OPINION: The worst of both worlds – Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one

Germany was meant to lift most Covid measures on March 20th. Instead, politicians and many residents are still gripped by Covid panic even though other countries have found ways to move forward, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: The worst of both worlds - Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one
A sign at a restaurant/bar in Stuttgart says the 3G entry rule applies, meaning people have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

For those of us who work in the media, taking a proper holiday can be difficult. Things that other people do with their time off – being given a tour, for instance, or reading the paper cover-to-cover over a leisurely breakfast – can easily end up feeling like work. So in that spirit, let me share with you some things I discovered while on holiday in Sweden last week.

Firstly, if you’re on a guided tour, you don’t have to prove your vaccination status or wear a mask. (I haven’t written “anymore” because I’m reliably informed that you never had to). What’s more, even if you read the paper from front to back, you won’t find out much about coronavirus: on the day I arrived, Saturday 19th March, there was precisely one story about it in Svenska Dagbladet – a short article on page 21 headlined “Death rates in line with flu season averages”; when I left a week later, there was another short back-pages article giving an overview of the Covid-19 situation in Europe. Seen from Sweden, Germany’s high rates of the disease are due to continued asymptomatic testing and our health service is well able to handle the case-load.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s Covid infections ease up in time for Easter?

This view stands in marked contrast to that of our Groundhog-Day media outlets (“Today’s 7-day average of new cases is…”) and is particularly necessary at the moment because, from inside the fishbowl, it’s harder than ever to understand what is going in Germany. Many politicians and most of the general population are still gripped by Covid panic, and rather than some kind of end-date, milestone, or “Freedom Day”, the legislation of 20th March has actually proven to be a Rorschach test. I was, of course, away when it came into force, but also kept abreast of the news here (no, I’m really not good at being on holiday) – and even as a journalist, I’m confused. 

How so? Ahead of 20th March, German weekly newspaper ZEIT ran a front-page op-ed welcoming the change. Yet the newspaper’s Hamburg reporters soon dampened any expectations I had of returning from holiday to a more relaxed environment: as it turns out, Hamburg’s Senate decided to avail itself of the transition period to retain all restrictions until 2nd April and will then declare the city a ‘hotspot’, allowing it prolong existing restrictions indefinitely – and introduce yet more at short notice. 

A positive Covid test lies on a mask.

A positive Covid test lies on a mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

It’s not just Hamburg, either: the list of federal states looking to apply the hotspot exception is so long that it would be quicker to name the few who have opted not to. So when I returned to Germany at the weekend, entering via Schleswig-Holstein, everything was exactly the same as when I left: masks, physical distancing, one-way-systems, etc. Yet oddly enough, this week’s ZEIT carries another opinion piece bemoaning how Germany is loosening restrictions at exactly the wrong time.

READ ALSO: Why Germany is in a bitter row over Covid measures

‘Worst of both worlds’

There is only one possible explanation for what is going on: Germany as a body politic is suffering from a severe form of cognitive dissonance. In order to respect the constitution – which, although it has been stretched to breaking point since March 2020, still forbids curbs to basic freedom without good reason (see Art. 2) – the federal government has lifted restrictions in law, and so now considers the matter resolved. Opinion leaders, media-savvy zero/no-Covid types, and a majority of the general public take this at face value and think restrictions have been lifted – and lifted too fast – when, in actual lived reality, they quite patently haven’t.

The result is that we are now in the worst of both worlds. Those few of us who think it is time to ditch restrictions have been palmed off with an alternative legislative reality; meanwhile, the vast majority are now scared sick despite the fact that, objectively, nothing has changed and Germany still retains one of the highest levels of Covid stringency in Europe.

Speaking on public radio ahead of March 20th, Head of the German Medical Association Klaus Reinhardt summed up our societal split quite well when he said that he was worried about two kinds of mask-wearers: those not wearing them properly even in enclosed spaces like on the S-Bahn at rush hour on the one hand and, on the other, those wearing them impeccably while alone in their cars or out on bike rides in the woods. 

As a medical man, Reinhardt is clearly worried not just about Covid, but about Covid-related harm – i.e. the psychological disorders now resulting from two years of constant haranguing about the danger of respiratory illness. Unfortunately for him, though, another medical man, epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach, is our federal Health Minister. And when Lauterbach speaks on radio, he doesn’t sum up the societal split – he embodies it. Long the poster-boy for hawkish Covid policy, Lauterbach now finds himself forced to take Justice Minister Marco Buschmann’s constitutional concerns seriously and, outwardly at least (and to the despair of his fans), tow the federal government line. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks in Berlin on March 28th.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks in Berlin on March 28th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

So his recourse is now to keep on about how dangerous corona is, make various dark prophesies about the coming autumn, and delegate pressure down to the states, whom he repeatedly begs to go against the loosening of restrictions his own government has enacted. And to pull off this inside job, Lauterbach can rely on the systemic dysfunction in German federalism – a dysfunction repeated attempts to pass the buck upwards over the past two years have made clearer than ever. When the federal government wanted to tighten restrictions in 2020 and this proved unpopular, the Bundesländer blamed Berlin and argued for them to be loosened; now that loosening restrictions is proving equally unpopular, Berlin is once again to blame and the states are tightening them.

Germans ‘fear freedom’

Yes, the vote-winner in this year’s round of regional elections will be stringent coronavirus policy. Klaus Reinhardt’s rhetorical FFP2-cyclist stands for a majority of Germans now so utterly traumatised that they fear freedom. You can see this in the petrified look of outdoor mask-wearers dodging oncoming pedestrians; you can hear it in scraps of conversation overheard while waiting at traffic lights – like this one I picked up yesterday regarding one of the few restrictions to actually be dropped in Hamburg of late: “I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable going swimming now that you can just walk up like you used to. And no masks! No restrictions whatsoever!” This, by the way, from two young, healthy adults who went on to chat about when and how to get their fourth jabs… 

Having just got back from Sweden, where, even on the Stockholm underground, you can count the number of mask-wearers on one hand (yes, both German tourists), this seems weirder than ever. And the continuous obsession with masks – the litany of “It’s crazy to get rid of such an effective tool like mask-wearing at a point like this” – is starting to beg the question of why, if the religious mask-wearing we’ve been practicing for so long is so effective, our death-rate is now rapidly approaching that of our light-touch Nordic neighbour, with our case-load soaring while Sweden’s stays stable

Not that you’d hear much about this inside the fishbowl, of course. So if you take a holiday outside of Germany at any point, try reading the paper. If you’re not a journalist by trade, it might even count as genuine relaxation…

Member comments

  1. Yes. It has been a nightmare living in Germany these last two years. Thankfully, we don’t typically have to wear masks on base and it is literally a breath of fresh air. Our rates of infection are on par with Germany’s as well. I hate shopping on the economy now because I have to wear a mask. My kids hate that we took them out of the American school so they could pick up German better. All their American friends going to base schools gave up mask a while back and are normal kids again. Meanwhile, my kids are tested daily and the school seems to think they should be happy they can sit at their desk with no mask, but everywhere else, wear one. The cognitive dissonance in this country is unbelievable. This asymptomatic testing is bonkers too. My eldest tested positive last week and has yet to show a symptom. It’s just insane.

  2. Unfortunately the people so scared into compliance against something they can not see. They have suffered a great trauma to their psyche and will, from my experience. never recover from it. The damage done has far outweighed any damage the virus could have achieved. There will be people now who can no longer handle even the thought of freedom. Once restrictions are removed they will live with a crippling fear. Thats why they fight so hard to keep it all.

    I feel so bad for these people, The fear they have is palpable. At the same time im so angry at them for keeping this going far longer than was ever needed. All for a virus with a 99.2% survival rate. Are we going to teach our children what freedom is. Or, what freedom was?

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What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.