Les punaises (bedbugs) have become unexpected and unwelcome news in recent weeks in France. They are the topic du jour. These small reddish-brown insects have opened news programs, made the front pages of newspapers, and taken over radio programs. The phenomenon began with a series of complaints on social media and spread to the point of forcing the authorities to react, ten months before the Olympic Games are to be held in the capital. Paris City Council has asked the national government to implement a plan to fight these insects and the Ministry of Transport has announced a meeting this week with Parisian train and metro operators, where their presence has also been detected.
There is no updated data on the extent of the plague, but the images and videos that have circulated on social media have alarmed and disgusted both the population and the authorities. For example, a widely distributed video shows one of these insects — which feed on human blood and other animals — walking happily on the armrest of a train seat. Accounts of their presence in movie theater seats and in public spaces such as the waiting room at Charles de Gaulle airport have also gone viral.
Given the increase in these complaints, the film groups MK2 and UGC have issued separate statements to try to reassure their customers and inform them of the steps they have taken to prevent infestation of their theaters. “Bedbugs can affect everyone” and their resurgence in the country “is a reality,” the government has stressed. The latest count from the national health agency (Anses), published in July, warns that one in ten homes was infested by these parasites between 2017 and 2022. And a toll-free number has been in operation since 2020 to respond to any questions about the pest.
Disinfection companies have also registered an increase in demand to clean private homes, although they clarify that the problem is not new. Les punaises almost completely disappeared from everyday life in the 1950s, but have reemerged in recent decades. It is not very clear why. The French Ministry of Health, which has just updated its guide on what to do in the case of a bedbug infestation, points to the increase in international travel and the resistance of the animals to insecticides.
The Minister of Transport, the liberal Clément Beaune, announced on Friday that he was going to bring together transport operators this week to “reassure and protect” citizens and coordinate the fight against the presence of these blood-sucking insects. Bedbugs can measure up to seven millimeters in length, and the females can produce up to 10 eggs a day.
His announcement came the day after the Paris City Council, led by the socialist Anne Hidalgo, requested “an action plan commensurate with this plague” from the national government, with whom relations are strained. In a letter sent to Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, the deputy mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Grégoire, urged the government to organize a “national congress” on the outbreaks and demanded that the regional health agency undertake “the financial” and “psychological” cost of the disinfections.
“Bedbugs are a public health problem and must be declared as such,” insisted Grégoire. Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe and will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024. In its report, the health agency states that eliminating bedbugs from a house costs an average of €886 ($929) per home. It also warns of the stigmatization suffered by affected people.
In reality, the French government had already implemented an inter-ministerial plan to fight bedbugs in 2022. The program included, among other measures, improving pest prevention through information campaigns, directing affected individuals to professionals in the sector, and clarifying who is responsible for disinfection costs when the home is rented.
The omnipresence of the topic has contributed to generating a certain shared psychosis among Parisians. Images of the insect have been paraded on television channels and, when you open the newspapers, you can find elaborate infographics about their favorite hiding places or their ability to reproduce exponentially.
For Antoine Pelissolo, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety, the accusations on networks have contributed to creating a “collective panic effect,” according to the newspaper Le Figaro, which reminds readers in its article that the insect does not transmit diseases.
On Thursday, a driver on the Paris train network posted an image of the inside of a cabin with what appeared to be a bedbug. The national railway company, SNCF, however, assured commuters that it was not an example of the animal in question, according to the verification section of the Libération newspaper, Checknews. Meanwhile, some people prefer to stand on transport. Just in case.
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