OPINION: Berlin needs more understanding for people who can’t wear face masks

It's easy to jump to conclusions when we see people breaking the mask-wearing rule. But with some medical conditions making wearing face-coverings almost unbearable, it's high time that Berlin took a more understanding approach, writes David Matthews.

BVG mask sign
A sign for the Berlin transport network BVG informs people of the 3G and mask-wearing rules on-board. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

Germany is breathing a cautious but audible sigh of relief. Omicron appears to have peaked without overwhelming hospitals with patients, and at the state and federal level, politicians are now discussing which restrictions should be lifted first. 

Of all the pandemic precautions we’ve gotten used to these past two years, masks are likely to be the last to go. That’s if we ever take them off – it’s possible parts of Europe might follow Japan and make them a social norm on public transport, even after the pandemic has long since faded away.  

During most of the pandemic, I thought of mask-wearing as a no-brainer. I could see why closing restaurants and bars or restricting travel was controversial, but masks? What’s the big deal? They seem to be such a simple, cost-free way of reducing infection, which is why occasional mask-refuseniks on the U-Bahn come across as bafflingly stubborn and anti-social to the rest of us.  

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

But last December, my eyes were opened to the hidden costs of a masked society when a friend of mine, Hannah Bestley Burt, an artist from London, came to visit Berlin for a long weekend. 

Hannah is autistic, and for her at least, wearing a mask is far from simple – it’s practically impossible. She has problems with sensory processing, and so finds certain clothes, like jeans or items with high necklines, labels or seams, unbearably irritating to wear.

When coronavirus struck, she tried to find a comfortable kind of mask, but they triggered panic attacks. “It’s like having a bright and hot light shone directly in your face, or someone yelling numbers at you while you try to do maths,” says Hannah, whose art deals with her autism. “At best it’s distracting, at worst it is intolerable, it makes me angry, panicked, afraid, I can’t think about anything but its presence on my face.”  

A world of judgement

In London where she lives, this hasn’t been such a problem. There, mask compliance is pretty patchy, and there are regular reminders on public transport that some people are medically incapable of masking up.  

But arriving in Berlin unmasked, Hannah experienced a world of judgement and rejection as she tried to enjoy the city. This was despite bringing a letter from her therapist explaining her autism, and a digital exemption badge from the UK government. 

In one incident, a café initially tried to turn her away, despite having empty tables. In another, she was forced to wear a mask when getting a Covid test in a shopping centre. And when she tried to go to the spa Vabali she was flatly refused entry. I asked Vabali about this, and they simply referred me to their website FAQs, which bluntly says: “face coverings are required”. 

It wasn’t just being turned away that was painful for Hannah; it was the seeming lack of understanding or sympathy in Berlin about her condition. I don’t think the language barrier can be used as an excuse: she was either turned away from these places in English or was accompanied by a fluent German speaker.   

Things weren’t much better on public transport. Generally she tried to avoid it, but when she had to take the U-Bahn, people sometimes tutted, stared and spoke about her.

It don’t want to give the impression the trip was all bad: we managed to go to Christmas markets, bars, restaurants and a nightclub where staff were understanding. 

Public shaming 

But this doesn’t remove the anxiety that in the next café or U-Bahn, you’ll be publicly shamed for not wearing a mask. “I’m an artist and had been considering moving to Berlin, it could be a wonderful move for my practice,” Hannah told me afterwards. “But I realised that I couldn’t live there, I couldn’t have a full life there.”  

How many autistic people are there in Berlin like Hannah, excluded from public spaces through official rules or the glares of strangers? 

It’s impossible to know for sure, but Germany’s Federal Office for the Environment estimates that 0.6 – 1% of people globally have the condition. That would equate to tens of thousands in Berlin alone. 

Of course, many autistic people are able to wear masks without a problem, Bärbel Wohlleben, vice chair of Autism Germany, told me. But the organisation also knows of sufferers who like Hannah simply cannot mask up. “There is not a lot of tolerance,” she said. 

People sit on the Berlin U-Bahn wearing masks

People sit on the Berlin U-Bahn wearing masks. Local transport is often a hotspot for public shaming of perceived ‘mask avoiders’. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

How could Berlin become a little more tolerant? Transport for London regularly reminds passengers that it may not be obvious why someone cannot wear a mask, and sends free exemption badges to passengers who want them, no questions asked. 

I asked BVG if they had considered doing something similar. They told me that they make sure their staff know about Berlin’s mask exemption rules, which do allow you to go maskless if you have a medically certified health impairment, chronic illness or disability. 

Yet they decided not to broadcast public reminders “in order to minimise the risk of abuse” of the rules, a spokesman told me. Reminders would “not entirely solve” the problem of unmasked people getting dirty looks on the U-Bahn, he added. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules and compliance

A forgiving middle ground

The problem here, as BVG suggests, is that if we don’t tut and stare at unmasked people like Hannah, we also won’t challenge diehard mask refusers who are unmasked for political, not medical reasons. The whole system of social pressure risks collapsing. 

But surely there has to be a more forgiving middle ground where, if it bothers us, we politely ask someone on the U-Bahn why they aren’t wearing a mask, rather than assuming the worst of them. I’ve certainly done my bit of public shaming during the pandemic, staring at a maskless person on the train or tram without knowing their backstory. 

And every café, bar, and restaurant should make sure their staff know that mental health can be a perfectly valid reason not to wear a mask. 

For most of the last two years, I’ve counted my lucky stars that I live in near universally masked, rule-following Berlin, rather than what I thought of as selfish and maskless London. But as we edge back into normality, Hannah’s experience should remind us that for a small but significant minority, masks are far from a harmless measure – they amount to a semi-lockdown of the entire city.

Member comments

  1. “And every café, bar, and restaurant should make sure their staff know that mental health can be a perfectly valid reason not to wear a mask. ”

    I don’t disagree with your statement…but only after a diagnosis by a qualified mental health professional. Otherwise, this becomes a free ticket to not wearing a mask.

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OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

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Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.