March 2019 saw me in my new home city in Central Germany and a year on we are living in a time of a pandemic.
I have been struggling with a thought – am I prejudiced to see my new home in a good light in this time of Covid-19? To do so would be natural as it would validate my decision to turn my world upside down and relocate from London to central Germany.
I hope I am not too deluded, but what is for sure is that living in Germany is a learning experience. I can also say with a great deal of certainty is that one of the reasons I moved to this country is because it is not as perfect as people in the UK like to paint it.
Life as Normal
My web feeds from the UK only up to last week was full of race reports, pictures of fun looking social gatherings and similar. The biggest elephant in the room was when or even if Boris Johnson and the UK Government would act on reports of the pandemic which had overwhelmed the health system in China. Even when Italy became worse than China and the horror was beginning to be replayed in Spain my feed showed life in the UK being oddly business as usual for most. Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool FC made some very good comments about the threat of the disease despite the obvious disappointment of being on the verge of success when the English Football Association called a halt to the action. Even then my UK feed didn´t change much.
The most worrying was that whilst the UKs confirmed cases of the disease weren´t large, deaths were high, and this was similar in the USA where Trump was downplaying the dangers etc. In Germany testing for Covid-19 has been ongoing since January and presently the country has the third highest levels of known cases in Europe (fifth in the world), but it has a low death rate in comparison. What this means is that we do not know what the true situation is in the UK. The Swedes have taken a different step to most by adopting a policy of building herd immunity within the population, as did the UK at first. Unlike the UK the Swedes followed Germany in testing rigorously early on and isolating diagnosed people.
Germany might yet see the health services overwhelmed, and this is of course the nightmare that social distancing and testing etc. is designed to avoid. I do wonder how much infection there is in the UK population. My web feed, my friends in the UK and news reports tell me people were mixing closely up until quite recently. Those infected up to the moment of lock-down in the UK might subsequently feed into the workload of the NHS in the coming weeks.
Life Not Normal
In Germany whilst the UK raced, socialised and people were expected to turn up for work, my German and European feed was dominated by cancellations, layoffs and closures.
The response in Germany to the Covid-19 pandemic has made it clearer to me just how it is governed.
In 1871 Otto Von Bismarck created by force (mostly) the country of Germany under the Prussian king Wilhelm 1. Bismarck´s springboard was the failed revolution of 1848 where the idea of a liberal thinking united Germany was swept aside by the established ruling elite (aristocracy) who wanted to protect their positions of power etc.
´Germany´ had historically been made up of 460 separate Kingdoms, Princely states, Dukedoms, Bishoprics and others. All were independent in much of what they did, although they paid ultimate allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire headed by Austrian Royal family (The Hapsburgs).
The Holy Roman Empire having existed for a thousand years was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 who created a much smaller number of states. After the defeat of France, a German Confederation of 39 loosely associated states was formed.
Post the World Wars and the reunification of Germany in 1989, 16 states now make up the Federal Republic of Germany.
These 16 German States in the Federal systems are sovereign in so many ways and only Scotland in the UK is dimly comparable.
For a Brit the idea that the individual states of Germany acted and did not wait for the word from Berlin in the face of the coming pandemic is probably hard to understand. I gathered some insight of how the federal system works from my German feed as notifications of the closing of public spaces (playgrounds and swimming pools etc.) and restrictions on business flowed in from Lower Saxony or Bavaria etc.
In turn my new home city had the right to introduce their own restrictions which they did. This saw for example cycle clubs not only stop competitions but also group rides weeks and weeks ago area by area in quick succession. It was only recently after consultation with the states that a nationwide set of measures was introduced (with a degree of dissent, some wanted to be tougher).
The National Government led by Angela Merkel co-ordinates and legislates across the nation but so many decisions are in the hands of the regional and local authorities. There was no waiting on the word of one man and his inner circle as was the case in the UK.
The early response to the pandemic in Germany through a partnership of national, regional and local governments is an eye opener to me.
There are calls to give the national government the power to act more assertively but this view is tempered by memories of the early 1930´s and the passing of an enabling act which saw the Nazi´s given free rein to tear up the tender 17 year old Weimar democracy and constitution with horrendous consequences.
Germany is full of historical trip wires.
My life is far from normal at this time and I was trying to recall the last time I interacted socially with others or went for a group bike ride, thankfully there does exist a good vibe as we take our exercise in the outside world – 1.5 metres apart and no more than two unless a family/household. I have heard said in the UK that the lock down ´isn´t a holiday but a pandemic´, but I would say neither should it be a prison. Officials here are using a light touch to enforce the restrictions, it is policed by a mix of civilian council officials, Police and the uniformed Ordnungsant (not quite police). I am grateful for having greater freedoms than many currently.
I also know that in Germany the situation is tough in hospitals, although not so overwhelmed that they cannot treat additional patients from Italy and France. It is thinking of the most vulnerable including those in care homes that reminds me why it is so important to do the right thing and show solidarity.
The pictures are a detail from a Covid-19 information leaflet pushed through my door by my local council and a sign placed in popular spots by the same.