Paris—Here in France, we have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic: Though our numbers are steadying, more than 180,000 people have tested positive for the virus, and more than 28,000 people have died, one of the highest death tolls in the world.
Throughout the crisis, our health care workers have been tirelessly tending to the waves of sick. For the past several weeks, I have been documenting the work of the doctors, nurses, and support staff at one of Paris’s major hospitals, the Groupe hospitalier Paris Saint-Joseph in the heart of the capital (Newsweek ranks it one of the world’s top 100 best hospitals). Between March and April, 200 patients affected by Covid-19 needed a bed every day at this hospital, and 36 of them had to be treated in the intensive care unit, three times the normal population in the ICU. By the 31st of March, Paris reached the peak of our pandemic, with 400 new patients hospitalized that day.
In this exceptional situation, I wanted to document the impact the pandemic was having on the different units of the whole hospital, from reception to the emergency room, the ICU, the mortuary, the logistics room, and the operating room. This hospital and its staff are dealing with a situation unprecedented in our lifetime, but they’re also trying to maintain the same high level of care for all patients that they were providing before the crisis.
That hasn’t been easy. The doctors, nurses, and caregivers are strained to their limit, as are the less visible but no less vital laboratory technicians, logistics employees, morgue workers, and others who are central to the functioning of the hospital. At the forefront of many of these departments, I found women health care workers keeping their teams running. Elisabeth Sauvaget, an ENT surgeon, told me that the pandemic has been “a dramatic experience that really surprised me and all the hospital staff with its severity and unusual evolution. We spent a lot of energy managing all kinds of issues as they came up (securing equipment for critical care, equipment for personal protection, drugs, and adequate staffing).” But she also had a daughter to care for at the same time, which was “exhausting and stressful, since I was alone with her, with no family and no babysitter.”
France’s health care system is different from the one in the United States: For one, it is a universal system, which guarantees coverage for everyone, and care is provided by a mix of public and private hospitals, clinics, and physicians. The Paris Saint-Joseph Hospital is a private charity hospital providing public medical care, and the hospital worked hard to support its staff: The administration set aside an area for mental health and psychiatric care for staff to help manage the stress of the situation, and assigned an entire department to produce protective masks and hand sanitizer. They also saw to more grave needs, such as setting up an additional refrigeration room in the mortuary, due to the increased number of deaths.
Documenting the hospital’s battle against the virus, I was of course afraid of becoming infected myself, but my main challenge was to try to capture moments that aren’t already part of our stock visual lexicon of the Covid-19 crisis—I tried to find images we haven’t seen yet from the pandemic, the in-between moments that convey the long struggle our health care workers have undertaken against this threat.
If we don’t keep this struggle in mind, we risk forgetting the heroic effort that these workers are putting into pulling down the death rate. Just two weeks ago, I was told by a magazine that the story I covered in this hospital was interesting but, unfortunately, too old. But this crisis is still ongoing, and we will be dealing with it for a long time yet.
As Sauvaget, the ENT surgeon told me, the crisis has so far been handled only through “a lot of solidarity, humanity, and a wonderful mobilization of all the personnel in the hospital. This crisis showed us that the collective wins.”