When German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the unprecedented move of appealing to citizens with her first unscheduled televised speech, it brought home to many how serious the coronavirus pandemic is.
After showing the scale of the crisis by saying it's the biggest challenge Germany has faced since World War II, Merkel appealed to people to be responsible and show solidarity to high-risk groups and health workers by avoiding all unnecessary social contact.
“I truly believe that we will succeed in the task before us, so long as all the citizens of this country understand that it is also their task,” she said.
“I also want to tell you why we also need your contribution and what each and every person can do to help.”
As the number of coronavirus infections climb, Germany has introduced sweeping measures to restrict public life in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, including most recently banning gatherings in public of more than two people (not including families).
But the government has stopped short of imposing a full-scale lockdown such as those ongoing in France, Italy and Spain.
Yet individual states have taken tougher action, including Bavaria which announced a curfew last Friday, and Berlin.
- 'You must carry ID': Berlin orders strict coronavirus restrictions on daily life
- Germany bans gatherings of more than two to control coronavirus spread
The government wants people to voluntarily follow these measures because it will save lives. But the new restrictions are also subject to police controls and if people flout the rules, they could face fines.
So are people doing (or not doing) enough to social distance themselves from each other? And what does social distancing actually mean in practice?
We gathered expert information and took a closer look at what Merkel is urging people to do.
What is social distancing?
According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, social distancing is a public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission.
Graph translated by Statista for The Local Germany
It can include large-scale measures like cancelling events or closing public spaces as well as individual decisions such as avoiding crowds or staying at home most of the time.
In Germany there's a ban on events, as well as religious services, while non-essential shops have to close.
Supermarkets, banks and pharmacies are among the shops allowed to stay open, while bars, clubs, swimming pools and cinemas have been told to close. Restaurants and cafes have to close or offer takeaway only.
Schools and daycare centres have also closed nationwide.
Now gatherings of more than two are banned in public.
Empty streets in Hamburg. Photo: DPA
'We are a community where every life and every person counts'
Experts say that during the COVID-19 pandemic the goal of social distancing is to slow down the outbreak to try and reduce the chance of infection among high-risk groups and ease the burden on health care systems and workers.
They describe this as “flattening the curve,” which refers to the potential success of social distancing measures to prevent surges in illness that could overwhelm the health care system.
Merkel and other politicians have been calling for people to consider workers on the frontline.
“Germany has an excellent healthcare system, perhaps one of the best in the world,” said Merkel during her address to the nation last Wednesday.
“That should give us confidence. But our hospitals would also be completely overwhelmed if too many patients who suffer a severe course of corona infection were admitted in the shortest possible time.
“These are not just abstract numbers in a statistic, but a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner, they are people. And we are a community where every life and every person counts.”
What is the German government actually telling people to do (or not do)?
According to the German Health Ministry, people should stay home as much as they can and only leave the house when they need to.
Here are some reasons for leaving the house that are seen as essential:
- To go to work if your work is essential and cannot be done from home
- To buy food and essentials
- Attend medical appointments or other appointments that can't be changed
- For urgent family reasons
- For exercise/fresh air
- To walk the dog
Meeting up with people, such as to hang out with friends you don't live with in a park, is deemed non-essential at the moment.
Under the new restrictions you are allowed to do exercise (such as a walk or job) with one other person but you should keep a distance of 1.5 metres with others as much as possible.
So try and avoid coming into contact with people whenever you can, in particular with elderly or chronically ill people for their protection.
“Instead, make more use of communication by phone, e-mail, texting,” the official advice states.
You should also follow these guidelines:
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, use disposable tissues and throw them away
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after being outside and before you eat
- Avoid crowds or groups of people
- Avoid gestures, such as shaking hands or hugging
- Ventilate rooms in your home regularly
- Avoid using public transport (use your car or bike instead)
- Try and avoid travelling if possible – even within Germany (there are many border restrictions at the moment)
- Visit public institutions only if absolutely necessary
- Try and avoid shopping during busy periods
- Keep a distance of 1.5 to 2 metres from other people
If a person in your household is ill try and ensure that there is physical separation and sufficient distance from the other household members.
If you are healthy you can also deliver groceries or check up on neighbours, relatives, elderly or chronically ill people in need, but remember to keep a distance.
The Health Ministry also advises people to work from home if possible. If you can't, keep meetings short and keep a distance of one to two metres to other people and refrain from personal contact.
If possible, eat your meals alone and do not go into your workplace if you are feeling unwell.
'Right now, distance is the only way to express caring'
Merkel urged people not to panic, but said everyone’s efforts were needed.
“Just as any one of us, indiscriminately, can be affected by the virus, now everyone must help,” she said. “First and foremost, by taking seriously what we are talking about today.”
Merkel during her TV announcement on Wednesday. Photo: DPA
“This is what an epidemic shows us: how vulnerable we all are, how dependent we are on the considerate behaviour of others, but also – how we can protect and strengthen each other by acting together,” she said.
“It depends on everyone. We are not condemned to passively accept the spread of the virus. We have a remedy for this: we must keep our distance out of consideration for each other.
“The advice from the virologists is clear: no more handshakes, wash your hands thoroughly and often, leave at least one and a half metres distance between you and the next person and, preferably, hardly any contact with the very elderly, because they are particularly at risk.”
Merkel acknowledged how difficult the current situation is.
“We want to be close to each other, especially in times of need,” she said. “We know affection as physical closeness or touch. But right now, unfortunately, the opposite is true. And that's what we all need to understand: Right now, distance is the only way to express caring.
“The well-intentioned visit, the journey that did not have to take place, all this can be contagious and should really not take place now. There is a reason why the experts say: grandparents and grandchildren should not get together now.
“If you avoid unnecessary meetings, you will help all those who have to deal with more cases every day in the hospitals.
“This is how we save lives. This will be difficult for many, and that's what it will come down to: not leaving anyone alone to take care of those who need encouragement and confidence. As families and as a society, we will find other ways to help each other.”