The Corona Divide Germans Split Over Lifting of Lockdown

A growing number of people in Germany are resisting lockdown measures imposed to contain the coronavirus. The rift between those who support the measures and those who are critical of them is growing.
Passengers on a local commuter train in Berlin

Passengers on a local commuter train in Berlin

Foto: KARSTEN THIELKER

By Felix Bohr, Uwe Buse, Anna Clauß, Markus Feldenkirchen, Barbara Hardinghaus, Wolfgang Höbel, Guido Kleinhubbert, Martin Knobbe, Julia Koch, Dialika Neufeld, Christopher Piltz, Max Polonyi, Andreas Wassermann and Alfred Weinzierl

Last weekend, Christopher Lauer tweeted a photograph from a popular Berlin park. It showed hundreds of people sitting close together under the sunny sky, with little in the way of social distancing. He captioned it: "There's nothing really to add to this photo from Weinsbergspark in Berlin. From just now.” Lauer was one of the most prominent faces of the Pirate Party several years back and today he’s active as an online influencer, with almost 45,000 followers on Twitter. "My tweet got a ton of shares,” Lauer says. More than a quarter-million people viewed the photo, and almost 1,000 commented on it.

It sparked an aggressive debate between those who have been adhering to the measures imposed by the government to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and people who have grown tired of the restrictions. "Berlin police, please clean this up at once :),” one user demanded. Another wrote that irresponsible people would ultimately harm everyone. "It’s so terrible.” A number of posters used it as an opportunity to vent, with comments like: "Just drop a bomb and be done with it,” or, "They can just go fuck themselves” or "Shithole Berlin.”

Soon enough, the opposing camp weighed in. "What’s the problem as long as the numbers stay as low as they are?” asked one user. Another wrote that people just aren’t going to allow themselves to be locked up forever. "It’s high time more people went out and got their lives back.” Another accused Lauer of acting like a Nazi neighborhood "Blockwart” with a "Stasi mentality,” a reference to the East German secret police.

Raw Debate

It was a raw debate, but it is one that is being carried out all over Germany and beyond at the moment. The coronavirus measures are not only forcing people to keep a distance - they’re also creating distances between people who used to be close. Lauer says he tweeted the photo out of resignation. Since March 14, he says, he has only left home to go shopping and for walks. He always wears a face mask. And he says he was stunned when he saw all the people in the park. "I limit my movement and take the pandemic seriously and they’re sitting in the park drinking beer?”

Indeed, aggression seem to be spreading faster than the virus itself, and it has the potential to divide society. Frustration over the length of the lockdown and limitations on public life and the economic, social and psychological consequences they are having is growing. At the same time, people who have obediently followed the rules are also getting more aggressive out of despair over the stubbornness of many who aren’t following them.

Compared to many other countries, Germany is doing well in the fight against the coronavirus. The German approach has been praised as exemplary by the international media and the mortality rate is low here compared to other countries. And so far, at least, the health-care system has not become overwhelmed, as some had feared would be the case.

Not only that, but compared to countries like France, Italy or Spain, where permission is necessary to be able to leave one's home, the measures in Germany have been rather moderate. And the restrictions currently in place are being relaxed by the week.

Yet while there was broad acceptance of the new rules during the first weeks of the crisis, people are now asking whether those rules went way too far. And whether it was all worth it – the collapse of the economy, the potential demise of entire industries, the overburdening of families and the psychological consequences of all the restrictions. Recent days have seen rallies, demonstration, petitions and lawsuits. A growing number of skeptics are voicing their opinions, both experts and those simply looking for attention. "We can already see that the mood in the populace is shifting,” says Friedrich Merz, a candidate for the chair of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

Among the critics are publicity-hounds like Boris Palmer, the well-known Green Party mayor of the town of Tübingen, who declared: "It could be in Germany that we’re saving people who would have died in six months anyway because of their age and pre-existing conditions.” And then there’s famous German theater director Frank Castorf, who said he didn’t need to have a "teary-eyed" Chancellor Angela Merkel preaching to him about how "I have to wash my hands." He also said he would like to see more resistance to the policies across the country.

But such criticism is also coming from millions of people who aren't quite as full of bombast and who have good reasons for their desperation. This applies especially to those who have been most affected by the restrictions: artists, restaurant owners, parents, but also doctors and psychologists who have warned against neglecting sick people who don’t have the coronavirus.

Silent Resistance

And then there is the silent resistance of many people who say they agree with the measures in surveys, but who have long since abandoned the rules on social distancing and bans on meeting people from outside their households in their everyday lives. The mobility of Germans is rising sharply, as is the number of people who are meeting up with friends and acquaintances.

The political debate, meanwhile, has been divided into two groups: There is the group open to a more risky approach, led by North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet, and those in favor of more discipline” led by Chancellor Merkel and Bavarian Governor Markus Söder. But this rift also runs through all swaths of society, with politicians, journalists, neighborhoods, friends and family all arguing with each other. A divide created by the coronavirus runs through the entire country.

Germany’s most prominent and likely most influential virologist, Christian Drosten, has experienced this shift in the social climate first hand. Even as some are celbrating him as a kind of curly-haired demigod, others see him as being the main culprit for their misery. Britain’s Guardian newspaper even reported  that he has even been emailed death threats.

Drosten, though, insists that he won't stop issuing warnings, saying he wants to prevent the country from ruining the progress that has been made by the social distancing rules. His colleague Melanie Brinkmann at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research is likewise worried about the potential consequences of the more casual approach to the coronavirus that many in Germany are now adopting. "The government has sent the wrong message with the loosening of measures,” Brinkmann says. She fears that people "are no longer taking the virus as seriously.”

Sunbathers on a stretch of the Elbe River in Hamburg on a recent sunny day: Dispair is growing over people who are flouting the coronavirus rules.

Sunbathers on a stretch of the Elbe River in Hamburg on a recent sunny day: Dispair is growing over people who are flouting the coronavirus rules.

Foto: Bodo Marks / TeleNewsNetwork

The irritation over the incursions into daily life the coronavirus crisis has caused can be observed in many places in Germany. In the town of Wilmersforf in Bavaria, a fight broke out between a cashier at a supermarket and two customers who didn’t want to adhere to the social-distancing rules. A 31-year-old man snatched a cucumber from the saleswoman and threw it in her direction. The police had to be called to the scene.

When Laura Komma, a physician, recently went shopping at a corner grocery store, she found herself standing among several elderly people in the shop, and no one was wearing a mask. Komma, who has an autoimmune disease, asked them to please wear a mask the next time they went shopping. But they came right back at her: "They don’t work anyway,” said some, or "I have already experienced so much in my life, I’m not going to let you scare me with a virus.” The doctor lost her cool. "But you protect others when you wear a mask," she spat at one of the seniors, "people like me." She then left the shop and went home, angry at the "selfishness of the elderly," as she puts it.

Growing Protests

Protests against the coronavirus containment measures have been held in many places in Germany in recent days. People have been demonstrating every Saturday afternoon at Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz since March 28 in front of the theater there, calling it a "hygiene protest,” even though it has nothing to do with washing hands. The protesters believe the measures currently in place violate the German constitution.

It began as a protest among left-wing activists, Berlin artists and people who had occupied the Volksbühne theater on the square in an effort to oust its director. But then the far-right, neo-Nazis and others of their ilk began attending.

At one recent protest, a grandfather could be seen playing the national anthem on his harmonica. There was also an elderly woman who said she would like to see her grandchildren in France again. Other protesters carried copies of the German constitution under their arms. Most weren’t wearing masks.

The growing anger could also be observed in Stuttgart, where the initiative Querdenken 711 has been organizing protests against the coronavirus containment measures for three weeks. They are protesting against face mask requirements, travel restrictions and bans on social gatherings. In the beginning, around 30 demonstrators turned up, but this Saturday, organizer Michael Ballweg is expecting more than 3,000 protesters.

A participant at the "Hygiene Protest" in front of Berlin's Volksbühne theater: Protesters believe the coronavirus containment measures violate the constitution.

A participant at the "Hygiene Protest" in front of Berlin's Volksbühne theater: Protesters believe the coronavirus containment measures violate the constitution.

Foto: EMMANUELE CONTINI / Imago Images

On Wednesday night, crowds also gathered on the cathedral square in Magdeburg. The Saxony-Anhalt state chapter of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) had called for a protest against the "knee-jerk measures taken by the federal and state governments.” Fifty participants were officially admitted and barriers demarcated the area on the square where it could take place and green crosses were taped on the ground to mark the places where protesters were to stand. But more than 300 people turned up, with most standing outside that area. One man commented that more people will die from cancer that from "the shitty cough, and they’re not doing anything about cancer.” Another man wore a T-shirt warning against the "psycho terror” of Merkel, Drosten and Reiner Haseloff, the state governor.

But it’s not only chronic Merkel-haters or AfD-supporting conspiracy theorists who are expressing their discontent. Many are driven by fear born from concern for their own children, for those who are sick and for their economic livelihoods.

"Kill the Virus, not Our Business"

Hamburg restaurant owner Jörg Meyer, for example, has turned his Facebook page into a kind of battle cry. "Kill the virus. Not our business,” it says against a green background on the page. Speaking by phone, Meyer, 45, explains how he feels politicians have completely lost their minds. "The fact that they are deliberately destroying everything with this lockdown, practically expropriating the middle class and thus causing social unrest today and in the years to come: I find it totally absurd,” says the owner of the bar and restaurant Le Lion.

Meyer is a major figure in the restaurant scene. He’s had no choice but to look on for weeks as money has dried up because he has been unable to reopen his bar, even though stores have been allowed to open their doors again. "The first 100,000 euros are already gone,” he says. Government emergency relief money still hasn’t been wired to his accounts nor is the work-furlough allowance for his 16 employees anywhere in sight yet, he says. "If it doesn’t come by next month, I will have to close up shop.”

Meyer is also upset about German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, who he accuses of running from one talk show to the next and saying: We’re taking care of everyone – no healthy business will go bankrupt. "I think to myself, has he gone soft in the head?” Meyer says. "As a person, as a citizen of this country, I would like to see more honesty from our politicians.”

Together with German celebrity chef Tim Mälzer and other restaurateurs, Meyer staged a protest a few days ago in front of Hamburg’s City Hall to draw attention to his industry’s plight. The restaurant owners set up more than 400 chairs chairs and tables, with Meyer even carrying over the bar stools from his establishment covered with green velvet. The event was staged under the hashtag #emptychairs.

Restaurateur Meyer at the "EmptyChairs" protest action in Hamburg: "Has he gone soft in the head?"

Restaurateur Meyer at the "EmptyChairs" protest action in Hamburg: "Has he gone soft in the head?"

Foto: Swetlana Holz / Bar Le Lion

"The government should suspend all the measures it has taken and return to normal,” demands Dirk Gratzel of Stolberg, Germany, whose company Green Zero promotes low-emissions business and has seen its projects suffer from the effects of the coronavirus crisis. Gratzel, 52, says he would like to see more stringent protection of the risk groups instead of further restrictions for the masses. Moreover, he says, the risk of dying from eating too much fat, smoking, consuming too much sugar or alcohol or getting too little exercise is significantly higher. "If we want to drastically reduce the number of deaths in Germany, politicians should start there and do so in the long term, instead of forcing the whole country further into lockdown.”

Disproportionate?

Doubts are also growing among doctors and psychiatrists as to whether the measures that have been adopted by politicians are proportionate. "I don’t believe that the continued lockdown is proportionate to what it yields,” says Bochum-based pneumologist Santiago Ewig, the chief physician at the Ruhr Thoracic Center, a hospital in the city. He sees "great collateral damage with unforeseeable consequences” in our society, "economic, cultural, psychological and in the care of patients being treated for things other than the coronavirus.” He says that COVID-19, in its aggressive form, is certainly a serious threat, "but we should classify it as one of many threats that we will have to learn to deal with.”

It’s an idea that Cologne-based lung specialist Elmar Storck further elucidates. "Let people live as social beings again and focus on high-risk patients, better protecting residents in senior homes, but at the same time let them receive visitors.” He says it’s inhuman to cut families apart from each other.

Psychiatrists also believe that many people are unable to cope with the conditions that have been imposed, with the threatened or actual loss of a job, with serious economic problems and with loneliness. Furthermore, they say, people are avoiding making the trip to the doctor's office, thus leaving their problems unaddressed.

At the End of Their Ropes

Parents, too, are increasingly suffering as they have to juggle their own work with home schooling and childcare, especially single parents like Anita of Hamburg, who requested that her last name not be used.

Anita works part time in the health-care industry. Before the coronavirus, her 4-year-old son Maximilian’s grandmother helped babysit and he would frequently go to another child’s house to play sometimes. All that is gone now. She was so exhausted last Sunday that she drove to her mother’s house to get a breather in her yard. When the grandmother saw how tired her daughter was, she kept her grandson and told her daughter to go home and get some sleep.

Now Anita has a guilty conscience regarding her mom. She had adhered to the ban on personal contacts for weeks, visiting neither friends nor her child's grandparents. But she just couldn't do it any longer. That’s why she, too, is now pushing for a further loosening of the lockdown. "Otherwise, this is really going to affect people's psyche.”

Judith K. has a different view, and she, too, has good arguments. The 52-year-old is a teacher at a special education school with a focus on intellectual development located near Cologne. The school has 168 young students. Currently, five of those students are being provided with emergency care at school because their parents are key workers. K. says she can already see how poorly they are able to comply with the prescribed preventative measures.

Although many schools in North Rhine-Westphalia are reopening, Judith K’s school remains closed, a fact that is angering an increasing number of parents. "Yesterday, one girl's mother approached me and asked what’s wrong with me, saying I should finally open school again and that I'm just too lazy.” K. says she can understand such desperation. "Parents are at the end of their ropes,” she says. "They’re overwhelmed.” But out of concern for her students, she’s still hoping the school will remain closed for some time to come.

Protesters in Magdeburg express their opposition to the coronavirus containment measures: "Psycho terror from Merkel and Drosten"

Protesters in Magdeburg express their opposition to the coronavirus containment measures: "Psycho terror from Merkel and Drosten"

Foto: HC Plambeck / Der Spiegel

Many in Germany are deeply concerned about the country moving too soon to loosen the lockdown. Michaela Willhardt is one of them. The 46-year-old mother lives with a congenital immune defect, and the coronavirus poses a serious danger. A doctor advised her to wear an FFP2 mask at home as soon as her 8-year-old son starts school again, and to do so indefinitely. The doctor also told her to keep a distance from him. Willhardt hasn’t left her home since the beginning of the crisis, with two friends taking turns helping her out with her shopping. Her son is no longer allowed to meet up with other friends. Willhardt understands the desire of many people to return to normal life. Indeed, it is a wish she shares. "But I would feel much more comfortable if the restrictions were extended for a few more weeks so that the number of infected could be further reduced."

Such is the new reality in Germany in this age of irreconcilability. Almost all of the people opposing each other over the coronavirus containment measures have solid reasons and arguments on their side for doing so. But there is no solution that will satisfy both camps and their needs equally.

Waning Support

Governments are now trying to find a compromise. They want to continue fighting the pandemic while at the same time mitigating the collateral damage that battle is causing. It’s still entirely unclear what the outcome of this experiment will be. The only thing that is certain is that the German government itself has played a role in the fact that acceptance of the measures it has imposed is waning and that many Germans are feeling insecure.

The considerations behind the government’s decisions have often remained vague. That is especially conspicuous when the chancellor and her chief of staff, Helge Braun, shift strategies, which has happened often during the crisis. This has resulted in contradictions that have not been resolved and changes in direction that are not explained.

Initially, the majority of politicians at the federal and state level rejected the closure of schools, but then, suddenly, they shifted positions and favored the closures after virologist Drosten read a new study from the U.S. overnight and changed his opinion on the issue. In the beginning, the government also questioned the sense of wearing face masks as a form of protection against infection. Today, the wearing of masks is mandatory across Germany. The government has also changed its announcements about its targets for controlling the pandemic. At first, it was a question of how quickly the number of new infections doubled. Later, it was the so-called reproduction factor or "R” number, which refers how many people each infected person passes the disease on to. Now, Merkel’s cabinet has begun looking at a different figure: The number of new infections. The government has said that the chain of infection can only be traced if that number doesn’t rise too quickly. It’s yet another change that adds to the confusion and feeds distrust among the populace.

These shortcomings play right into the hands of opponents of the measures to contain the coronavirus.The fact that there have only been around 6,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus in Germany has led people like theater director Castorf, for example, to doubt the seriousness of the medical emergency in the country. He laments what he calls an "ideologizing” of politics, which in his opinion is based on scientific advice that is by no means reliable and a worldview he considers questionable.

Such voices could ultimately contribute to the impression held by some that the warnings from the government about the catastrophe have been exaggerated. It is true that an increasing number of Germans are no longer afraid of the disease, even though it is still as aggressive and deadly as it was six weeks ago. Many people think the country has dodged a bullet.

The Prevention Paradox

It’s a phenomenon that is well-known in health research. It’s called the prevention paradox. It states that a preventative measure that has a high health benefit for the overall population often does very little for, or is even harmful to, the individual.

This is particularly true when it comes to controlling pandemics. When fighting an outbreak, it is important that the tough measures are taken at a time when the number of people infected is still low. If this succeeds and the strategy works, then the major health disaster that had been expected doesn't ever materialize. And that would leave many asking whether politicians had gone too far in those prevention efforts.

As such, the very absence of mass deaths can give rise to harsh criticism, particularly if combating the pandemic has serious social and economic consequences.

It’s not just the virus that Germany will likely have to deal with for some time to come, but also this paradox.

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