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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Who benefits most under Germany’s tax relief plans?

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner says he wants to give taxpayers relief worth €10 billion in the face of rising inflation. But there is already pushback, with some saying high earners will benefit the most.

Who benefits most under Germany's tax relief plans?

What’s happening?

As Germany battles rising inflation, Finance Minister Christian Lindner has revealed a plan to give residents tax relief worth more than €10 billion in total. 

“Employees and low-income earners, pensioners and self-employed, students with taxable part-time jobs and, above all, families will benefit,” the FDP politician wrote in a guest article for German daily FAZ on Wednesday.

As well as an adjustment of the benchmarks in the income tax scale, child benefit and child allowance are also to be increased.

READ ALSO: How the German Finance Minister wants to ease inflation with tax relief measures

According to sources in the Finance Ministry, the so-called ‘Inflation Compensation Act’ provides for child benefits to be increased in two stages and also to be standardised. Under the plans, the first, second and third child will each receive €227 per month next year. From the fourth child onwards, €250 will be added. In 2024, the rates for the first to third child are to be raised again – to €233.

At the same time, Lindner’s draft provides for an increase in the basic tax-free amount, i.e. the income up to which no tax has to be paid. The Finance Minister wants to raise this limit from the current €10,347 to €10,632 in the coming year and €10,932 in 2024.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner speaks at a press conference in Berlin.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner speaks at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

READ ALSO: Germany pledges inflation relief tax package worth €10 billion

Other key values of the tax scale will also be shifted to compensate for the effect of so-called ‘cold progression’. This is the term used to describe a kind of creeping tax rise when salary increases are eaten up by inflation but still lead to higher taxation. People are then hit with higher taxes, although purchasing power does not increase at all in real terms.

“A tax system that also imposes higher taxes on people who are already suffering from high prices is not fair,” Lindner wrote in FAZ. Eliminating this is “not a patronising act, but is called for in several respects”. Lindner says his plans would benefit 48 million taxpayers.

Who would benefit most?

In order to mitigate the effect, the top tax rate, which currently starts at an income of €58,597, will only apply at a level of €61,972 in 2023, and €63,521 one year later.

However, the tax threshold for very high incomes will remain in place. The income limit of €277,826, on which the so-called wealth tax rate of 45 percent is charged, will not be changed.

But there is already widespread criticism of the plans because in absolute terms, top earners would benefit more from Lindner’s tax cuts than low earners.

The FDP’s coalition partners – the Greens – said they considered the plans to be socially unbalanced.

“High and highest income groups would receive more than three times as much as people with low incomes, who actually need the relief most urgently,” said Greens parliamentary group vice-president Andreas Audretsch. Furthermore, people with very low incomes would not get any relief at all because they pay no income tax below the basic tax-free amount.

Katharina Beck, the Greens’ spokesperson for financial policy, expressed similar views. “The other way round would be right: strong shoulders should bear more than low-income shoulders and not be disproportionately relieved,” she told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND) on Wednesday.

Lindner’s plans have a greater impact on low incomes in percentage terms, but in absolute terms people with high incomes benefit more.

For example, a taxpayer with a taxable income of €20,000 is to be relieved by around €115 per year under the current plans. With an income of €60,000, the relief amounts to €471, according to figures from the Ministry of Finance. 

What’s the reaction elsewhere?

Vice-chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, Achim Post, said the relief doesn’t go far enough.

“The proposed increases in the basic tax-free allowance and child benefit are a step in the right direction, but they are not enough,” he said. 

He suggested direct payments as an alternative, which could provide targeted relief to people with small and medium incomes. 

A woman holds cash in her hand.

A woman holds cash in her hand. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

‘Falls short’

Meanwhile, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) rejected the proposals. Lindner’s tax plan “falls far too short”, said DGB Executive Board member Stefan Körzell.

For the relief for people with small and medium incomes, the basic tax-free amount would have to rise to €12,800, said Körzell, adding: “Instead, top earners and the rich benefit, although they have far fewer problems coping with the current price increases.”

Körzell said that “top earners and the wealthy must contribute more to tax revenue”.

He said the FDP politician’s plans would cause “serious revenue shortfalls” for the treasury.

FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai rejected the criticism as baseless. The adjustment is aimed at smaller and medium incomes and reduces “the tax burden of the hard-working middle”, he said.

For top earners, the relief amount is capped, he said. “The relief is fair and necessary so that people benefit from a wage or salary increase despite the high inflation and do not have to pay on top through a higher tax burden,” Djir-Sarai said.