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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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. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

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.