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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: Germany’s planned changes to Covid vaccination status

From October, there will be changes to who is considered fully vaccinated in Germany. Here's what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: Germany's planned changes to Covid vaccination status

People in Germany have to pay close attention to their current vaccination status because of an important change coming up. 

From October 1st 2022, those who have not received their Covid booster vaccination will be considered unvaccinated. 

A spokesman from the German Health Ministry told The Local: “People who have a double vaccination will generally no longer be considered fully vaccinated from October 1st 2022, according to the innovations in infection protection.

“Accordingly, the EU Covid digital vaccination certificate will be shown as invalid for domestic use when checked with the CovPassCheck app.”

However, there are slightly different rules for entry into Germany. 

The Health Ministry spokesman said: “In the context of entry, according to European law, an EU digital Covid vaccination certificate will continue to be valid after October 1st 2022 for a double vaccination if no more than 270 days have passed since the last vaccination dose, or indefinitely for persons under 18.”

READ ALSO: EU extends Covid travel certificates until 2023

Note that in Germany, the recovered status is believed to offer a similar level of immunity to a vaccination. So people who have recovered from a Covid infection will only need two jabs to be considered “fully immunised” from October.

What are the different combinations?

Here’s a look at what applies now, and what the rules will be from October. 

Since March 19th 2022, the Infection Protection Act has specified the conditions that have to be met to be considered fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in Germany.

Up until September 30th 2022, these scenarios count as complete vaccination protection:

– Three vaccination shots (basic immunisation plus booster)

– Two single vaccinations (two weeks must have passed after the last dose)

– One vaccination PLUS

a positive antibody test before the first vaccination OR

a PCR-proven SARS-CoV-2 infection before first vaccination OR

a SARS-CoV-2 infection detected by PCR test after first vaccination; 28 days must have passed since testing.

After October 1st 2022 you are fully vaccinated in Germany in these scenarios:

– After three vaccination shots (the last jab must have taken place at least three months after the second single vaccination),

– Two single vaccinations PLUS

a positive antibody test before the first vaccination OR

a PCR-proven SARS-CoV-2 infection before the second vaccination OR

a PCR-tested SARS-CoV-2 infection after the second vaccination (28 days must have elapsed since testing).

Vaccinations must have been administered with vaccines licensed by the European Union or vaccines approved abroad that have the same formula as one of the EU-approved vaccines. 

Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) recommends that everyone over the age of 12 who has had two jabs should get a booster vaccination. Children aged 5 to 11 with pre-existing diseases should also receive a booster vaccination after basic immunisation, according to STIKO.

It is recommended in Germany that some people receive a fourth jab – or a second booster shot. However, currently this is only a recommendation for risk groups, such as the elderly. 

Why is this important to know?

At the moment there are very few Covid restrictions in place in Germany. However, it could be the case that tougher rules are brought in after summer if the infection situation worsens. 

That could mean that people would once more have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test (the so-called 3G rule) to enter public facilities, such as restaurants, bars or museums. 

If the situation gets worse, the government could also bring in the 2G rule, which means unvaccinated people are not allowed to enter.

READ ALSO: Germany lays out autumn Covid plan

Up until now 76.2 percent of the German population has had two shots, and 61.6 percent have been boosted. 

Up-to-date information on Covid-19 vaccines and the regulations around it is available on the Germany Health Ministry site (in German). Talk to your GP if you have any questions about Covid vaccines in Germany. 

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