A French Special Court has charged the former French Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn, over her handling of the pandemic with “endangering the lives of others”, finding that there exists grounds for her prosecution.
Her comments at the beginning of the Covid crisis have been roundly criticised as contradictory and irresponsible.
In January 2020, after cases of the virus had been found in France, Buzyn assured the public by claiming that there was “practically no risk” of it getting serious. In another statement in the same month, Buzyn emphasized that the country had tens of millions of masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in stock in case of an epidemic. Outrage mounted when it was revealed that there was, in fact, a shortage of PPE.
Despite these dismissive claims, Buzyn had informed the media (after losing the Paris Mayoral Elections) that she had alerted President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe to the worsening situation in China as far back as January 2020.
The charge comes from the Court of Justice of the Republic, a court created in 1933 to investigate Ministerial Misconduct. It is also part of a wider investigation into the management of the pandemic, with the homes and offices of Edouard Philipe (Mayor of Le Havre) and Buzyn’s successor, Olivier Véran, searched.
Ahead of an election year, the decision is a further blow to President Macron. His government’s response to the pandemic had already been subject to severe criticism both nationally and internationally, and successive cabinet scandals such as this one have not eased the pressure.
Additionally, the Court has set what is essentially a landmark decision in accountability for the pandemic. While much noise has been made about individual accountability over the course of the pandemic, political accountability has been rare.
The resignation of Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary last year after a media storm over a social event in breach of Covid regulations is an example of Ministerial accountability, though a personal decision and only after severe pressure.
Investigations into this sort of accountability are difficult. A tired mantra oft repeated is that we are living in unprecedented times but it is nevertheless true. It is an interesting question to explore to what extent are governments responsible or accountable for an unexpected crisis. Is hindsight too easy a crutch to lean on? Or do politicians need to do better? To take informed decisions and not mislead the public?
The questions being asked in this investigation are the same being asked in most countries affected by the pandemic. What was the government's position at the beginning? How were policy changes decided? Did they take the scientific advice available to them?
The pandemic has highlighted the need for politicians to be more aware. To pay attention to bubbling crises and think carefully about their words. There are consequences to policy decisions that go beyond simple economic calculations. Public trust in state institutions depends on the state's ability to deal with a crisis.