Dr. Haegy, fighting for conviction single-handedly

Amidst anti-vaccine passport demonstrators, a masked Dr. Haegy stands alone, with a handmade sign reminding us of some figures: 2,000 intensive care patients, of which 85% were not vaccinated.

Dr. Haegy, physician and vaccine activist

Jean-Marie Haegy, an emergency physician and resuscitator, is the former head of the medical resuscitation department of the Colmar Civil Hospitals. He was one of the co-founders of Médecins du Monde, an association of which he created the Alsace delegation.
His missions took him to Vietnam, Uganda, Chad, Mozambique, Guinea, Ethiopia, Poland, GDR, Romania, Leningrad, Kurdistan and Sarajevo. Dr. Haegy also co-founded the association Sépia (Suicide écoute prévention intervention auprès des adolescents, English: Suicide listening prevention intervention for adolescents), inspired by a Quebec experience.
He is the author of numerous books on humanitarian and emergency medicine, including L'Engagement humanitaire (Humanitarian commitment), Petit diagnostic sur l'altruisme en situation d'urgence (A brief diagnosis of altruism in emergency situations), a reflection on the ambivalence of humanitarian action, and Le Voleur de Mémoire (The Memory Thief), a thriller set in the world of emergency physicians.

With a peaceful look on his face, the man with the masked face carries a rudimentary sign at arm's length. In Colmar, in the stream of anti-sanitary pass demonstrators, Dr. Haegy stands alone and reminds us of these figures: 2,000 patients in intensive care, 85% not vaccinated. An action in line with his humanitarian commitment. An action that he wanted to be discreet, but which has been taken up by social networks. A Testimony.

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His photo has gone viral on social networks. In it, he is seen on a street corner holding up a crude sign, alone. Underneath two photos of hospital patients are the official figures - "2,000 patients in intensive care, 85% non-vaccinated". Dr. Haegy soberly added: "Who's next?” Addressed to the anti-vaccine passport activists around him, this question is not a provocation. At most, it is a little pique, the stigma of his black humour as an emergency physician.

Accompanied only by the words "Still standing", the photo was originally posted on his modest LinkedIn account, intended for his friends. The picture was taken up on Twitter, a network that Dr. Haegy does not use, and was widely relayed. Who is this discreet man who says he is "a bit overwhelmed" by the buzz and prefers not to respond to requests from news channels? Who is this physician whose peaceful but determined gaze is fixed on the crowd without defying it?

The man with the sign 

Throughout his hospital career, which quickly led him to direct the intensive care unit and then the emergency unit at the Colmar Civil Hospitals, Jean-Marie Haegy never stopped going on humanitarian missions. The list is impressive, from the coasts of Vietnam in 1979 to rescue the boat people to the medical follow-up of the children of Chernobyl. From the convoys organised to Romania to the missions in Kurdistan, Africa, Kosovo or Gaza.

While the pandemic has driven some of his colleagues to the TV sets, he prefers to take to the streets. At 75 years of age, Jean-Marie Haegy is still driven by what has taken him to the ends of the earth. He doesn't accept what doesn't seem right to him. "It's what gets me up every morning," he says simply.  

"I felt I belonged there, on those streets. I had no choice, I couldn't keep quiet." It was on his return from a mission in Bastia, where he had been sent as Covid reinforcement by the Health Reserve, that Jean-Marie Haegy decided to mingle with the anti-vaccine protesters. “In Bastia, out of the ten patients in intensive care, eight were not vaccinated. The same in Ajaccio”. 

"I would just like them to be vaccinated"

Untiring, the physician is already leaving on a mission. “I will be in the West Indies, at the request of the ARS (Agence Régionale de Santé, Regional Health Agency), for a Hippocampe mission to repatriate Covid patients to metropolitan France. Guyana, Martinique or Guadeloupe, I don't know my destination yet” (at the time of publication, Dr. Haegy is flying to Guadeloupe). An hour after he accepted this mission, the Health Reserve also offered him the chance to go as Covid reinforcement. The demonstrators will therefore not see him next Saturday in the streets of Colmar. 

On two occasions, on 21 and 28 August, the physician joined the anti-vaccine procession. The first time, the police surrounded him and pulled him aside, arguing that he had not filed a prior declaration to demonstrate. Dr. Haegy is aware that this was mainly for fear of disorder. The second time, he was able to walk around the streets with his sign, and stand in two different places. “The police were more sympathetic, they simply framed me to protect me and I was able to stay there”.

The aggression around him was palpable. “No physical aggression or insults”, he insisted, but a very hostile tone from the demonstrators, some of whom ordered him to leave. What also marked him were recurrent references to Israel. “These were not overtly antisemitic remarks, but insinuations with a nauseating undertone”.

During the first march, demonstrators had taken him to task in the name of their "freedom". Dr. Haegy simply added this word in large letters on the back of his sign. “The second time, when an anti-vaxxer got aggressive, I simply turned my sign around. It clearly meant that I too have the right to be there, in the name of my own freedom”. 

What could a single man do in the middle of some 3,000 demonstrators? Occupy the ground. "There are 175,000 opponents of the vaccine passport in France and 43 million people who have accepted vaccination. But we only hear from the former." In the procession, Jean-Marie Haegy observes the agglomeration of "antis": anti-system, anti-Macron, Yellow Vests, anti-vaccine passport. "I don't care if they are anti-this or anti-that, and even anti-vaccine passport. I just want them to get vaccinated".

Among the interactions with the demonstrators, some are rather courteous, even good-natured. "I spoke to one person the first time and ran into him again a week later. We found out peacefully that neither of us had changed our minds. But what made the biggest impression on Dr. Haegy was his meeting with the carers. "They challenged my figures, asked me for my sources, threw other figures and other sources at me. They were really trying to convince me".   

Who's next?

Jean-Marie Haegy will return to the streets as soon as possible, even if it is not the place where he feels most comfortable. "What I like is the atmosphere of the emergency and intensive care units, where I am still on duty, where I am called as Covid reinforcement. Although he intends to continue his action on his return from the West Indies, Jean-Marie Haegy, although “self-assured”, does not want to become a leader.

"On social networks, many people encourage me or ask me to take care of myself. Some people offer to accompany me. Delighted to be emulated, the physician is also very concerned to avoid any confrontation with people, some of whom are "convinced that the Earth is flat". "Ideally, we would like to see pro-vaccination demonstrations, but in different places and at different times". An initiative along these lines seems to be taking shape in Lyon. 

Children in Uganda

When asked if there is a link between this commitment of yesterday and his presence today on the cobblestones of Colmar to defend vaccines, Jean-Marie Haegy remembers a specific mission. His voice, until then so energetic, weakens, the words become spaced out and heavy.

"I was in Karamoja, Uganda, in the early 1980s, with Médecins du Monde. There was war, famine, epidemics. Measles. The population was decimated, so many children were dying. Every morning, the bodies of the children were piled up on carts and pushed to the mass graves. It was hard, you know. Those images... even now, it's hard".  - Dr. Haegy

In the photo, just behind Dr. Haegy, one can read on the wall, just below the blue sign "RUE DES SERRURIERS", a stenciled inscription: "It takes you to make a world".