A commute before dawn with important workers in Paris

Throughout the pandemic, bus line 351 has been commuting from the dawn between Paris and Charles-de-Gaulle International Airport and slicing over neglected suburbs in the French capital hardest hit by Covid-19. Jowharfollowed the important workers – including nurses, technicians and freight workers – for whom locking never takes place.

Every morning, Farid * sees the same people looking at him through the folding doors of the bus. He has come to recognize them even though the masks cover much of their faces.

“They are the ones who get dressed and go to work every morning, whatever happens – just like me,” says the 46-year-old driver. Lockdowns come and go, but we are always here. Someone has to keep the country going. ”

There is no bitterness in Farid’s words, even though the father of two says that he often goes to work with his stomach in a knot.

“We try not to talk about these things between drivers, but we know that some routes are more risky than others,” he says.

Bus route 351 winds its way across the Seine-Saint-Denis area northeast of Paris, the poorest department on mainland France and has been hit by successive waves of Covid-19. Along the way, it picks up the frontline workers who have kept the metropolis going throughout the pandemic.

The freight terminal at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, the final destination for many passengers on Route 351. © France 24

Dawn is yet to break when Farid starts the engine at the Place de la Nation on the eastern edge of Paris. The first passengers get on the bus quickly, all but one with a face mask.

“It happens, but it’s not my job to police them,” Farid said with a shrug.

Sometimes he offers a mask from his own warehouse, supplied by the Paris Transport Authority. Alternatively, he plays a pre-recorded message reminding passengers to cover faces or face fines. This time he does not either.

‘Covid killed half the residents of my nursing home’

Sitting next to the exit, 55-year-old Betty is on her way to a nursing home in Bondy, one of a dozen French cities where the rate of Covid-19 infections has increased to four times the national average. The medical staff, who live in the southern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, have already taken a bus and a tram to get this far.

“An hour and a half by public transport, it’s very much – especially when the bus is full, like the previous one in Vitry,” she sighs, wrapped in her buffer jacket with a hood. “But I have no other choice.”

Like many workers in France’s hard-hit nursing home, Betty was ill with Covid-19 last year. With infections rising again, she is worried she will get it for the second time.

“Covid killed half the residents of my nursing home last year: only two on my floor, but each one one floor below,” she says. Still, Betty is in no hurry to get vaccinated, despite the priority given to staff and nursing home residents across the country.

“I do not have to be vaccinated,” she says. “Most of my colleagues have had both shots, but I’m waiting for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because I only want to meet the needle once.”

‘It’s a miracle I still have my job’

Farid’s bus soon fills up after crossing the périphérique ring road surrounding Paris, the physical and symbolic barrier that separates the French capital from its nearest suburbs.

First up is the city of Bagnolet, where a dozen passengers climb on board. Among them is Moussa, a forklift operator in blue-red overalls, on his way to the airport where he has worked for the past 15 years.

“I have to drive my forklift, I can not work from home,” he mutters, fighting a yawn. Moussa says that the bus is much busier when he goes to work on the weekend, due to repair work on train lines in the suburbs.

“It’s not so bad today,” he says, looking at his fellow travelers. “Anyway, it’s not like I had a choice, because I do not own a car.”

While Covid-19 is always behind it, Moussa is even more concerned about the financial costs of the pandemic, which has left many of his colleagues unemployed. His wife is also out of work. Now that French schools have closed again due to the worsening pandemic, she is sitting at home looking after her two children.

“It breaks my heart to see all these planes grounded on the tarmac at Charles-de-Gaulle,” says Moussa. “I know several people who lost their jobs – all of whom prepared a cabin and cleaned the planes.”

Moussa, forklift operator and regular passenger on bus line 351. © France 24

A few places away, Franck hopes to catch one of the planes planned to fly out of Paris airport in a few hours. He is busy trying to upload the results of his important PCR test.

“I was already missing a plane yesterday because the lab was slow to release the results,” he mutters, his eyes glued to his phone. Franck works in the marketing department for a major airline. He is on a business trip, on his way to Riyadh.

“It’s a miracle I still have a job,” he says. And do not expect things to get better soon. It will take at least three or four years for the industry to recover from this mess. ”

Franck is a frequent traveler on Route 351 and is getting increasingly tired of the long journey and the behavior of some fellow passengers.

“I’m terrified of the disrespect of people who wear their masks under their noses or chins,” he explains. “I can accept the limits of my freedom, but only if everyone plays by the rules.”

“Leave public transport to those who have no choice”

Despite the antisocial hours, many commuters have chosen to go even earlier in the hope of avoiding cramped buses. They include Laurent, 46, who works for a space maker near the airport.

“I easily let one or two buses go if I feel they are too full,” he says. “Masks are not enough protection. I am in good health and intend to remain so. So I will not stand in the faces of others. ”

22-year-old Denis is sitting right at the back of the bus and says that he also leaves half an hour early to avoid rush hour. While his job – installing new elevators at the airport – cannot be done from home, Denis says other passengers should avoid crowding public transport during the pandemic.

“Those who can work from home should leave public transport to those who have no other choice,” said the resident of Blanc-Mesnil, one of the poorest suburbs of the Seine-Saint-Denis.

Government statistics indicate that Denis has the right to complain. Last week, the Ministry of Labor said that more than a third of the people who could work from home continued to commute to their workplaces.

After a short coffee break, Farid disembarkes from Charles-de-Gaulle Airport on his way back to Nation. © France 24

At the airport terminal, Farid stops for a cup of coffee before driving back to Nation. In the absence of cleaning staff, he makes sure that all doors and windows are open to at least ventilate the bus.

“The buses are only disinfected at night, between midnight and 06:00,” he explains. “I open the windows, but I know that the passengers will soon close them because they are cold or do not want to get wet.”

Like other drivers, Farid is annoyed with the Paris Transport Authority for removing the plexiglass barriers that protected them during the first lock.

“It makes no sense, just when they tell us new varieties [of the coronavirus] is more contagious, ”he sighs. Trade unions have also protested against the decision to reintroduce the sale of tickets on board buses, which means that drivers must handle cash.

On the other hand, Farid is relieved that the government has granted pressure to close schools, which health experts have identified as a major driver of infections in the Seine-Saint-Denis. His bus stops at several schools in the area, including the Lycée Eugène Delacroix in Drancy, where a staggering 20 students have lost a parent to Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

“I am happy to be of service and of course it is not their fault. But in recent weeks, it felt like a burden to have school children on board, says Farid. “I just kept quiet, put on my hat and left the window wide open.”

* Not his real name

This article was translated from the original in French.