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How Germany’s Covid-19 shutdown has made this winter tougher than most

A long cold winter mixed with a Covid-19 lockdown, the threat of new variants and a sluggish vaccine rollout makes for a tough time for people in Germany, writes Rachel Loxton.

How Germany’s Covid-19 shutdown has made this winter tougher than most
A mask near Brandenburg Gate. Photo: DPA

“Everyone struggles at this time of year in Germany,” a friend said as we trudged through snow in below freezing temperatures in Berlin’s Tiergarten at the weekend.

It’s true that winters in northern Europe always hit hard. You forget how bad they are until you’re in the middle of one. And you forget how long they last, often stretching out into March.

It's a bit like the second wave of the pandemic itself – getting through November and December was one thing, but January, which felt like three years, was a serious mental hurdle in itself to overcome.

Although vaccinations are being carried out on the most elderly, the excitement of the immunisation programme starting has worn off. Coupled with supply issues and organisation problems, the thought of lining up to get your first dose feels very far off.

Winters in Germany are usually made more bearable by candlelit bars, visits to restaurants and, well, just generally being allowed to go out and talk to people. 

A walk in the freezing cold is improved immeasurably by the option of getting a hot chocolate after and sitting by a radiator inside a busy cafe. 

It’s these little things – or rather the absence of them – that are making everything feel extra difficult this year. 

READ ALSO: 'We're all living the same disaster': How foreign residents are getting through the German lockdown winter

Germany has been in a state of shutdown since the start of November. With restaurants, cinemas, gyms, cafes and bars closed – plus schools and non-essential shops since December – there isn’t much to do except be at home. 

And that can differ dramatically depending on your situation. I know some people trying to homeschool in tiny flats (I've no idea how you're doing it), while others are living alone, unable to have much real life social contact.

People I know in Berlin – and other countries in lockdown – are becoming increasingly irritated by their neighbours, whether it's their annoying DIY project, music choices or online fitness classes.

At this point I take it personally when I hear my upstairs neighbour buzzing in guests that he shouldn’t be: a household in Germany is only allowed to meet with one other person under the current contact rules, and the recommendation is to have a small social bubble.

A closed Berlin bar. Photo: DPA

The fact is that many people have too much time on their hands, either because they’re on Kurzarbeit (Germany’s furlough scheme) or they’ve lost their job. Meanwhile others are stretched thinly, working in industries that can’t be put on pause.

Covid-19 cases going down, but worries over variants

Things are looking up in some ways. The number of infections per 100,000 residents in seven days has dipped below 100 in Germany recently It had nearly hit 200 at the peak just before Christmas. 

This should be a cause for celebration after such dismal weeks but we’re all aware of how long the road ahead is. The incidence rate has to come down much further (the 7-day incidence was below 10 in the summer) and the variants are massively complicating matters. 

Germany has moved quickly on that front. Mask rules were tightened last month – people now have to wear medical masks while shopping and on public transport. And most people seem to have accepted the change: now FFP2 masks are a common sight in Berlin.

Plus major travel restrictions are in place: non-German residents coming from Covid-variant problem countries are currently banned.

This will hopefully keep the variants at bay while allowing the country to vaccinate more people

These travel bans, though they are sensible, also make me feel further away from home. 

Many foreigners in Germany haven’t seen our family and friends from our home country in months or over a year.

“It’s hard because I don’t know when it will end and I don’t know when I’ll see my parents again,” my friend told me on our walk.

I agree that the uncertainty is hard to accept. It's like being stuck in a limbo, unsure when I'll be able to book a flight home to Scotland, sit in a cafe again or hug my friends. Go for a pint or get a haircut. Or just sit in a restaurant.

And so we walk. In Berlin people bundle up in lots of layers and walk along the canal, in the parks or on the streets.

Moving around is the only option if you want to be outside because it’s too cold to be in the same place for a long time. 

We walk because there’s nothing else to do. We walk in the rain, the snow and the sub-zero temperatures. There is nothing else to do but plod on and hope it gets better soon.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.