Marseille in the time of COVID-19 deaths

The World Health Organization has declared a COVID-19 pandemic. Its effects are strong here in southern France.

COVID-19 deaths

An empty Intercontinental Hotel rises above an empty Marseilles ©ChrisElliott

(Christopher Elliott is in Europe right now and was traveling through France from Spain to Italy. Here is one of his reports about life with coronavirus while traveling with his family.)

There are more than 2,000 coronavirus cases in France and almost 50 COVID-19 deaths. And in Marseille, it’s starting to take a toll. Today, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. Travel is suffering, especially in the tourist zones of Italy and France and across the planet.

The InterContinental hotel, an 18th-century property overlooking the port, is more than half-empty. Coca-Cola just canceled a major meeting in the hotel. It feels like I have the entire sixth floor to myself.

(Note: This is an adaptation of my podcast, Adventures in Coronavirusland. Listen to this episode.)

At a nearby pharmacy, an electronic billboard advertises coronavirus prevention guidelines. And after Italy turned into an enormous red zone yesterday, there’s a growing sense that France is next.

Publisher note: Due to the changing nature of this threat, check the
Centers for Disease Control Site for the latest information.
See also this John Hopkins coronavirus (COVID-19) tracker

Signs of the coronavirus effects reign in France

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One of the most frequent questions I get from readers is: Should I cancel my vacation to Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter?

Quick answer: no. Not yet.

For example, one traveler in Monday’s Washington Post chat wanted to cancel an upcoming trip to Israel. But her airline and tour operator wanted to charge hefty change fees and would have left her with only a credit. She wanted a full refund.

I advised her to wait. Her tour operator won’t run a trip if it can’t get into the country. And that means she would get all of her money back.

And sure enough, only a few minutes later — I’m not making this up! — Israel imposed strict new limits on foreign nationals entering the country. Problem solved.

If you haven’t planned a vacation yet, this may be a good time to rethink an ambitious trip abroad. I keep writing stories about next summer being the summer of the staycation. Well, if ever there was a summer for that, this is this one.

Should you travel to France now?

4 International Air Travel Rights DownloadYou probably don’t want to be in Marseille right now, unlike Barcelona. It’s unclear how many of the coronavirus cases in France are in this area, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

I’ve been here before, and I remember it as a lively and somewhat loud place. But on a recent Monday, it was quiet and people seemed agitated. On my way to the train station, I witnessed two street fights.

I haven’t seen any tourists here. “They’ve gone home,” a shopkeeper told me.

At a local restaurant, I saw something a little unusual. The entrees were prepared in jars and sealed tight. Same thing with the soups. That gives patrons a sense that the food is safe, maybe not contaminated.

We’re not going to make it to Italy. For now, our plans are to take a train to Nice and stay there for the next few weeks. I’ve discussed protective measures with my kids — washing their hands frequently, not touching their faces. We’re also trying to avoid too much contact with other people. I’ve been trying to avoid shaking hands, but that’s really difficult in a place like France.

The recent stock market crash has made this feel like an “end of the world” scenario, something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. All that’s missing are the zombies.

But I’m hopeful. The stock market will rebound — it always does. The virus will run its course. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief and say to ourselves, “There, now. That wasn’t so bad.”

What is a pandemic and what does it mean (Editor’s note.)

The most recent pandemic was the H1N1 flu, or swine flu, in 2009, which scientists believe killed up to 203,000. According to WebMD, the flu kills more than 50,000 people worldwide each year. We do not panic. So far, as of March 11, 2020, COVID-19 deaths have killed less than 5,000, according to John Hopkins University. Annually, there are 40,327 people killed in U.S. motor vehicle collisions based on statistics presented on

Reaction to this virus seems a bit overhyped when seen in other forms of large numbers of deaths that society accepts. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 deaths are not well understood. Hence, they generate added fears. However, we will have to live through the surge in post-apocalyptic backlash.

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