On French quarantine isles, virus echoes the past
The Mediterranean islands 4 kilometers (2 miles) off the teeming southern port city of Marseille served as a quarantine center during deadly epidemics in centuries past, helping to shield the French mainland from infection.
Now, amid the coronavirus lockdown and with no tourists, the few residents on the islands again feel cut off, left to fend largely for themselves.
“We are not experiencing quite the same quarantine as Frioul has seen in its past, but people are definitely afraid of this virus,” said Patrick Tellier, the only nurse on the archipelago that once housed sick crews during the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720 and in 1821 during a yellow fever epidemic.
Only seagulls now visit the ancient bollards where quarantined ships used to moor. France's nationwide lockdown, which began March 17, has strangled the flow of tourists usually drawn by the archipelago’s history, quaint beachfronts and wild hills.
The islands' 150 residents, mostly retirees, are locked down on their moored-up boats or in apartments.
Tellier runs a health care center for them out of a small sailboat. Pills and blood sample kits fill its nooks and crannies. Tellier lives with his dog in a small house built on the site of a former hospital that treated quarantined sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Now retired, he spent his nursing career working in Africa and in Marseille, where he helped set up a medical center for underprivileged families.
To eke out his limited supplies of protective gear, he uses video calls to dispense medical advice to islanders. He only wears a mask and gloves when meeting face-to-face with patients he fears might be infected with COVID-19. So far, all of the suspected cases later tested negative.
The ferry from Marseille that in high season carries 3,000 visitors a day is now restricted to residents only. Police patrol the island from the air and sea to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.
Anthony Fabre runs the archipelago's only food shop. The muscular former weightlifter usually opens the small supermarket only for the summer influx of tourists. But this year he didn't want islanders to be forced to travel to Marseille to get food during the pandemic.
“We are a closed-off population," he said. “I can give people the supplies they need so they don’t have to go to the mainland and risk getting sick.”
“If you think about it, we are just reliving our past," he said. "We had the yellow fever exactly 200 years ago.”