Germany’s locked-down state of mind

The state of emergency is proving far easier to lift than the fearful mood it has fostered.

Matthias Heitmann

Topics Politics World

Germany has been easing lockdown restrictions for weeks. Every day, bans and restrictions are discussed, questioned and, in some cases, lifted. However, the more society opens up, the more fearful many people become. The current state of restaurants captures this predicament well. They are open, but no one wants to eat out anymore, and as a result, they are dying.

It seems the mental lockdown is proving rather harder to lift than the legal one. It is as if the state of emergency under which we have been living has been internalised, indeed normalised.

The key problem is the social-distancing rule itself. Maintaining it, while relaxing other measures, suggests that a full return to normality is beyond us. It suggests that while every other restriction can be eased, this seemingly small rule – that we must remain 1.5 metres away from others – is non-negotiable.

It may only be 1.5 metres, but it might as well be light years, given the distance that now separates people from a halfway normal, civilised life. And it’s a measure that affects every sphere of human activity, from work and spor to art and love.

Cynics, nerds and misanthropes will disagree. They will see no problem in maintaining 1.5 metres distance from people at all times. But the vast majority of us want to be around other people. We want to be able to go to the football and have a drink with our friends. We want to attend the theatre, visit exhibitions, watch a movie. It is this desire to do things with others that makes the cultural sector so economically important to Germany.

Maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres has been turned into the 11th commandment in the post-corona world. Which is why the intervention of Bodo Ramelow, Thuringia state premier and Left Party politician, is so important. He has announced that he will lift all general restrictions on 6 June, including the social-distance rule.

So far, other politicians have proven themselves too risk-averse to follow Ramelow. As they see it, the distance rule should only be abolished if a vaccine or an effective antiviral becomes available. Knowing all too well that this could take months, or even years, they seek instead to normalise social-distancing as a core component of post-corona society. To break from this policy would require them to break from their long-standing risk aversion, and even the culture of fear itself.

But small steps on the post-lockdown road are not enough. A powerful statement, such as that made by Ramelow, is needed – one that breaks away from the risk obsession that characterises the contemporary zeitgeist. Only then might we move beyond the fear, not just of the virus, but of the seeming threat posed by other people, that currently holds us in thrall.

It won’t be easy. We have grown accustomed to seeing the world through the prism of risk. In all policy fields, worst-case scenarios are routinely invoked in order to locate the safest course of action. The Covid-19 pandemic exploited our now deeply ingrained predisposition to fear, think about and anticipate the worst. The distance rule emerges as the means seemingly to assuage our fears, and protect us from the worst. But maintaining it won’t end our fear of the pandemic — will prolong it indefinitely, as a sign that there is always something to fear.

Even if the name suggests otherwise, a high-security prison does not provide security. The same applies to a high-security society. A feeling of security can only arise when we freely and willingly confront challenges and problems that lie before us. Because only then do we feel that our fate lies in our own hands.

That is precisely what we do not feel today. We are not assessing risks, acting according to our own judgement, and assuming responsibility for our own lives. Rather, we are letting others, be they politicians or scientists, make decisions for us. We are neither taking responsibility, nor, therefore, assessing risks for ourselves. Rather, we prefer to try to avoid risk completely – even if that means that social life dies.

That is why it is so vital we break free from risk-aversion We need to be able to assess risks realistically again. We need a culture that encourages us to make decisions for ourselves. Ramelow recognised this, which is why his announcement struck a nerve.

Of course, the misanthropes and authority junkies will protest that people can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves. And, of course, people will make mistakes, and there will be setbacks, not least because personal responsibility has been eroded for decades.

But perhaps that is precisely why politicians should stop treating people like idiots who need to be protected from themselves. Because it is only through encouraging people to start judging and evaluating risk for themselves that people will be able to assume a degree of control over their lives, and overcome the fear of the pandemic.

In a democracy, allowing people to make judgements for themselves should not really be such an unusual demand. After all, we are talking about the same people who are given the task of deciding the future of the nation at every election. It seems the greatest obstacle to overcoming our fear of the virus is overcoming our fear of other people’s freedom.

Matthias Heitmann is a journalist and columnist for the German magazine Cicero where this article first appeared on 31 May 2020. Visit Heitmann’s website here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Lutz Eckert

6th June 2020 at 8:25 am

This essay must be commented. 
As the described basic fear is immanent in the German people (Angst) and is well described in general too many statements in the essay are just dangerously simplifying or just wrong.

Many of the issues the author mentioned need to be explained to be understood. He is using them to carelessly causing “fake news” as the extreme right AfD is proposing so easily to seduce uninformed people.

Just some: The opening the Lockdown in the state of Thuringia by prime minister Ramelow had been suggested officially because Thuringia had one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rate of all other German union states. This move has been strongly opposed by nearly all other federal state prime ministers and by the German chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration. 

To understand his move politically you must know that Ramelow’s government is highly endangered by a very strong extreme right wing opposition which is denying the pandemic at all. So the driving part of this action was the fear of his political survival which is now based on a very thin (minor votes) and very hard born political coalition. 

Some recent infection hot spots in Thüringen in the meat processing industry and neighboring hard hit by Corona cases Bavarian prime minister Söder’s protests have countered his move. 

The initial statement that people are only driven by fear to go to any restaurant is clearly misleading or wrong. This might may be an additional minor reason. The main reason why people avoid restaurants as they avoid city center shopping malls is by far more the fact that the personal income situation of many people is affected massively so many of them who used to go to restaurants (bars still are closed) keep their money in uncertain times. All cultural working people, artists, musicians, theater people are up to now hit extremely hard by the lockdown, many of them on no income at all. 

Which horrifying consequences the ignorance of the still existing pandemic is causing you can easily see looking at the fresh Göttingen city cases of end of May. 
Two large family reunions for the muslim Ramadan end sugar festival and an adjoining illegally opened shisha bar resulted in a total of more than 270 positive tested people in just one large apartment block by June 5th. 80 children of them were tested positive causing a new lockdown of 5 schools. A mass testing of more than 600 people living in the apartment complex and another >1.000 contacted people from other districts in Lower Saxony is still going on. 

Similar as in the US, too many people in Germany are ignoring that there is an ongoing pandemic until there we have a vaccine accessible to all. Gatherings in large rubber boat conventions in Berlin or holding up large protest signs “I want back my life” do not fight the pandemic and are pure brainless or just horrifying stupid. 

jamie murray

5th June 2020 at 2:28 pm

How on earth were/are so many fooled by this unbelievably over inflated “danger”? It has been quite demoralising to witness the gullibility and fearfulness displayed by the vast majority of the population these last few weeks.
They seem to believe everything the government and msm tells them and say “well why would they lie or exaggerate all this”? when i ask them if there’s not an agenda here? Seriously, you’re asking me why would governments and/or media lie!! Read some history books for goodness sakes, arrrggahhh!!
I’m not claiming to know it all and i’m not saying certain sections of the population weren’t at more risk than others but that is entirely beside the point, the reaction has been utter hysteria and collective madness and it has shown me how easily entire populations can be manipulated into complying unquestionably with authority!
I am seriously doubtful that we will ever get back to a normal way of life as the elites, of any persuasion and stripe have seen how easily they can control us whenever it suits, we are currently living under the illusion that we are a free people, we are not!

Flossy Morris

5th June 2020 at 4:52 pm

Hello, Mr Murray. The price of freedom is constant vigilance. Sadly, so many have let their guard down by, as you mention, failing to have a well of historical knowledge from which to draw comparisons. You may be familiar with this, but here it is anyway.

I had not watched “the” news for some time, but last week I watched about five minutes or so of a report from the so-called BBC. It was actually a decent report and I thought that maybe I had not been taking the virus as seriously as I ought to. The report was in a hospital theatre with busy doctors and nurses and focusing on a man in his fifties who sadly ended up dying despite the care he was receiving. It was pretty sad but then I paid attention to the language used and it was obviously emotive. A news report from way back when would have used impartial facts and figures. In this country, and many others in the west, there is a justifiable scorn for the U.S. media’s open bias. After I watched this report, though, I thought that it only needed some scary background music and it would have just been like an impartial American news programme.

We’re not all fooled, but I think the majority are. That’s pretty bad.

Flossy Morris

5th June 2020 at 5:01 pm

I meant “partial”

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