Life in the time of Covid-19 2020

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.

Letter from Germany 7 – Liberation – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (May 21, 2020)

The current political eye watering back drops to my Life in a Time of Covid-19; Donald Trump is gambling that sending health workers into the bullets will make him be seen by Americans as winning the war against the virus for the economy. In the UK, recent newspaper headlines harangued teachers’ unions for pushing back against pressuring their members to heroically face the guns. Conversely, there is no glory in prevention, only sacrifice will do, ‘beautiful’ sacrifice.

On May 8th, 1945, the Nazi death cult which had brutalised a continent ended, and for me it was interesting to be in Germany to witness the 75-year anniversary of this event. In Germany for many the aftermath of the Second World War has proved a struggle to comprehend; it is not just about how a civilised nation could sink into or toward becoming a rogue state. In the light of the rise of populist politics it now has become apparent that this is not just a ´German thing´, but one also has to ask: how can a nation move forward from once having been the architects of a charnel house. The question I ponder at this time is whether I should see May 8 as a defeat or as liberation for Germany? It is a question that weighs on many German minds and has made Germany anxious about its´ place in the World.

In the UK there is no reflective discussion – it is celebrated as a British victory by the draping of celebratory Union Jack bunting on 10 Downing Street and across the country.

Covid-19 virus social distancing saw May 8 memorials and street parties etc., kept to the barest minimum. In the United Kingdom VE Day was made a national holiday for the first-time replacing May Day. For many conservative politicians etc., the ´Workers’ Day´ has never been popular and over the years there have been calls to replace it with another notable date in British history. Therefore, a VE Day holiday was a perfect fit in the post-Brexit new world order. In Germany, Berlin declared an unprecedented one-off holiday (in addition to May day) and this was not mirrored elsewhere.

When I look at history, I wonder what if the French Revolution had not had to fight against an assembly of autocratic (mostly absolutist) Royal Houses leading to years of conflict and the rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In the UK our hearts are with the Georgian Royal House (of Hannover) and the English way, seeing the French Revolution as anti-democratic and a worthy enough cause for heroes such as Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington to fight against. In Britain and on Continental Europe there were people inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution who wanted to end or reform autocratic rule. Reformist voices included Ludwig Van Beethoven and Thomas Paine; Paine having written the Rights of Man which was influential in both the French and American Revolutions. He advocated similar ideas to those made by the Levellers and others who championed universal suffrage during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. So, it is odd even today for me to find myself supporting the Georgian Navy in any swashbuckling film epic (I would also say that I am with a Roundhead over a Cavalier in any costume drama).

History can be tricky and for the Germans it´s a minefield. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking on behalf of the German nation in his VE Day speech warned of the ‘temptation of new nationalism’. He asked the German people ´to jointly remember their family histories and the history of their country. These are histories of both perpetrators and victims´.

May 8, 1945 is clearly a day of liberation for all those enslaved by the Nazi regime, but was it a day of liberation or defeat for the German people? Post WW2 in the Soviet Union backed East Germany they early on adopted the idea that it was a liberation from fascism and tyranny. The East German leadership for instance made the Peasants’ War (1524/25) battle site at Frankenhausen (situated within the East) into a purpose-built place for East Germans to visit where they could foster their revolutionary credentials. The museum features the World´s biggest painting, the Peasants’ War Panorama (Bauernkriegspanorama), created from 1976 to 1987.

In the West it took until the 1970´s for the idea of liberation to take hold instead of being simply labelled as the guilty losers (the escalating Cold War also helped soften this narrative). Looking through my eyes and from talking to Germans I can see the struggle they were/are having – the hard right wing see May 8th as a defeat and wish to sanitise the Nazi legacy so they can do it again (but somehow differently sic.) and then there is the idea that West Germany never really purged the Nazis from society and was thus corrupt. And, materialistic. Even the iconic Bauhaus design house is interpreted differently – in the West Bauhaus became emblematic of democratic freedoms, not communism whilst in the East it was seen as a pragmatic socialist design style in the support of the people and not the elites.

In the early 1800s the idea of uniting the German speaking people into a nation was a popular notion and liberal reformists saw it as a way to replace the autocratic rule in the myriad of independent statelets (Kingdoms, Dukedoms, principalities, and bishoprics). The current German flag and surprisingly the national anthem (Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles) were both created to further liberal reform and unity. The German peoples’ flag was a simple three coloured design and importantly without royalist symbolism or reference. It was one of the first flags of a people rather than a royal house (the USA and France being the first) and the anthem, it can be argued, reflected the idea of a reformist national parliament taking precedence over any regional kingdoms etc. (not necessarily lording German supremacy over other nations).

The seeds of this reform movement had grown strongly following the devastating Thirty Years War in the 17th Century which had come after a rare 70 years of peace since the warring parties agreed a historic compromise across the protestant and catholic fault lines of the Reformation. The horror of this war and the later occupation by Napoleon is embedded in the German psyche and this helped lead to the growth of a liberal argument that became a catalyst for the German Revolution of 1848. At this pivotal moment in German history the forces of the status quo pushed back, and autocratic rule prevailed. Otto von Bismarck (The Blacksmith) supported the old order and his policy of uniting the German speaking peoples into one nation with ´Blood and Iron´ won the day. There was to be no liberal or reformist unification by peaceful means, instead it would be by force along established autocratic lines.

The first German nation came into being in 1871 shortly after the defeat of France in the Franco Prussian War (1870/71). Bismarck had used the moment to give the autocratic Prussians power to rule and this ultimately set the new Empire on a course to devastating defeat in World War One. Then, for just 17 years, the first national democracy in German history was run from Weimar (not Berlin) until it was defeated by the weight of political violence, global economic melt-down and the lie that the German Volk in WW1 had been stabbed in the back by ´democracy´.

The rest is history, as they say. The Nazi death cult came to power in the 1930´s aided and abetted by the ruling establishment elites (as in 1848 – army, aristocrats, business, religion, and the judiciary).

May 8, 2020 was marked in Germany by formal ceremonies attended by leading political figures (including the President), there were also many thoughtful articles written and TV programmes aired reflecting upon the end of WW2 and the horrors that had been perpetrated in the name of the German people.

The complete defeat of the Nazi state in 1945 for me is a liberation for Germany because it finally saw the end of a long history of autocratic (and often fascist) governance in Central Europe that so many had pushed to abolish over the centuries. It had taken over 100 years and many wars including two world conflicts since 1848 to see democracy finally established in Germany, and for all its flaws it is worth cherishing over populism in the modern day.

May 8, 1945 was a victory over unquestionable evil, a battle fought by an amazing alliance of peoples of differing heritages, societies, and countries which must rightly be remembered. I think it would have been appropriate if the bunting flown outside Number 10 in the UK had reflected that.

Maybe this allows me some insight into how Germany and the UK see themselves in the World and whether their differing attitudes to transparency and democracy and their own self-worth can be seen in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic?

See also
May 8, 1945
May 7, 1945

Picture: A section of the Bauernkriegspanorama.

Oddly coming back to life – Life in the Time of Covid-19 (May 8, 2020)

The city of Göttingen and the surrounding Landkreis is slowly coming back to life, it does feel odd to see people playing tennis, children playing on swings and people shopping. Most of the do not enter tape has now gone, although public benches have not made a return yet.

At the height of the lockdown the forest was alive with people and it now feels quieter as people return to work or go to the city centre instead.

Restaurants and cafes are set to open soon, in the meantime, they are being imaginative by moving out onto the streets. But some things never change, and this is the availability of ice cream. Large ques had formed at parlours selling what is a popular German pastime, we found one which sold great I-Scream and we didn´t have to wait.

The situation in Göttingen and its surrounds is that a total of 809 people are/were infected with Covid-19, 165 of those within the city, 599 people have recovered and 66 have died.

Free to play – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (May 6, 2020)

Today playgrounds reopened here in Göttingen, Lower Saxony allowing children to swing and slide whilst I looked on with envy. I make up for not being able to play on the swings by riding my bike!

The reopening of playgrounds is part of a raft of measures being taken in Germany to loosen the Covid-19 lock down.

Next up will be cafes, restaurants, larger shops and hotels, but we will continue to have to wear masks when interacting with each other. The latter took some getting used to!

The football season looks likely to resume behind closed doors in May and nonprofessional local league sports may begin once more and this includes gyms. Schools will begin to take back students.

Under the federal system each regional state will be able to tailor their responses to a continued fall in Covid-19 cases, nonetheless there is a nationally agreed moment when to reimpose measures if cases spike etc. There is a great deal of talk regarding a second and even a third wave being on the cards.

I have seen much talk from the UK saying you cannot compare the numbers of deaths in countries with each other, but my response to that is that you can measure and analyse what countries did in response to the pandemic.

The sudden tidal wave that hit Italy was seen by us all, thankfully some governments reacted. Here we could have acted faster but Germany was still able to mitigate the lost time by stock piling testing kits, ramping up tests, implementing measures, freeing up ICU beds and clearly explaining decisions. Chancellor Merkel was criticised for scaremongering because during a super rare address to the nation she outlined a potentially terrible scenario if nothing was done.

I have been in lock down longer than people in the UK, although I was generally free to walk and ride my bike without angst.

I am heartbroken to see the UK having the highest death toll in Europe (and second in the World) and I can only think, what if….

Nicker Elastic – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (May 2, 2020)

Our horde of nicker elastic

We are now required to wear masks when shopping or in public offices etc. and across Germany the sound of sewing machines working can be heard.

The clackety-clack sound is of people making masks and some are nice to see. You can buy masks in shops and from vending machines, but to be cool you should wear a homemade one.

This home industry has led to a shortage of nicker elastic!

Masks made for us by our lovely neighbour.

Letter from German 6 – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (May 1, 2020)

My lovely neighbour made these masks for us

My new home city of Göttingen is twinned with the Gloucestershire city of Cheltenham located on the edge of the Cotswolds in South West England. (oddly for me, Cheltenham is also where my older brother was born)

The city of Göttingen has a population of 119,801 and the surrounding Göttingen Landkreis (administrative area) is 253,646 situated in the State of Lower Saxony which in turn has a total population of just under eight million people.

The population of Cheltenham is 117,090 and for Gloucestershire it is 633,558 situated in the South West of England with over five million.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Göttingen and Landkreis stands on May 1 at 795 (165 in Göttingen city) with 53 dead. In Lower Saxony, the number of total deaths is at 429 from almost eight million people.

Finding Covid-19 figures for Cheltenham was beyond me whilst for Göttingen/Germany it was easy, the situation in Cheltenham can be outlined from press reports with the death toll having reached 171 in Gloucestershire on April 27. Mortality figures for Gloucestershire (this includes Cheltenham) is roughly double that in two nearby trusts at neighbouring Bristol and those covering Swindon and Bath. And these figures do not necessarily reflect the situation in care homes etc. The population of South West England is 5,289,000 with almost 1,000 confirmed mortalities from Covid-19 and you can compare this to Lower Saxony with eight million people and 429 deaths.

Modelling projections suggests that the UK death rate could be greater than any other European country and nationally it stands at 26,842 on May 1.

Covid-19 took hold in Germany because after being transmitted at ski resorts (Austria has a case to answer, because known spots were not closed) it then spread during the carnival season (November/February) resulting in the forming of large clusters of Covid-19 especially in Southern and Western Germany where the majority of cases are. Nonetheless German Cities, States and the National Government were able to mitigate the spread by cancelling further carnivals.

In Göttingen’s sister town of Cheltenham, like most of the UK life seemed to go on as normal despite the alarming situations developing in Italy, Spain, and France. The Cheltenham Borough website has this statement: “The decision as to whether the Cheltenham Races took place was not one that fell within the remit of Cheltenham Borough Council. Any decision to postpone or cancel the races had to be made by the racecourse under instruction and/or guidance from central government.” The council is obviously aware of the controversy surrounding this event and it was stymied in the choices it could make by the centralised nature of UK governance. Göttingen city council had banned public events including sport.

The Cheltenham Festival was held over March 10/13 attracting 60,000 plus people per day from across the UK/World and the UK Govt said at the time: “The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.”

A few days after the race horse festival was over the UK Government reacted to growing evidence that the pandemic was set to see possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths if nothing was done (Imperial College projections on March 16) by requesting people to not frequent bars and pubs etc..

The UK Government waited until March 23 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally implemented a formal lock down in contrast to the initial plan to develop a community herd immunity to the virus by allowing free movement and association. As with the USA the period of February and March is seen as being very controversial because of the lack of action by both countries including acquiring PPE etc.

At that time in Göttingen we had been in lock down for quite a period and in Cheltenham local media reported a spike of Covid-19 infections in the post code adjacent to Cheltenham Race Course and at the main railway station resulting in 27 confirmed hospital admissions of the virus at April 3, Cheltenham had become a hot spot with the highest amount of infections in Gloucestershire. The two locations made up nearly a quarter of county-wide hospital admissions on April 3.

The lock down in Göttingen is now being eased and soon playgrounds for instance will reopen. As part of seeing more shops open we are required to wear masks when in confined public spaces.

(This is a revised edit to make clearer the comparison between Cheltenham and Göttingen)

Colour in this time of Covid-19 (April 29, 2020)

My walk to the supermarket was brightened by children´s art.

It rained today for the first time in ages and a child made a great drawing on the road.

And children are adding stones to a growing snake in the forest.

Goslar – ´rotted in with its privileges´  (April 27, 2020)

We had good cause (under the social distancing rules) to visit Goslar in the Harz Mountains.

Hide and Seek with Steins – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (April 28, 2020)

In Germany children are fond of painting small stones with imaginative patterns and sometimes with messages.

My neighbour Alvar aged 5 (no kindergarten) made nine stones and hid them around the garden for me to find.

I had great fun looking for them and I now I owe him an ice cream.

Letter from Germany 5 – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (April 24, 2020)

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.

Letter from German 4 – Life in the Time of Covid-19 (April 13, 2020)

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 –…

Currency – Life in a Time of Covid-19 (April 7, 2020)

(Germans have a sense of humour)

Letter from Germany 3 – Life in a time of Covid-19 (April 6, 2020)

Art and messaging by children on German streets and pavements is popular and especially so now. Note that this message is written in English.

The idea that Germany is full of jack booted ´little Hitlers´ and it´s ´in their DNA´ was a common theme in the UK when I was growing up. It was a typical enough stereotype which along with similar themes regarding France and Italy helped define how many Brits saw the World. Even recently reference to Napoleon and Hitler was used by prominent British politicians as well as the general public when expressing an opinion regarding the European Union and therefore in some minds by default, Germany.

Although I learned to think for myself as best as possible it was still hard to shake these thoughts. Now that I live here it is has become clear that Germany isn´t too different from the UK. Elements of the general public can be just as annoying – litter droppers and worse lurk within both communities etc., but during the Covid-19 pandemic it has been interesting to look at opinion polls to shine a light on the Germans. This might explain why things seem calm In Germany at this time despite the lock down and the intense battle being fought in the country’s hospitals etc.

Recent polling (ARD) showed that over 90% of German´s supported the social distancing ´lock down’ rules, also that Chancellor Merkel remains very popular and her Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) were given a large show of confidence. Additionally, the parties on the extremes of the political scope have seen a decline in support.

Germany acted early when the news flowed from China about Covid-19 and began testing (500,000 a week) with carriers being isolated very early (the first recorded case was on January 27). Was this because Germany is so very efficient? Germany like so many other nations isn´t perfect – for example German intercity trains are often late or cancelled without notice and construction projects can (and do) go awry, the ´new´ Berlin airport in Berlin is a case in point (not open after multiple years of delay).

No, what was smart about Germany in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis is that it was watching and listening both to the experiences of other countries and to science/experts. Secondly, no one waited for a prime minister or their inner circle to decide when to act. Thirdly ideology or politics was most certainly not part of the equation.

It could be argued that Germany should have cancelled the many carnivals held early in the year (a source of the large Heinsberg cluster near the Netherlands border) nonetheless from January voluntary social distancing was ongoing in Germany, followed by the gradual introduction of enforcement measures by regional states and local government leading up to Merkel first issuing a national set of rules toward the end of March. By this time, social distancing restrictions were part of my everyday life which means that I haven’t seen friends or visited a restaurant etc. for a long time.

Meanwhile in the UK it was sort of business as usual up to only a few weeks ago as we waited to see what the Government would do despite the unfolding tragedies in China, Italy and Spain.

The polling reflects what I have seen when in public in Germany – I have noted that nearly all people are being cooperative and work to give you space, plus they do it with a big dose of good grace (we are free to venture out of our homes). No doubt some people are pains in the arse, but police and local authority civilian enforcement officers in my area have not reported either medium or high numbers of breaches.

A sense of solidarity is real and adhering to the social distancing measures isn´t a slavish following of orders, rather it is more about doing the right thing. Interestingly this mindset maybe indicative not just during the pandemic, but also after the crisis is over (the infamous curve points to a fall in new cases giving cause for cautious optimism).

I am thinking after years of cuts and pay suppression it will be hard for politicians to argue against giving better terms and conditions to vital workers. There looks like there could be an imperative for the nation and the German people to offer more than just applause to thank them for their efforts on the frontline etc. At the end of the pandemic further polling (DW) suggests that the German people also want to be supportive of other countries and the shaken European Union.

This suggests to me that Germans possess a feeling of confidence about living through the pandemic despite being the fourth worst infected nation currently on Earth, it has comparatively fewer deaths – and that Germans are mentally preparing themselves to deal with the aftermath.

I wonder after the war on Covid-19 is won who will win the peace? Will there be a sense of purpose to meet the challenges that so many governments can sweep under the carpet when not held to account? Health care, the environment, racism and social inclusion being just a few I might mention.

So no, Germany is not a nation of ´little Hitlers or even ´Bonapartists´, rather it appears to me for all its own oddities this is a nation that thrives on cooperation and not enforcement. In general life and away from the pandemic my impression is there are fewer signs saying NO and less in your face health & safety in Germany than in the UK.

Life in the time of Covid-19 (April 1, 2020)

At the best of times parks, playgrounds and forests are alive with children and bikes here in Germany.

Right now, during the Covid-19 pandemic especially whilst playgrounds and public places such as swimming pools are closed, the numbers of children and parents in the forest have increased noticeably to me.

When I look back at the time of the pandemic, I will remember the many bikes ridden by children and discarded for a few moments and laid down alongside the paths as children explored amongst the trees.

This cargo bike was used by a young father, two children and a dog all out enjoying the sunshine. The four of them had abandoned the bike and were walking a nearby dried up stream.

Letter from Germany 2 – life in the time of Covid-19 (March 31, 2020)

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.

No Socialising
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.

Letter from Germany 1 – life in the time of Covid-19 (March 26, 2020)

A year ago (March 26, 2019), I went for my first ride since moving to a new country and then like today I took time to have a think about my situation.

We have been social distancing informally and formally in some form or other for what seems like a long time in Germany. During this period my news and social media feed from the UK has been busy with events, social fun and the like. I must admit I was a bit amazed that people were carrying on as normal in the UK despite the news which was flowing from China and then much closer to home from Italy.

Life has not been normal for over a month in Germany.

I have had to learn a new dance called “the excuse me and avoid me waltz”, when shopping as we all endeavour to not crowd each other in the supermarket.

Each German state implemented its own rules early on and this saw events cancelled and public spaces such as playgrounds and swimming pools, plus restaurants and shops closed. This was in addition to the actions of the National Government and both have ratcheted up their responses over the weeks.

We have not been riding in groups nor have I met with friends for three weeks. There were hiccups with some ignoring social distancing, but most of us have been keeping away from each other. Things are calm, there were shortages at first, but I believe not on the scale of the UK experience which saw very aggressive shopping and hoarding (hamstering here).

The German health system has its issues but hospitals have been ramping up their preparations. Importantly there does exist a sense of community/society that helps in a crisis. There are no panic calls for volunteers or emotive appeals (often shaming people) as in the UK.

In Italy the disease was spread via ski resorts and similarly in Austria, both being a source for many German infections. Germany has been testing since early January (500,000 plus).

The point is that Italy got it first and the rest of Europe can learn from their experience. A similar issue can be seen in New York which is approaching a high point that others in the US will also experience despite what Trump might ordain.

Thankfully, both the informal and formal social distancing looks like it might be working as the curve is flattening in Germany and death rates are less. It has occurred to me that European nations are much more aware of each other and are much more interested in learning from each other than the UK.

In the UK the attitude is to do our own thing (if I was to be churlish, I might add – more looking to the USA) and not take much of an interest in our continental neighbours. I hope the UK doesn´t pay the price for this outlook.

Here in Germany there is no shame in riding your bike or going outside if you follow the clear social distancing rules.

I have my fingers crossed that Italy and Spain etc. reach the peak soon and then begin to recover. And that others in Europe including Germmany are not placed in the same nightmare situation.

Pandemics – Life in a Time of Covid-19  (March 21, 2020)

Military or war cemeteries are mostly well maintained enabling you to read the gravestone inscriptions. Name and dates are clear to see and for some people it is odd for them to read a date of death outside of the war years.

Dates after the end of wars are often found in cemeteries away from the fighting front line and if you dig a bit deeper you will tend to find that a hospital is nearby or was operational during that time.

In my new home here in Germany there are rows of those buried in the Stadt Friedhof who died in 1920´s and these stand out because many of these people would have died in the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I have also seen the same in London military cemeteries/plots such as Battersea Rise, Earlsfield and Leyton.

Additionally you will find Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians, Chinese, Canadians, Caribbean, Indians and others from the Commonwealth (or Empire as it was then) buried in places such as South Africa and these are soldiers etc. who died in transit home from Europe and are buried at the nearest convenient port.

Post WW1 the death toll continued to build, some died of their wounds and others because of illness. The fact that the 1918 pandemic continued for years is told on numerous gravestones around the World.

Now is the time to look after each other, be ashamed if you snatched a toilet roll out of the hands of another etc., as so many did in what looked like a feeding frenzy in a shark tank in many supermarkets.

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