For anyone into retro, Germany is a fantastic place to live. There are still pubs you can smoke in, paying for beer with notes and coins and listening to top-notch charts cheese on the radio; the barmaid may well be sporting the same un-ironic mullet she had back in 1993. Incidentally, that year saw the release of Groundhog Day, a comedy film about someone who gets stuck in a time loop and seems doomed to relive the same day – 2nd February – over and over again. Every morning, the radio plays the same tune.
To those of us living through early February 2022 in Germany, this plot device is depressingly believable. Anyone who listens to our public service broadcaster Deutschlandfunk’s morning news programme will certainly feel like they’ve heard it all before: first up, it’s the Siebentagesinzidenz (rolling 7-day incidence of Covid-19 infections), usually followed by an upcoming/recent Bund-Länder-Konferenz (the forum for coordinating the response to the pandemic between Berlin and the regional capitals) before, third in the running order, some poor soul who has been foolhardy enough to suggest potentially, maybe loosening some coronavirus restrictions at some point in the near-to-distant future is dealt a hefty slap-down by a virologist, intensive care consultant, or – if neither is available – audibly outraged presenter.
Yes, Germany is stuck in a Covid-rut and afraid to pull itself out. This was already the case last summer, when, after the seven-month closure ended, no further moves were made to get things back to normal; setting sky-high vaccination levels as a goal for loosening restrictions, however, disguised this worrying fact and led to widespread exasperation with the unvaccinated. Now, Omicron has – in a quite unforeseen, yet astonishingly speedy way – rendered what remained of a national strategy outmoded and called the restrictions still in place into question.
2G and 2G-plus are a ‘dead end’
Essentially, the stated strategy (preventing the spread of the virus) is now all but impossible with a variant so contagious that even three doses of vaccination and an FFP2 mask seem to offer at best patchy protection from infection. Moreover, it is now eminently questionable given that the variant causes less severe illness, especially in the 70 percent of the population who are now vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the primary means of applying the prevention strategy – restricting public life to the vaccinated – seems to have the unintended consequence of increased transmission among the vaccinated, given the soaring infection rates in Germany. Those who are now no longer allowed to go shopping, visit restaurants, or attend gyms, pools, and evening classes are still more at risk from the virus, but have been deprived of most opportunities to catch it.
Indeed, it has now become evident that “2G” – i.e. Germany’s version of vaccine passporting – is a dead end; or, more accurately, has come full circle. What started with allowing only those who have had two jabs into venues was then increased to “2G-plus”, i.e. either three jabs or two jabs and a test; now, those of us who visit care homes are already on “2G++”, which means having had the booster jab and getting a test (and yes, even then, you still have to wear your mask, keep your distance etc.). So if the direction of travel is, as it would seem to be, that everyone will need to prove that they don’t have Covid19 every day to do, well, pretty much anything, I don’t see why the unvaccinated shouldn’t also be allowed to also prove that they don’t have Covid19 and then also start doing things again.
No-one hates to admit this more than me, by the way: as I wrote in November, it is frustrating that so many Germans won’t have a vaccine which would keep them safe. Yet those who claimed that vaccination would not change much have, unfortunately, been proven right, thanks to the rise of the less serious, but highly transmissible Omicron variant: almost three quarters of the population have now been immunised, countless others have contracted the disease, and hospitals are not under anything like the same strain as last year. And yet the restrictions persist.
Where’s Germany’s Covid exit strategy?
Worse: there has been no attempt whatsoever to define criteria for when and how curtailments to basic freedoms in place for nearly two years now will ever be repealed. With similar levels of illness and hospitalisation to Germany, the UK and Denmark have gone ahead and lifted all restrictions; and even countries which have taken a more hawkish approach to date, such as France, the Netherlands, and Austria, are now plotting their course back to normality. Meanwhile, all we hear are ominous ruminations from the likes of Lothar Wieler at the Robert Koch Institute, who is on record as saying that he can envision compulsory mask-wearing every winter in order to stop the spread of the flu, and the Green’s health spokesman Janosch Dahmen, whose response to suggestions that some restrictions could potentially be lifted during the course of the year is to trot out worst-case scenarios in which Delta combines with Omicron to become a super-mutant and kill us all…
If you’re concerned that this sounds like the beginning of a future in which we live with our breath baited behind an FFP2 mask, then you’re right to be. As the load of illnesses eases, the courts will kick out some of the most disproportionate measures – but only if cases are brought, and to a varying degree across the country: in Lower Saxony, vaccine passporting for shops has already been declared unlawful, for instance, but here in neighbouring Hamburg, almost all appeals against even the most egregious examples of legislative overreach are routinely thrown out.
The judges are, after all, representative of the society they live in – and this is the nub of the issue. Germany as a whole is still petrified of coronavirus to an extent that, for those of us who were born elsewhere and/or have been outside the country at any point in recent months, is hard to truly fathom. That’s where all the crazy Querdenker-cum-Neonazi protesters have got it so wrong: this isn’t, as they claim, a “Corona dictatorship”. No, this is, as countless surveys have proven – and a cursory glance at streets full of people wearing masks out in the open air will demonstrate – simply the way a majority of Germans want it.
Indeed, it’s telling that those in government more focussed on the economy, such as Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Finance Minister Christian Lindner, hesitated about appointing the notoriously ascetic epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach as Health Minister until public opinion forced their hand. After all, several years of grinding Coronavirus restrictions will limit growth – and, not unimportantly, hamper Germany’s attempts to attract skilled labour when neighbouring countries are back running at full steam.
Having said that, those that do come will find that there is at least one benefit to constant repetition: it’s an exceptionally good way of learning a language. So if you’re struggling with German, I’d suggest tuning into Deutschlandfunk in the mornings. Here, by the way, Groundhog Day was titled as Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier: “Every morning, the groundhog says hi!” In 2022, it’d be Und täglich grüßt die Siebentageinzidenz (every morning, the seven day incidence says hi!).