OPINION: Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day – it’s time to move on

While many other countries relax Covid measures, Germany remains stuck in a rut despite the Omicron variant changing the situation dramatically. Brian Melican asks why Germany can't get out of its 'Groundhog Day'.

OPINION: Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day - it's time to move on
People queue for a Covid test in Munich. Vaccinated and recovered people need to show proof of tests to enter some public places under 2G-plus rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

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. 

ANALYSIS: Are Germany’s Covid rules backed up by science?

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. 

OPINION: The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules

A woman walks past a 2G-plus sign at a restaurant in Griefswald.

A woman walks past a 2G-plus sign at a restaurant in Griefswald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

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.

READ ALSO: ‘Hard to keep up’: Your verdict on Germany’s ever-changing Covid rules

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.

A person walks by a discarded face mask in Munich.

A person walks by a discarded face mask in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

READ ALSO: German politicians spar over Covid exit strategy

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!).

Member comments

  1. If you want a picture of the future.
    Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

  2. This is no longer about the virus, or the hospitals, or risk. This is about politicians refusing to admit wrong and instead, doubling down on failed policies. Remember: the job of the politician is NOT to serve us, it’s to be re-elected and keep the power chair for as long as possible.

  3. Preach it! I’ve basically assumed a “Germany during the week, literally anywhere else on the weekend” attitude.

  4. Let’s compare oranges to oranges: Omicron wave haven’t yet peaked in Germany – it did in UK and Denmark (and most likely France). I’m sure the politicians will rush to lift the restrictions as soon as it peaked.

    1. Because they’ve rushed to remove any restrictions in the last 2 years?

      Once we give up liberty. It is seldom returned voluntarily.

      1. Oh, please! Spare us this petulant adolescent lie that our liberty is at risk because of simple, necessary public health measures that have been normal in Germany and many other countries for decades and decades.

        1. Lockdowns and 2G ABC. Have not been in place for decades. The WHO advised against lockdown until 2019.

          You’re freedom and liberty are always at risk. From people who would take them from you. Luckily there are young men prepared to do evil on our behalf. So you can sleep soundly in your bed. Freedom is not free.

          Anyone trying to do something on your behalf for your own good almost always wants to rule you.

  5. All true. The most offensive thing to me is testing our children 2-3 days a week and STILL making them wear masks ALL day. How very unscientific. After having visited family in the US and UK and seeing life is back to normal, it was with great sadness to return to Germany where masks are on constant and you have to carry your papers everywhere. This work contract can’t end soon enough. I want to go home.

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How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works.