French ex-health minister charged over handling of Covid-19 pandemic

Agnes Buzyn speaks to reporters upon her arrival at the Court of Justice of the Republic in Paris on Sept 10, 2021.
Agnes Buzyn speaks to reporters upon her arrival at the Court of Justice of the Republic in Paris on Sept 10, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Former French health minister Agnes Buzyn was charged on Friday (Sept 10) over her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic after investigators at a special court in Paris concluded there were grounds to prosecute her.

Buzyn has been charged with “endangering the lives of others”, the prosecutor of the Republic’s Court of Justice said, but not for a second possible offence of “failure to stop a disaster”.

The former doctor, who will be able to appeal the charge, attended a hearing at the court on Friday, saying she welcomed “an excellent opportunity for me to explain myself and to establish the truth.”

She said she would not “let the action of the government be discredited, or my action as a minister, when we did so much to prepare our country for a global health crisis that is still ongoing.”

The charges are a blow for President Emmanuel Macron, whose handling of the health crisis will face scrutiny during election campaigning next year, but the court is also likely to face allegations of judicial overreach.

Buzyn, who resigned from her post in February last year, weeks after the first Covid cases were confirmed in France, has faced criticism and ridicule over her initial statements about the pandemic.

She said initially in January 2020 that there was “practically no risk” of importing Covid-19 from the Chinese city at the origin of the outbreak, Wuhan, and then said the “risk of a spread of the coronavirus among the population is very small”.

A month later, as she left the ministry to launch a failed bid to become Paris mayor, she claimed that “the tsunami has yet to come”, in an apparent contradiction of her earlier statements.

Buzyn, a cancer and transplant specialist, later told a parliamentary investigation that she had alerted the president and then prime minister Edouard Philippe to the potential “dangers” of Covid-19 as early as January.

The Republic’s Court of Justice was created in 1993 to prosecute ministers as a way of improving accountability due to perceptions that Cabinet members were able to escape legal censure for their actions in office.

Some critics accuse it of being too slow and lenient, while defenders of Buzyn see the investigation as unfair and the investigation as likely to deter others from entering politics.

Former prime minister Philippe and current Health Minister Olivier Veran are also being investigated.

Buzyn has quit politics and in January joined the Cabinet of World Health Organisation’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has also been under fire for his response to the pandemic.