March 2019 saw me in my new home city in Central Germany and two years on I am living in a time of a pandemic.
I began writing these letters at the start of the pandemic in an attempt to understand Germany better and to get to grips with my relationship with the United Kingdom.
Letter from Germany 16, November 25, 2021.
As a treat after receiving a booster Covid vaccination we ventured to the 2021 Göttingen Christmas Market. Not held in 2020 the Christmas Market like Lederhosen is as German as it gets.
But neither are specifically Germanic because Christmas markets are popular in Continental Europe; the Ghent Market for instance in Belgium is marvellous and only in specific places in the south will you find Lederhosen (it´s not the national dress).
Germany might be one nation but when Bismarck united the German speaking people with ´blood and iron´ in 1871 he forced together people who often had little in common other than language and even then, strong regional dialects could baffle.
Germany is ´young´ and in its present form it is just 32 years old (reunification of East and West). So, are Germans really Germans? For instance, after the Second World War German speaking people expelled from Prussia (now Poland and Russia) and Silesia (now Poland and Czech Republic) were seen as being ´foreign´ by many people in Lower Saxony and elsewhere. My refugee mother-in-law was told that she would ´dilute the Lower Saxon blood´.
So, now we find ourselves at a point in the Covid Pandemic where the regional differences are more visible because the impact of the highly infectious Delta Variant is disproportionate in Germany. In turn the idea that an ´all for one and one for all´ pan-German response is running thin for the Federal States who have high vaccination and lower infection rates making them reluctant to lock down again. It is a tension that permeates throughout German politics as the Central Government can only be effective if it acts in partnership with the fiercely independent Federal States – nonetheless it is in everyone’s interest to reach a consensus despite regional voting preferences.
In Bavaria and Saxony where infection rates are high, and vaccinations are below the national average the Christmas Markets have now been cancelled. The cumulative effect of such low take up and in other areas of Germany means that it lags other countries such as Portugal. Here in Göttingen where infections are lower and vaccination rates higher it would be foolish to assume that people are willing to lock down again to safeguard the wellbeing of the unvaccinated especially those in the Covid hotspots of South and South-Eastern Germany. The obvious rebuttal to this is that if hospitals are full and the disease spreads then we all might not be able to get treatment for other illness or for injuries from accidents. A barometer of concern used in Germany is the number of people who are ill enough to require Intensive Care Unit treatment per 100,000 people. On November 25, 2021, Bavaria stood at 9.46, Saxony 5.47, Saxony Anhalt at 12.11, Thuringia was at 18.72, Berlin at 2.97 and Lower Saxony where I live it was 2.86.
The German health bodies see the ratio of Covid cases per ICU beds as a priority to keep hospitals open to non-covid treatments and a Bavarian Doctor said to Deutsch Welle; ´that most cases (almost 90%) are the unvaccinated with mostly the rest being those vaccinated early in 2021´. He also said that patients from his ICU had been transferred to other ICU´s across Germany. Nonetheless the ratio of population to infections is still important and on November 25, 2021: Bavaria recorded 641, Saxony 1,074, Thuringia 773, Saxony Anhalt 633, Berlin 344, and Lower Saxony 195 to 100,000 people. The national average has sharply grown in the last few weeks to 419 which compares with the United Kingdom at 430, although the latter has seen large numbers of infections for a much, much longer period and their wave predates the current German surge in cases.
People in Germany are increasingly favouring a vaccine mandate whilst greater public opinion seems firmly in line with the idea that the unvaccinated should face restrictions such as in Saxony where there is a regional curfew in place for those refusing the jab. There exists a sense of impatience towards those who are not vaccinated.
Highlighting the disparity in the numbers of people fully vaccinated per Federal State sees Bremen at 78.5% and this is in sharp contrast to Saxony with the lowest at 56.9%. Other states of note are Bavaria 64%, Saxon Anhalt at 63%, Thuringia 60% whilst Berlin is at 67%. My area which has a low infection rate and ICU bed ratio is at 68%. The most heavily populated state in Germany is West Rhineland Westphalia (18million) where 70% are fully vaccinated and in turn it has a ratio of people per 100,000 of 421 per ICU bed and 262 regarding people infected in the last seven days.
Uwe Janssens an ICU doctor and a member of an ICU body said to Deutsch Welle, “Many patients are 30 or 40 years old — and they’re seriously ill. The majority of these people are not vaccinated. The mortality exceeds 50% — especially among the younger people,”. To my mind too many people believed the crisis was over in the summer where for example in Gö the rate of infection per 100,000 fell to 0.9. Of course, it was wrong to assume this because winter was coming and, in the winter of 2020/21, Germany jumped from 13,000 total deaths to 80,000 after a second wave and which was then followed by a third – the English Variant.
One Göttingen person expressed the view for not wanting a covid vaccination was because ICU staff here are twiddling their thumbs (when not dealing with car crash victims etc.) and that Covid isn´t as bad as the government says (local, regional, and central). Of course, there is almost no glory in prevention, and I assume this person would only be happy to get vaccinated if the wards were full of people gasping for air or treatment for another ailment was denied to her. As it is, there is a shortage of skilled staff in the ICU´s leading to hospitals across German who are less stressed such as Göttingen who are treating patients from infected areas including people from outside of the country.
Outgoing Health Minister Jens Sphan outlined the options for Germans after the winter by saying you will be either be, ‘Vaccinated, recovered or dead’. Total deaths during the pandemic went above 100,000 on November 24.
It would appear to me that the German methodology is not to rely upon a one policy approach of only vaccinating itself out of the pandemic, rather local mandates may replace a national lock down and other epidemiological tactics remain in play. The incoming new Government has said that it wants to allow States and regional bodies the flexibility to react depending on the local situation.
We wear masks when mixing in public (I hate to think what the situation would be if we didn´t), and we follow the 3G Rule (geimpft, genesen, getestet) which translated means that specific places or public transport can only be accessed if you have had a second vaccination, have recovered from Covid or have been freshly tested.
Increasingly a 2G rule is taking hold and no longer will a Covid test alone be accepted. To fully enjoy the Gö Christmas Market we had to fulfil this 2G requirement.
This week the total number of vaccinations administered in Germany stands at 118 million with 56.6 million fully vaccinated (68% of the total population and comparable with the UK) and over 58 million having had one dose, plus 6 million have received a booster. The second figure is interesting because it suggests an intent to receive a second jab.
I drank my Glühwein and enjoyed the Christmas atmosphere aware that Germany is varied and complicated. I am also glad that people I know who have caught Covid and have been double vaccinated have suffered no more than the symptoms of a bad cold despite the game changer that is the Delta Variant.
There is a correlation between infections and regional voting or cultural factors, but this piece is long enough as it is. What is apparent to me is that alarm bells are going off everywhere in Germany and hopefully people will respond in good faith. Already vaccine take up is improving.
The market was noticeable for there being less stalls than in 2020, with more space, no seating areas to drink or eat and there was less alcohol available.
I have my fingers crossed that the Göttingen Christmas Market will stay open during the festive season.
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