Living in fear of coronavirus: What it means to be 'at risk' in your 20s in Berlin
British Berliner Alina Jones writes about what it's like living with her immunocompromised partner. Both are in their 20s, and wish more people their age would understand the severity of the coronavirus - to save their lives and that of others who might not appear 'at risk'.
Since I started dating my partner two years ago, his poor state of health has been a running joke between us. An asthmatic with a compromised immune system, Connor (27) often downplays the severity of his symptoms by poking fun at himself.
"Every year without fail, I get sick from October to March with acute sinusitis and flu symptoms, and when that's over hay fever kicks in until about July. But at least I'm healthy in late summer," he says.
'We can't afford to take chances'
In recent years, Connor has been making an effort to improve his health; he quit drinking, took up football, and after much insistence from me, even started going to the doctor when he's sick. But ultimately we're still young people with active social lives living in Berlin; for all our desire to be fit and fully-functional human beings, we are not above playing fast and loose when it comes to our health.
That's all changing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While our friends in Germany and the UK post Instagram stories of themselves travelling and hanging out in the park with all their new found free time, we are scrubbing our hands raw and disinfecting every single item that enters our apartment from the outside world.
Inundated with news stories about hospitals already under significant strain, there's an uneasy sense that help might not be available to us when it's needed. That leaves us with a heightened sense of personal responsibility, meaning absolutely no contact with the outside world.
People sit outside of a cafe near Berlin's Alexanderplatz last week before they were closed. Photo: DPA
At this point, we can't afford to take any chances. But all the extra lengths we are going to in order to ensure his safety are meaningless in a city where the majority of the population have been blithely continuing with their lives as if nothing's happening.
Emergency trips to the supermarket and pharmacy become an assault course as I dodge kids on bikes, panic buyers and smokers outside kebab shops. I've experienced mocking, pointing and laughing whenever I leave the house in my mask. A couple of teens even coughed directly onto me. Young people's overwhelming lack of concern 'because it only really affects boomers' leaves me feeling exasperated and further alienated.
As much as I am loath to nag, Connor and I have felt the need to call out acquaintances and family members as they doggedly stick to their normal routines, causing rifts within our inner circles. Horrified at one friend's plans to travel via bus from Berlin to The Hague in order to quarantine with his partner, I implored him to stay put, only to be met with the ominous response: "I'll see how I feel tomorrow." Two days later, he was on a Flixbus, racing to the border before it closed.
A quick change
But I haven't been this uptight from the beginning. Only two weeks ago, Connor and I were shopping and eating out ourselves. At that point, coronavirus was already part of the public consciousness, having ripped through Berlin nightclub Kater Blau on the March 7th, leaving over 40 new cases in its wake.
As two Brits, we have been tuned into the United Kingdom's shockingly lax response to the crisis, which has only contributed to the overall feeling of confusion. When Connor began to self-isolate, even I was critical of his actions, deeming them overzealous and unnecessary.
So it's not hard to understand why people are reluctant to heed government warnings. Death tolls seem like abstract numbers until a loved one looks you in the eyes and tells you it could kill them too.
It's only thanks to Connor's work at an international news agency that we realised just slightly ahead of the curve how serious a threat Coronavirus poses to life in Germany.
Up until this weekend, conflicting news reports and the UK and Germany's reluctance to take decisive action meant that it was hard to know how much of our anxiety was justified, and how much was simply paranoia.
Having access to breaking stories as they unfold is both a blessing and a curse in this climate; with our ability to go outside limited and existential anxiety kicking in, our attention was turned solely onto the news and we could barely look away. Staying informed may be the first step in beating Coronavirus, but endlessly refreshing your Twitter feed can quickly distort your worldview.
We're now one week into self-isolation and so far we've settled into our new rhythm remarkably well. Given that our conflicting work schedules means we usually only have two to four days off together each month, it's quite an adjustment to suddenly be around each other every minute of the day.
Passersby in Berlin's Temperhofer Feld last Sunday, March 22nd. Photo: DPA
While the circumstances have been less than ideal, we've found plenty of ways to relieve one another's stress as we co-work in our compact 40 square metre flat. From blaming petty grievances on our new invisible flatmate Beverley to designating tasks (I'm on shopping, he's on meals), we're intent on finding solutions to make this quarantine as easy as possible, for our mental health as well as our physical health.
Outside of our flat, however, many people still aren't getting it. Despite the far-reaching government shutdowns, a sense of complacency is still prevalent in Berlin. Angela Merkel's first address to the nation last week saw a shift in the nation's attitude towards the pandemic, but change is not happening quickly enough.
Before restaurants fully closed their doors last weekend, sceptics continued to frequent them and hang out in parks in groups, leading Germany to discuss and impose more restrictions on its citizens' movements. On Sunday, Merkel announced a ban on groups of more than two outside of the home.
It's vital to remember that the warnings are justified, and that police intervention is necessary at this point in order to protect public health. Because coronavirus doesn't just kill fictional old ladies in far-off countries. It's here, and it could affect your loved ones too.