Courtesy Chappatte et Au coeur de la vague, paru aux éditions Les Arènes Paris.


The second wave of Covid-19 has hit millions hard on all continents. The disbelief felt since last March has been succeeded by the anguish many of us are now feeling. To try to understand the reality imposed by this pandemic, Swiss-Syrian cartoonist Patrick Chappatte has plunged into this theme with his new book: Into the heart of the wave.

Published in Paris by Les Arènes on 4 November, 2020, the day Chappatte received the prestigious Foundation for Geneva Award, Chappatte uses this new work to talk about his experiences of exploring the impact of the pandemic. He does this by immersing himself as a cartoonist/journalist in the heart of Geneva’s University Hospital system, otherwise know as the HUG. A man of vast culture endowed with a particular sense of humour and finesse, Chappatte cites Balzac, whose collection of works La Comédie humaine, aptly summarizes what he has sought to do with his editorial drawings.

Humour, politeness of despair, and a weapon of “mass invitation” to resist: “When the pandemic started, we exchanged pictures and jokes. This helped us collectively, even if humour is not reimbursed by insurance,” declares this renowned Geneva-based cartoonist. “In the hyper-technological era in which we live, but now faced with the pandemic, we have witnessed a scourge that has emerged from the Middle Ages. We are experiencing this with identical universal reflexes: Keep a distance, lock oneself behind walls and quarantine ourselves, all very reminiscent of the Black Death.”

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As a universal but intimate reality for so many, the idea of doing something on the coronavirus came to Chappatte’s following a phone call from Professor Didier Pittet, chief physician of the Infections Prevention and Control Service at the Faculty of Medicine with the HUG; he is also a collaborator with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) office for safety and care. (See the article Switzerland and the Pandemic in Global Geneva)

A well-known personality who has appeared regularly on numerous television shows, Prof. Pittet was selected by French President Emmanuel Macron to chair the independent commission to assess the management of the coronavirus crisis in France. Nicknamed Dr “Clean Hands”, Didier Pittet is also the central character of the book: Le Geste qui savve (The gesture that saves) by Thierry Crouzet, highlighting the global use of this simple but highly effective hydro-alcoholic disinfectant solution initially invented by a HUG pharmacist.

Extract from the Chappaatte cartoon reportage. (Courtesy Chappatte)

The easily used disinfectant is credited with having saved millions of lives around the world every year. Had he patented it, Pittet could have become a millionaire had he patented it. In 2007, Pittet he was elevated to the rank of Commander of the Order of the Empire by Queen Elizabeth II of England, the highest ennobling for a foreigner. He is now a comic book hero.

“Pittet told us what was happening in Italian hospitals, the phone calls from people he had trained and who told him about the absolute horror. At the time, these stories had not yet appeared in the Italian press. And then, to my astonishment, I was seized with fear. I myself contracted the virus on Saturday, 7 March, 2020. The purpose of this call was to launch a campaign. We prepared it in three days, with actors, with my colleague Zep and with youtubers, ”explains Chappatte.

The little hands that don’t shake

The cartoonist, who is also a journalist, continues. “Three days later, I’m at a dinner party in town where I had caught the coronavirus. We were in that uncertain time of transitioning from innocence to the reality we are living today. As a theme though, the coronavirus has not left me.”

In addition to regular telephone conversations with Prof. Pittet, Chappatte shadows an unforgettable cast of characters from March to September, all of them working at the HUG. Professor Jérôme Pugin, head of intensive care; Dagmar Dimeglio, a nurse responsible for Covid; Akram, Giovanni and Moussa, all of whom are patients; plus three hygiene and cleanliness officers at the hospital. And not to forget, Olivier Grau, a policeman from Geneva’s Pâquis district as well as Dr. Roberta Petrucci from Médecins sans frontières, who had worked in the field during the Ebola crisis.

“I thank them for the trust they have placed in me, because they have given up a lot…a very unique moment to date. In the book, Jérôme Pugin tells about his emotions and his fears. Because everyone was afraid. And then these cleaners, great characters, sometimes parents of small children who say they also felt the fear. These little hands, as I call them, all volunteered to enter the so-called dirty area to do work at the bottom of the social ladder. And they had the same amazing and touching word: we love our job, they told me. I wanted to pay tribute to their professional conscience, to the daily heroism of these workers. To make them become from sanitary heroes to comic strip heroes, ”underlines Chappatte, who wanted to immortalize them in this highly personal book.

“A pretty terrible setback from the New York Times”

As one of the highlights of the Press and Democracy Conference of the Swiss Press Club, Chappatte also mentioned the surprising retreat of the New York Times, which had decided to no longer publish press cartoons. This followed an incident regarding what the editors considered to be an inappropriate drawing by another cartoonist. It therefore terminated its contract with the Geneva-based artist after 18-years of collaboration. (See Global Geneva article by Luisa Ballin)

Courtesy Chappatte.

“We leave Covid-19 and the protection of our health protection, and move on to another evil of our time, notably where the precautionary principle reigns. This extends to humour and opinions, something that not only affects the press, but also institutions, schools, governments and businesses, ” he says.

For Chappatte, “the question of the New York Times is a question of crisis management. An important and interesting detail is how it dealt with the drawing which caused a problem, and which had nothing to do with me. It was about a cartoon that the people in charge of the newspaper themselves chose to publish. Isn’t the heart of our profession to distance oneself? To explain, to debate? “

He continues: “No! Their way of dealing with it has been – as is unfortunately the case of modern management – to apologize, apologize and apologize again. And then to step back and finally opt for the simplest solution, notably to give up. Since they had a problem with a cartoon, they gave up on all press cartoons! This is an effective solution and unfortunately it is a pretty terrible setback. ” (See Chappatte’s video in English “on the making of an editorial cartoon.”)

Can it be said that the newspaper (The New York Times) which was considered the most influential in the world actually censored itself? “Yes. This is indeed an example of preventive self-censorship, applying the precautionary principle! This is a terrible signal, because the New York Times is a symbol.”

 “A friend from Central America, a refugee in the United States, came to me not to tell me about his misfortunes with autocrats in his country, but rather to tell me: it’s terrible what the New York Times has done, because all the newspapers in South America look to the New York Times as a model. They may think that if the New York Times did, why not us?” Chappatte notes with concern.

Freedom of expression is complicated in all latitudes. “Freedom of opinion is something to be managed, and is worth it. Because if we don’t, we lose our soul, ” says Chappatte.

A final question by one of the panellists: Following the U.S. presidential election and the victory of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris duo, will Chappatte not miss the incumbent President Donald Trump, a character he had often portrayed? “I’m not going to miss Trump, because like the Covid, he’s here to stay. Haven’t you noticed? He adds with a smile.

Luisa Ballin est une journaliste Italo-suisse qui collabore régulièrement avec le magazine Global Geneva. 

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