplify, accelerate and simplify our vaccination strategy," he said. "We'll be vaccinating at the same pace as our neighbors within days." Veran promised to cut red tape, increase vaccination points and enlarge the field of eligible first candidates to include firefighters and domestic workers over 50.
France was one of the few European countries not to televise its first COVID vaccination, and many have criticized the government's creation of a randomly drawn council of citizens to weigh in on vaccine strategy. The cautious approach is largely due to the country's huge anti-vaccine movement.
ANTOINE BRISTIELLE: It's one of the biggest in the world.
BEARDSLEY: That's Antoine Bristielle, a researcher with the Jean-Jaures Foundation. He's studying French reluctance to vaccinate.
BRISTIELLE: The main reason is that a lot of people don't believe in what the political institutions are saying. At the beginning of the epidemic, there was a trust level of about 90% in scientific institution, and now it's below 70%.
BEARDSLEY: Bristielle says distrust grew after the government's initial confusing and disastrous handling of masks. And the state already had a poor track record after a previous government bungled the response to the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: This fall, a 2 1/2-hour conspiracy documentary called "Hold-Up" made by two French journalists got millions of views online. The shadowy movie peddled the familiar themes of a pandemic fabricated by governments, the elites and Big Pharma, all to enrich themselves and control the world.
Writing in newspaper Le Figaro, French economist Antoine Levy called France's slow vaccine rollout a sign that the country's health care and system of governance had slipped from the top tier. He says it's partly due to arrogance.
ANTOINE LEVY: France has difficulty learning from its mistakes, learning from foreign countries. And especially the French state and the French public administration tends to think that the way they act has to be the best, and so they are not very keen to learn from what's happening elsewhere.
BEARDSLEY: Levy says those at the top may have brilliant ideas, but with their disdain of logistics, they haven't been able to implement them. He says France may be the country of Louis Pasteur, who discovered the principle of vaccination in the 1870s, but it still hasn't manufactured its own COVID vaccine.
JOEL BALANDRAUD: I am angry because since the beginning of the epidemic, the state in France is not very proactive, not very fast.
BEARDSLEY: That's Joel Balandraud, mayor of the small town of Evron in western France. As a veterinarian, he says he's vaccinated huge herds safely and efficiently during epidemics. So why can't the government do the same for people?
BALANDRAUD: That's really painful for us because when you are a mayor, you must act very quickly.
BEARDSLEY: Balandraud says there may be anti-vaxxers on the Web, but the government should address the needs of the millions of French people who deserve and want the vaccine now.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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