Letter from German 4 – Life in the Time of Covid-19

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.

Covid Home – Letter OneLetter TwoLetter ThreeLetter FourLetter FiveLetter SixLetter Seven

Living with Covid-19 and the new normal was not a divine ´Let There be Light´ moment in Germany, instead it was a gradual takeover of our lives and a changed world view.

I have lived in Germany for just over a year now and I am still learning the ropes. The Covid-19 pandemic (Pandemie) has been an education in understanding how parts of society work and the devolved nature of government. The first official acts which began to change my life were made by my home state of Lower Saxony, one of 16 federal states that make up Germany in addition to my local authority (although many people had already begun to self-isolate unofficially and not to go on group bike rides etc.). Both had the authority to close public spaces, and they began to introduce restrictions on the movement of people early, using devolved powers that are unmatched in the UK. Across Germany state after state etc. escalated their response to the heartbreak being played out in China, Italy and Spain.

Testing laboratories and health care facilities in individual states/local authorities/universities co-operated and, facilitated by the national government, began testing in January. This is seen as one factor in addition to social distancing as to why it has a relatively small number of fatalities from the disease, despite the country having the fifth largest number of confirmed cases in the world. Projections predict that there could be a total of 10,000 deaths by August, but the number of patients will not overreach intensive care bed capacity over that period. The National Government stopped the private hospital system from doing elective surgery and is paying them to keep beds free. There has been a long ongoing debate regarding the overcapacity of beds, duplication and a shortage of both skilled and unskilled staff in German healthcare. (*see link at foot of post)

Maintaining supplies of personal protective equipment in Germany is also a problem like in so many other countries.

It was toward the end of March when national rules regarding social distancing were introduced to general acceptance. Recent polling suggests the majority are still OK with the social distancing measures even after the passing of time. I do wonder however; would the German people have responded so positively to Angela Merkel´s announcement of a nationwide lock down in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic if we hadn´t already got used to living the ‘new normal’ for some time up to that point?

Germany has many historical trip wires and one is that the National Government is limited in its actions – a throwback to the power grab by the Nazis in the 1930´s. It was noticeable that two states, Bavaria and Saarland went further with tougher Covid-19 social distancing rules than the National Government whilst the others accepted them after consultation.

There is a lot of talk about the European Union closing borders and whether this is the end of open frontiers. Here in Germany the state governments are restricting access across state lines and you had better have a good reason for wanting to cross from Lower Saxony to Hesse etc.

During the time of the Holy Roman Empire the myriad of semi-sovereign states meant there were seemingly endless differing custom checks and taxes that made travelling and trade hard work (e.g. hampering the development of train services).

After the dissolution of the HRE and the defeat of Napoleon who had occupied the regions, a new German Confederation followed where member states formed a customs/tariff union (The Zollverein). This union remained active although it went through differing stages of development until the German nation state was first formed in 1871. There are no doubts that the present pandemic inspired internal border restrictions will fall aside after the crisis has passed. The reunification of East and West is fresh in the memory and any calls for breaking away from Federal Germany are extremely muted, as they are for leaving the European Union.

The German historical trip wire of curbing governmental powers extends into the Federal States and this can be seen in the courts – a ban by one German state (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) in these pandemic times to stop general access to the Baltic Coastal resorts was overturned by a regional court for those who lived within the state while a request by day trippers from outside was rejected.

There is in Germany a mix of strong local, states (Länder) and national (Federal) courts with the German Constitutional Court (both Länder and Federal) acting about the constitution and they can call acts of Parliament into question, for example (that is something novel to me as a Brit).

The Constitutional Court role has caught my eye, this was set up to make sure that the post war constitution is followed. Recently the Bundesverfassungsgericht has been busy dealing with the citing of a wing of the AFD Party (Alternative for Germany). This wing of the AFD had used language, arguments and actions seen as anti-Semitic and non-democratic. Responses to this are still ongoing but recent constitutional decisions mean that the German State now has the right to surveil aspects of the party. The tricky part is balancing political freedom with unconstitutional acts.

Regarding Covid-19, the court also has ruled that it isn’t unconstitutional to ban the people´s right to assemble during the crisis. Another court upheld a ban on religious gatherings.

Germans in general are nervous of governmental/police surveillance or restrictions and it is controversial for police to suggest using drones to monitor social distancing. An eye in the sky (and CCTV) is too Big Brother for many and this follows through to shops and businesses. Many Germans still use cash, some shops big or small will not take electric payments. So much of what we take for granted in the UK such as contactless payment is often not available here. One reason is that some people do not want to leave an electronic footprint, nonetheless many high street/bricks and mortar businesses have been forced to close as online sales eat into their income. I question if the pandemic will see cash fade away to become more like London where I once went a whole month without using cash.

Simply put, Germans are suspicious of technology and how their data is used (Fax machines are not a rarity). For many years online organisations and business had to declare who was responsible for websites etc. with an ´Impressum´ stating names and addresses. In 2018 the EU followed the German internet privacy safeguards with the introduction of the wider ranging GDPR. Having said that, there is discussion that Covid-19 may see a greater use of technology regarding the environment, social welfare, work, education and how we interact in the future.

Another body that has come to my attention is the Ethics Council set up by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998/2005). Its deliberations are non-binding but are listened to even though there is criticism of it being too Christian centric in its makeup.

This council has expressed a view that we should question the paradigm that the Covid-19 lock down is the only answer, “there being no single correct response”. Chair Peter Dabrock wants to see discussion about lifting individual restrictions. It is interesting to see a non-partisan body raise the moral question about the economy and life balance (well, at least, that´s what I think they are suggesting). A few other countries have similar bodies whilst in the United Kingdom, I guess, this area is left to the church/religion.

The German Government and States are also talking about greater rewards to health, social care etc. workers and more money for health care (Germany has seen huge cutbacks during austerity) but also to address a technology gap experienced by poorer Germans. The fact that the pandemic is not the great leveller, because those who have less are most likely to do worse in a crisis, and they also often find social distancing harder to achieve. I believe that the National Government is mindful that many Germans live in rented flats (rent controlled) without gardens and this is one of the reasons that the lock down is not as rigid as the UK (also of note is that Germans do not think home ownership denotes status in society as much as we do in the UK).

The pandemic will stimulate debate across so much of the German fabric of society and it will be interesting, as I have remarked before, who will win the peace after the war on Covid-19 is won?

Being a newcomer to Germany and a bad German speaker, a degree of social isolation has become accepted by me as I build relationships. The thought that the pandemic is akin to waiting for a tap on the shoulder by an unseen evil, and a tap that could be fatal makes it clear that this temporary disruption is worth it.

To put it into perspective, the ´German Centre for Addiction Issues´ says that Germans tend to drink lots of beer/alcohol on average 131.3 litres (34.7 gallons) per year. They also smoked a total of 74.6 billion cigarettes in 2019. You can buy cigarettes from vending machines in the street and when I first came across these machines many years ago, I was amazed that anyone could access them, now you must at least swipe your identity card.

There are some 74,000 deaths related to alcohol and cigarettes per year (then add on drugs etc.) but of course, unlike the Covid-19 the German health services can vector such deaths and illness into their planning to avoid them overwhelming the system. ‘Will the Octoberfest be held’ is a bigger question in Germany than ‘will the Tour de France or Olympics be run’.

The country has a strong devolved form of government leading to local authorities being able to respond quickly to local needs. And it seems to me that preventing a repeat of the past horrors of Nazism are hotwired into the legal and political systems, but they depend on the commitment of the German people to maintain a vigilance. It is very interesting that the current watchword in Germany is solidarity rather than adopting a censorious tone.

Finally, it was good to see equipment being sent to the UK from Germany and patients accepted from France and Italy, I only hope British patients will not need to be sent here for treatment as well at a future date.

(* It is worth reading this articles before seeing the German experience of fighting Covid-19 as a panacea – https://www.dw.com/en/…

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