‘Orgies’ and squabbling: Why Germany is not in control of the coronavirus pandemic as much as it appears

Yes, Germany should be praised for its coronavirus efforts – but don't be fooled into thinking everything is perfect. Just ask Angela Merkel who's becoming increasingly frustrated, writes Rachel Loxton.

'Orgies' and squabbling: Why Germany is not in control of the coronavirus pandemic as much as it appears
Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in the Bundestag on Thursday. Photo: DPA

In the time of coronavirus, when public life is non-existent and the furthest many of us travel in a day is the kitchen, not much is surprising anymore. 

But I did have to do a double take when I saw that Chancellor Angela Merkel had been talking about orgies.

“Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien” was the exact word she used, which translates to something like “opening discussion orgies”.

It is comes from one of these fantastically German habits of sticking words together to create giant creations that foreigners struggle to say.

German broadcaster ZDF tweeted: “Angela Merkel criticizes “#Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien” – but often wins at Scrabble” which I thought was quite amusing.

Now who I am to judge how Merkel or indeed anyone is getting through this pandemic, although I'm pretty sure group sex cannot be classed as social distancing.

Still, Merkel has a point.

She's not best pleased that there is lots of talk about the country’s path out of lockdown. Everyone – not least the leaders of Germany’s 16 states – has an opinion about when schools and shops should reopen, and what the future holds.

But the point is that we're just not at this stage yet where things can return to normal.

“We must remain vigilant and disciplined,” Merkel said at the start of the week. She reiterated her message in the Bundestag on Thursday, adding: “We are not in the final phase of this pandemic; we're just at the beginning.”

READ ALSO: 'Let's not risk a setback': Merkel warns against easing coronavirus rules too quickly

'Squabbling and disorder'

Germany has been in the spotlight across the world because of its handling of the crisis. Of course the country and its health workers deserve this praise.

Thanks to quick action, testing, infection tracing and a strong health care system, Germany has managed to keep the number of deaths of coronavirus at a lower rate compared to other countries.

We don't know how anyone's handling of the pandemic will be viewed when we get out the other side but, as things stand, Germany is doing okay.

But it's not all plain sailing behind the scenes. The stereotype of Germany may be one of order, but there’s a whole lot of squabbling and disorder right now.

Why? Well, Germany's federal system means that states are responsible for enforcing the restrictions to slow down the spread of coronavirus. The German government sets out the recommendations and the states seemingly go off and do their own thing.

So at the moment we have North Rhine-Westphalia leader Armin Laschet who seems desperate to relax the lockdown at a quicker rate than some other states (and as it turns out, wants to be leader of the Christian Democrats).

A Berlin park on Wednesday this week. Photo: DPA

Then you have Bavaria's Markus Söder, who has been calling for a gradual, careful approach, even cancelling his beloved-Oktoberfest months ahead. Plus there are all the other states which are also essentially deciding their own path.

All of this means states draw up their own restrictions, and fines, and there's a lot of confusion for people living there. I've heard from shop owners in Berlin who have no idea what the rules for the German capital are.

This week all of Germany's 16 states decided to make masks compulsory, but – surprise, surprise – there are different rules and fines across the board. It comes after Merkel and the government said masks were strongly recommended for public transport and shops – but not mandatory.

READ ALSO: Face masks in Germany: What are the requirements and potential fines in every state?

Are you confused yet? Because I am and I read about the news in Germany nearly every minute of the day when I'm awake.

A sense of denial

There's something else that's been worrying me about Germany: I’ve no doubt (and I hope) the majority of people have been taking the pandemic seriously. 

Yet I wrote just a couple of weeks ago that it felt like lots of people in Berlin thought the crisis was already over. Carelessness seemed to have taken over the streets and the supermarkets. 

Learning from our readers who live across Germany, I do have a sense that residents here are not quite as disciplined in the art of social distancing and following rules as the image may appear from the outside.

I wonder if it is because this pandemic has touched less people here in Germany. There’s a sense of denial. We have not experienced the trauma that’s going on in nearby countries like Italy, Spain and France. We have not seen those terrifying pictures of coffins or hospitals pushed-to-the-limits.

But that doesn't mean that this couldn't happen to us – and some scientists are warning that a second wave could hit Germany even worse than the first.

We watched and praised Merkel talk about how fragile the situation is and how easily it could all go downhill.

Perhaps it’s time we – and federal state leaders – really listened to her and stopped our “discussion orgies” for the time being because there's a long way to go before we're out of the woods.

Member comments

  1. An excellent article and I totally agree – the various approaches of the States is confusing, and I feel some sections of the population ARE relaxing too much.

  2. The mere fact that schools are set to reopen, though gradually, their doors on the 4th of May, would give people a misleading sense of life returning to normal. Others may also feel their efforts to avoid the infection is to be rendered meaningless, as they would be no more able to keep tab on the hygiene of their children, so that they may pay much less attention to their own’s.

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Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation