OPINION: Germany’s autumn Covid rules are a giant mess beyond parody

As other European countries appear to have left the stress of strict Covid rules long behind them, Germany is gearing up to introduce a new and even more complicated patchwork of measures in autumn. Brian Melican asks whether, at this stage, the restrictions are really proportionate to the risks.

People enjoy Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019.
People enjoy Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019 - the last time the festival took place properly before Covid. Brian Melican doesn't think Germany's Covid plan for autumn 2022 is proportionate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

In just under a month’s time, on September 23rd, the current Infection Protect Act will expire – only to be replaced with an even more complicated and pointless successor. Yes: the new act made it through cabinet on Wednesday and looks likely to pass Bundestag in a few weeks. But it will only actually enter into force on October 1st, leaving a potentially 7-day gap in which what happens is unclear, but will – this being Germany – probably involve excessive amounts of mask-wearing and lateral-flow-testing.

READ ALSO: What we know so far about Germany’s autumn Covid rules

Whatever happens, though, Munich will, after a two-year hiatus, be celebrating a bumper Oktoberfest, from September 17th to October 3rd. Over the course of these two weeks, an estimated six million people will crowd into the tents and beer gardens of the city’s Theresienwiese, consuming an average of 1.13 litres of beer with 0.08 roast chickens per head and exchanging quadrillions of virus particles every minute. All of which will be legal under the current set of legislation – and will remain legal under the replacement.

What probably won’t be legal (who knows quite yet with the confusing set of rules proposed), is to use the Munich U-Bahn without wearing a mask on your way to and from Oktoberfest. At the same time, statistically speaking, you are quite likely to be among the 92 percent of people in Germany who already, as of late July, carried antibodies against Sars-COV2 (see this study by the RKI) – a figure which, if the number of people I know who have just had Covid is anything to go by, is likely to have increased further to almost 100 percent by mid-September. This makes a mockery of the term ‘Infection Protection Act’ – and also explains why hospitalisations from Covid are low, intensive care bed occupation even lower, and deaths half of what they were six months back.

People wear FFP2 masks on the U-Bahn in Munich in December 2021.

People wear FFP2 masks on the U-Bahn in Munich in December 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

This is all very good news, and forms part of a Europe-wide success story based on an unprecedented vaccine delivery programme and the fortuitously mild Omicron variant. In all of our neighbouring countries, it has been taken as such. Denmark, for instance, has now been living (and living very well) without any form of Covid restrictions for nearly six months. Later in spring, every country around us that had not already done so quietly confined coronavirus to the realm of regrettable endemic illness. Has the sky fallen in on them? No. Are their health services on their knees? No. Are ours? Also no. Yet in Germany, we are still intent on replacing one set of vestigial busy-body public health rules with another set of even more convoluted ones. 

READ ALSO: Opinion – Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

‘Beyond parody’

Without going too deeply into the details of what the tripartite coalition has planned (neither you nor I have all day, and said details are still subject to change), suffice to say that the new Infection Protection Act is so stereotypically German that it’s beyond parody. 

Federalism and buck-passing? Check! As ever, the 16 states will be able to more or less set their own rules while demanding that Berlin does the dirty work. Fiendishly complex systems destined to fail on first contact with reality? You bet! As of September, states will be able to reintroduce compulsory mask-wearing indoors – but can make exceptions for people who have just had a booster jab or get a negative test result (but only in restaurants, bars, and other leisure settings); the same might apply in hospitals and care homes, but definitely not in primary schools (although maybe in secondary schools); states may also choose to drop mask requirements on local transport, but they will be ramped up to FFP2 on all intercity train services and flights (unless, of course, you’re flying Olaf Airways and have Frequent Habeck Status…)

If, however, the situation deteriorates (as defined by criteria yet to be announced) these exceptions will all be removed and we go nuclear (i.e. outdoor mask-wearing). This is a phase shift which, to complete our round of German Bullshit Bingo, is explained/further muddied by a niche automotive analogy: summer tires (“Go about your business as usual, but don’t forget your FFP2.”) vs. winter tires (“Oh no…”), with an optional escalation to snow chains (“We’re all doomed! Doomed, I tells ye!”). Want to laugh-cry? Try Karl Lauterbach’s overly complicated PowerPoint slide (pictures below in a tweet) or Marco Buschmann’s half-hearted attempt at defending the madness yesterday morning on Deutschlandfunk.

In short, the new law pours all of our quirks and foibles into a form so perfectly potty it looks like satirist Jan Böhmermann brought Harald Schmidt out of retirement before teaming up with the ghost of that great observer of German national neuroses, Loriot, to poke fun at us.

Which begs the question: why are we about to do this? And why are we going to do it in such a patently crazy, borderline unenforceable way?

The two sides of Germany’s Covid rules

First: why are we doing this? The short answer to that is: Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD). For whatever reason (and I don’t think it’s fair to speculate too much about personality traits), Lauterbach is more afraid of what Covid might do to the population – and less afraid of the corrosive societal effect of lasting restrictions – than other ministers with his brief in comparable countries. It could turn out, of course, that Lauterbach is right: if the “killer variant” he prophesises does surface this autumn, I and a lot of others will be doing public penance.

My hunch is, though, that the German Health Minister doesn’t have a direct line to a secret source of Covid wisdom and can’t see into the future: his change of position on whether everyone should get a fourth jab or just the over-60s proves as much. Instead, he and a few others around him (notably the Green’s health spokesman Janosch Dahmen) are probably seeing exactly the same facts and figures as their counterparts in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden… (as well as many German virologists and epidemiologists in favour of scrapping restrictions), but drawing wildly different conclusions.

Second: if we’re doing this, why are we doing it in such a complicated way? The short answer to that is: Federal Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP). He and most of his party – the (emphasis on) Free Democrats – are not in favour of endless restrictions without justification. And, as it turns out, neither is our constitution. And I for one am pleased that, after being first ignored and then laxly interpreted for over two years, our cherished Grundgesetz is now once again being taken seriously.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Marco Buschmann (FDP), fist bump at the press conference on Wednesday.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Marco Buschmann (FDP), fist bump at the press conference on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

One of its guiding principles is that curbs to the freedoms it guarantees must be a) proportionate and b) appropriate: as Buschmann has argued, forcing people triply-vaccinated against and twice recovered from Covid to cover their mouth and nose when entering a restaurant is, at this stage of proceedings, no longer proportionate nor appropriate, and so states will be allowed (read: encouraged) to keep restrictions light here. Why the same doesn’t apply to trains or planes is anyone’s guess – here’s mine: political horse-trading to reach a compromise; or perhaps a shrewd FDP move to finally see off restrictions by making them so inconsistent that they represent easy prey for complaints to the Constitutional Court this autumn. 

Ah yes, this autumn. What a wonderful place Germany will be, with the lights switched off in high streets and those who can no longer afford to heat their flats being held up on the doors to bars as they desperately search for the long-neglected CovPass app so that they can at least gain access to the warm fug without having to run back home for their grubby FFP2… So if you weren’t yet planning to head to Munich for the Oktoberfest this year, my advice would to hightail it down there for one last blow-out before things get really unpleasant.

Member comments

  1. With all due respect, I understand people’s frustrations with the pandemic measures, but I beg you to look at this situation from the perspective of an immunocompromised individual. At the present moment they cannot go anywhere safely! This is because people do not want to do simple little things to protect them from severe sickness or death, like wearing a mask for example. Wearing a mask is so easy! Also, can we all agree that just cutting the death rate in half IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. There are still 100s of people dying every week. These people do not deserve their fate. We all should be willing to make small sacrifices like mask wearing in public transit / airplanes / unavoidable public places if it means we can save just 1 person from dying.

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How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works.