Letter from Germany 5 – Life in a 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

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has coined a new word for the German language, duh… just what I need as a struggling new to Deutsche sprachen.

The word is Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien, and it is very much in the great German tradition of joining up words to make it sound like the name of a Welsh Village.

Translated she was expressing Opening (Öffnungs) – Debate (Diskussions) – Orgies (Orgien)

Merkel used Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien to sum up her feelings regarding the high amount of talk about ending the lock down we have been living under because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shops including bike stores are beginning to reopen; a slow and steady return to whatever the new normal in Germany will be has begun, and she is wary. Politically this will be an interesting time because Angela Merkel is expressing concern that the sixteen states (this includes the city states of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen) may end their lock downs prematurely and in a piecemeal manner. It would be a “crying shame if we were to stumble into a relapse with our eyes wide open” she said.

It is widely accepted that one of the reasons why Germany was able to stay ahead of the curve and lessen the death rate is because the devolved nature of German government saw regional/local authorities acting quickly, there was no waiting on one man and a few advisors to turn a switch as was the case in Britain. The independent streak that helped to contain the pandemic now means that the National Government must tread carefully to maintain solidarity across the German political landscape whilst tempering the ambition to reopen Germany.

Polling says that 81% of the population support the government’s actions so far, 55% agree with the current gradual lifting of restrictions but 68% think it is too soon to reopen restaurants and bars. 94% agree that large events should remain banned and 73% accept that there will be an economic downturn.

Some states have reopened schools, and this has seen calls for boycotts highlighting the discussion that Merkel´s new Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien illustrates. A school child in Hesse took the state to court questioning the reopening of schools and won (I can´t imagine a UK child doing that).

CNN report “Germany’s coronavirus reproduction rate has increased to 0.9 (was 0.7) according to the country’s centre for disease and control, the Robert Koch Institute, meaning every 10 people with the virus infect an average of nine others.” This is sobering stuff.

The Göttingen State Cemetery has row upon row of World War One and Two dead, many graves dated from 1918, are for those who died in the first wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic which struck the World then, and additionally there are the many victims of the second wave which exploded in the 1920´s.

No doubt the latter is on people´s minds. One step toward lessening the lock down is the introduction of a ruling agreed by the all the states that all in Germany will be required to wear masks (mouth and nose covering) in shops and on public transport. (In Berlin, the former will not be mandatory) Some places already have such rules including Bavaria and the city of Wolfsburg for example.

Meanwhile the football league is waiting for approval to resume the season in May (behind closed doors) but alas for the six million who annually attend the Oktoberfest, this has been cancelled.

The German National Government was quick to act to ensure money was available to lessen the financial impact of the crisis and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has said that they may not even have to blow a hole in the Federal budget (although Germany may have to break the ´Black Zero´ rule and take on new debt) but the pay-outs to big companies is not without some controversy. For decades big players in Germany´s industrial powerhouse have been fiddling their carbon tax obligations and they want to be given a clean slate, rather than be penalised and still receive taxpayer’s Covid-19 money. It looks like a Mexican Standoff has developed with the companies saying do your worst.

The Government has already had its fingers burnt after being taken for a ride by the German car makers over Dieselgate (environmental software fixed to give wrong date) and it now has to decide whether to demand payment of back taxes, not give aid and maybe see these companies fail with repercussions for employment etc. It just goes to show that big money makes even more money by exploiting the general taxpayer no matter how small. For example, the crisis could mean that an estimated 70,000 hotels and restaurants could go bankrupt because of the coronavirus.

Further to the Covid-19 pandemic another unknown invisible illness is abroad in Germany. This is killing Blue and Great Tits in Germany and we have taken down our bird table on advice scattering feed across the lawn. Yes, social distancing for birds. This may also be more evidence that the assault on nature by human activities does not just threaten our own health but also that of the wildlife around us that we cherish.

As I compare my new home country’s response with that of the UK, I feel like so many others that the measures taken here made sense and I recall being amazed that the UK was still open whilst here we had begun our lock down and were ramping up testing etc. (250,000 at the Cheltenham Festival horse race meeting in March!) No matter my political misgivings about the German Government, I share with others a sense that the Covid-19 is being treated as THE main burden of the day (Not Brexit). Currently Angela Merkel and her party the CDU are looking strong in opinion polling because of the general approval of the coalition governments response to the pandemic (the SPD are the junior partners), although support for the CDU may shrink when Merkel steps down in 2021 and a replacement is named.

The German people have a soft spot for Queen Elizabeth, she appears on TV a fair bit, and it was thus interesting to see Merkel and the monarch of the UK receiving favourable comparisons. Both made rare addresses to their people (also the German President did the same) talking of solidarity without needless optimism. It was also interesting to see comparisons being made about the USA and Germany who share a similar political system, but the USA is fractured by a political schism whereas in Germany in the Corona crisis there is broad consensus.

Language is important, it enables us to communicate, and how we speak – our tone and intonation help elucidate what we are saying. However, our facial expression can say even more about the sincerity of our words and this is lost under a mask. It takes some getting used to, especially when walking into a bank.

The various degrees of social isolation placed upon all by the restrictions on the freedom of movement disconnects us from friends and society at large, this makes us even more reliant upon elected and non-elected officials. We need therefore to feel that we can have confidence in their aptitude. That´s why it is even more important now that they speak clearly and truly.

Words speak volumes in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic – ´I am sorry if you´re upset, but…´, `it has been delayed´, ´PPE – you are being wasteful´, and the seeming double speak about PPE shortages and ‘we didn’t see the e-mail’ (re. the European Union joint procurement scheme) being expressed by the UK Government makes me feel nervous.

In Germany, the Government has left us to sunbathe, ride our bikes, sit/play in the parks (but not on communal equipment) and to meet one friend in an open public space. There is so much more negative noise about fellow citizens on social and news media on my UK feed than my German one.

There exists an admiration at the efforts of people in the UK for supporting NHS charities, but for Germans the idea that charities MUST step in to make up for shortfalls in health service resources is a surprise (this included a number of scavenger hunts for equipment because some health workers were resorting to wearing bin-bags in the UK). There are of course cats and dog charities or similar in Germany which take up where the state leaves off.

My general feeling is that the UK acted criminally too late and was not focussed on the danger at hand thus the hand on the tiller of state is a nervously tense one, their talk is often evasive and fractious. Whilst in Germany there is a softer touch and a more open approach. Which no doubt might surprise those who think Germany is made up of strutting uniformed citizens and this may go some way to explain the less censorious tone here.

Another dimension to the German experience is at the start of the pandemic a hospital in Bonn had to be evacuated (including Covid-19 patients) after yet another World War Two bomb was found. Some two million bombs etc. were dropped upon Germany during the war and it is estimated that 20% did not explode meaning that many are yet to be discovered. (recently, one blew up spontaneously in a farmer´s field in the middle of the night)

What will the future new normal mean? Data suggests that Germans are losing their coyness and are more willing to use electronic payments and online shopping stores, this has led to a failed request by parcel delivery companies to be allowed to work on Sundays. In German almost all shops close on this day and I love the idea of a ´right to rest´ because in the UK Sunday is nothing special simply being just another mad frantic retail day for many.

The latter will be a harder nut to crack for German business, but it does seem that Germans are moving from a generally analogue mindset to becoming a potentially digital freethinker.

German media are also reporting that the cooking skills of the people has been found wanting and sales of cookbooks are up, cooking websites are reporting increased traffic. Cooking site Chefkoch said to DW News: “The traffic we have received has reached numbers that we typically register during the Christmas season, the busiest time of the year”. Despite bakeries remaining open demand for flour rose by 200% and bread mixes saw a spike of 330%. In the first two weeks of the lockdown.

The Federation of German Food and Drink Industries Christoph Minhoff said: “People are rather dramatically forced to rely on their own culinary skills now that the offerings of fast-food restaurants, French fries stands and the Italian restaurant around the corner are not an option”.

He also said: “We’ve known for years that cooking competence has drastically declined in Germany”. From my own experience supermarket freezers are often empty of fast foods whilst fresh produce is generally available. In Germany, I have eaten best at home or at friends’ whilst restaurants are OK and at times dreadful – mayonnaise served up with Poppadum’s in an Indian Restaurant.

2020 would have seen celebrations marking 75 years since the liberation of the death and concentration camps set up by the Nazi´s, now each camps liberation is being commemorated digitally. Memorial events have been limited in size etc. nonetheless these events have not been forgotten.

Puss in his face mask.


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