Coping with coronavirus: ‘Wars always end, sooner or later’

Paris Letter: Small comforts are a survival mechanism and laughter is the best antidote

Deserted streets near the banks of the river Seine in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of Covid-19. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

War has become the favourite metaphor for the coronavirus epidemic. "We are at war", Emmanuel Macron repeated a half dozen times when he announced the French lockdown.

Bichat hospital in Paris “is practising war medicine. Everyone in hazmat suits and masks, most of the beds for corona”, reads a doctor’s email. “The catastrophe is happening. Emergency room overwhelmed ... Hallucinatory.”

The Paris region has the highest contamination level, with close to 2,000 cases. Before the country went into lockdown, thousands fled to homes in the countryside. Commentators compared the exodus to civilians fleeing the Nazi onslaught in 1940.

In the hours before the lockdown started, there were long queues outside grocery stores, banks, and the post office. Most respected the mandatory one-metre gap between individuals. I was reminded of three-hour truces during the Lebanese civil war, when civilians rushed out to buy groceries.


The French lockdown is for 15 days, renewable. One hundred thousand police and gendarmes have been mobilised to verify documents at checkpoints, like in a real war. The fine for going out without good reason is between 135 and 175 euros.

As in every war, there is the inexorable daily rise in casualty figures. As of Wednesday morning, there were 7,730 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in France, 175 deaths. A mere fraction of the 31,506 cases and 2,503 deaths in Italy, but that is no comfort. The French fear they're just a few weeks behind.

Medical workers are the heroes of this war, as in every war. A doctor in Bergamo told the New York Times that he and his colleagues weep every day. I remember Dr Amal Shama'a keeping the Barbir hospital running in Beirut through a six-month bombardment. On the day Saddam Hussein fell, I interviewed Dr Khaldaun Khaldaun in Baghdad, as orderlies mopped blood on the floor around us, amid trollies of dying patients. Doctors and nurses in Sarajevo and Gaza were equally heroic.

Good books

Small comforts are a survival mechanism. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar used the term cocooning. I tried to turn wartime hotel rooms into cosy nests, with good books and favourite photographs. In Afghanistan, I dragged my mattress and sleeping bag outside each night, to see the stars and escape stale air and snoring colleagues.

Now, banned from leaving my Paris apartment, I take pleasure in books, music and a view of budding trees outside. I’ve resolved to maintain an exercise routine, neglect neither myself nor the apartment.

Wars amplify the best and worst in human character. We’ve seen videos of shoppers fighting over toilet rolls. But I also know Parisians who give away food and precious surgical masks.

Laughter is the best antidote against despair. WhatsApp videos can be hilarious.

“Dear World, How does the lockdown feel? Gaza,” reads my favourite example of dark humour. If the epidemic gets you down, just think how lucky we are to have food, running water and electricity, 24/7.

Wars teach us a sense of perspective. Petty arguments and problems subside in the face of the knowledge that thousands will die. One feels embarrassed for having worried about retrieving the dry cleaning or missing an appointment with the hairdresser when the lockdown started.

The epidemic would be lonely indeed without telephones and email. Thank God for high-speed internet and telecommuting.

But the old-timer in me is paranoid about the reliability of technology. I have a recurring nightmare about being unable to file a story. In 1993, I destroyed the liquid crystal display on my portable computer by using it on a rooftop in Mogadishu, and had to write a magazine cover story without being able to read it.

Telex and telephone lines were often knocked out in wars. I was inept with satphones. It wasn’t unusual to drive miles under bombardment to file. What if our current system saturates?

We play psychological games with ourselves in war time. I tell myself I’ve been through worse than the coronavirus. I use the logic that I used in Beirut, Baghdad and Sarajevo. In every war, more people survive than perish. Why should I be so vain as to think the bomb, artillery shell, bullet or virus will choose ME?

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from wars is that they always end, sooner or later. It helps to offer yourself a reward for surviving. In Baghdad in 2003, I promised myself a trip to Florence and a baby grand piano.

“We will see you come summer on the liberated boulevards,” a friend writes from Dublin. Thank you Bridget. That’s the spirit!