Germany: From lockdown to lock-lite
As things stand Christmas will be a quite affair in Deutschland. It will take time, quite possibly the administering of a first round of vaccinations before the restrictions can be eased again and normalcy is restored.
It was the third week of March. The heavily barricaded area from around the Rodingsmarkt station to the Ludwig-Erhard-Straße forced us to make a detour. The protests were about to happen and the cops had taken their positions.
It was a conscious decision to stay close to the harbor and the city center (Rathaus). There are many advantages living at the heart of Hamburg, which is even otherwise one of the world’s best cities to live in.
This is not a personal opinion. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Report has in recent years named Hamburg Germany’s most liveable city, as well as among the 10 best in the world.
For one you have most of the major landmarks nearby. There are the major shopping streets. An array of restaurants, serving global cuisine. Then there is the harbor. On the flip side one has to get used to frequent protests in the area, mostly on Fridays and Saturdays.
While the front of the Rathaus — that houses the City Council — is palpably the first preference of the demonstrators there are also areas like Junfernsteig, Gansemarkt, Ludwig-Erhard-Straße and a few others that see people assembling or marching to protest on issues ranging from climate change — even Greta Thunberg has been here, farmer’s woes, human rights, price rise, racism or even the newfound love for refugees from the many failed states across Asia, Africa and the erstwhile Soviet Union.
It is a democratic right of the people to demonstrate and there’s no dearth of issues. It is another matter altogether that at times the issues are so trivial that you ended up sympathizing with the cops on duty — cops whose permission protesters seek to assemble, cops who have to then stand at guard to ensure nothing untoward happens during the protests, and it doesn’t take a violent turn.
As in case of the other major cities in Germany if you opt to live in the center of Hamburg you have to get used to these weekly protests. Once you get used to it, then it is a matter of knowing the issue.
Even as I started taking another route, as directed, I stopped by to know that week’s agenda.
“Protest for?” I asked. The affable policeman immediately corrected me.
“Not for but protest against,” he replied with a smile, before proceeding to explain, “this is a protest against the lockdown measures by the government.”
These were the early days of the coronavirus-enforced lockdown. One was getting used to messages like #bleibtzuhause or #zuhausebleiben [stay at home] being continuously displayed on television sets.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had belatedly declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and the world was beginning to feel the consequences of another deadly virus with origins in China.
While Europe was the epicenter to begin with it was Italy, Spain and France that suffered the most. However, Germany was not spared either. Heinsberg — a district in North Rhine-Westphalia bordering the Netherlands — acquired the unenviable nickname of “Germany’s Wuhan”, after the Chinese city where the pandemic emerged.
The alarming rate of infection in the country had forced Angela Merkel’s government to impose restrictions on private and public life and order a nationwide lockdown. Hamburg was no different.
The schools, shopping malls, cinemas, theaters, restaurants and bars were closed by order. The private and public gathering was restricted to the barest minimum. Only medicine outlets and utility stores were open, that too with proper social distancing — a new term coined during the period.
There was expectedly panic all around. People were busy stocking there shelves. And the utility stores were running out of supplies, especially meat, packaged food and well, toilet paper.
Even as the state exchequer lost billions in revenue during the lockdown the German government, to its credit, put human life ahead of economic interests. Stimulus packages for businesses were announced. And the country’s robust health system meant things were taken care of in a much efficient manner as compared to the other affected countries. The death count was kept well under control.
Yet all the protesters were keen on was freiheit (freedom). They were not to be blamed though. With every passing week people got more and more restless and a lockdown fatigue set in. Emotion had taken over reason. Didn’t matter if Germany was among the better placed nations in the fight against the virus, the level of protests and the frequency with which they happened proved otherwise.
Even as the Robert Koch Institute declared that there was some indication that the infection rate curve was beginning to flatten the government announced a relaxation of the restrictions. Germany slowly got out of the top 20 list of most affected nations.
Things were back to normal. Well…almost. Cinema theaters and sporting arenas continued to remain close, most of the scheduled events were either postponed or cancelled, and social distancing was given importance.
Schools, shops and restaurants albeit opened slowly. Travel restrictions were lifted. People could go on holidays again. They were free to do what they wanted. However, freedom also should be accompanied by responsibility. Sadly that was missing.
The freiheit that the people were demanding since the beginning of the lockdown came and many conveniently forgot that it was still a pandemic situation. The bars, cafes and restaurants were packed. Even with the demarcations it was still a visible excess. It’s brisk business days again. Things were same across all the major cities, be it Berlin, Hamburg or Bremen.
Though it was mandatory to wear masks (still is) there were many who openly flouted the rule. Things were being taken for granted. The holidaymakers ventured into risky areas and returned with the virus. It was only a matter of time before the effects was felt. The federal government was forced to impose a test requirement for people arriving from such risk regions.
Experts deemed that Germany had eased down on the restrictions far too soon. There’s no justification for the callous attitude. The second wave of infections, therefore, happened earlier than expected. Germany, a nation that was seen as a model in tackling of the situation during the first wave, had been caught completely off guard in the second wave.
This November the German government announced further restrictions. Instead of closing down complete, and thereby making an already suffering economy suffer further, something labeled the “lockdown light” or “lock-lite” was brought into force. On this occasion the measures aren’t as severe as the virtual shutdown of the economy that happened in March and April. Besides, the Chancellor has promised to help the businesses in every way possible, even though she has quite pragmatically warned that this state-aid can’t be continued forever.
With Germany becoming the 12th country with a million infected cases, and the number of deaths closing in on the 20,000 mark, Merkel & Co were left with little or no option. For a country that dropped to 23rd in the list of countries with most infections to one that has climbed back to 11th spot Germany has come a long way. Being in the top 10 of the worst affected nations is by no means a moment of pride. And it is only a matter of time when Germany makes an entry into that unenviable list.
For those keen on statistics since the beginning of the pandemic 520,000 COVID-19 cases were detected in Germany by the end of October, but numbers spiked by 50 per cent to 780,000 cases in the first two weeks of November, and over a million by the first week od December. In the same period, the number of COVID-19-intensive care patients in German hospitals increased by 70 per cent, raising alarm bells.
On November 25th, Merkel and the heads of the federal states agreed to continue ‘lockdown light’ for a longer period. Further contact restrictions were proposed, but it was agreed to relax the same during the Christmas period.
That said, it is clear that this Christmas will be a restricted. The famous Christmas Markets, that are a regular feature around Germany in November and December, are conspicuous by their absence this year. All major events have been cancelled.
It will take time, and possibly a first round of vaccinations, before the restrictions can be eased again. The protests albeit is still going on, across every major city in Germany. Emotion always finds a way to get on top of reason.