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OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown

Germany is in the grip of a third Covid wave, with intensive care beds filling up. As politicians and medical experts talk of a “lockdown”, many people are confused. Aren’t we already in a lockdown? No, and this is part of the confusion, writes Rachel Loxton.

OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown
People walking in central Frankfurt am Main on March 27th. Photo: DPA

Living in Berlin throughout the pandemic has had its ups and downs. Like in most places there have been strict measures aimed at slowing down the spread of Covid. 

For nearly six months now (!) restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut (except for takeaway) in Germany. Things like gyms, cinemas and museums have also mostly been shut. And clubs have been closed for over a year. 

All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone. 

But I would argue that we haven’t really had a proper lockdown in Germany. Although there are contact restrictions, we have still been able to meet people, and we haven’t been forced to stay indoors. 

We’ve been encouraged to cut down on social contact and form a “social bubble” but not ordered to.

The closest we’ve come to a national lockdown in Germany is during the first wave last spring when people were not allowed to meet with others indoors. 

At its most strict, we were allowed to meet with one other person outside, and told to only leave our homes for essential reasons. But this included unlimited exercise time and we didn’t need a form to go outside as was the case in some other European countries. 

Travel was also banned in March 2020 for a period of time, but this has never been the case during the second and current third wave. At the moment travel is discouraged, but this didn’t stop tens of thousands of German tourists flying to Mallorca during the Easter holidays.

READ ALSO: ‘I really needed a break’: Pandemic-weary Germans find ‘freedom’ on Mallorca

People sitting on a bench in a Berlin park on April 4th 2020. Photo: DPA

Of course last spring everyone was shocked by the extreme measures and simply getting to grips with the concept of the “coronavirus lockdown” which we’d never had to think about before. 

Since the first wave and throughout the pandemic there have been localised outbreaks that have seen small-scale lockdowns in Germany with people forced to quarantine, such as after outbreaks at meat plants or in housing complexes.

What’s in a name?

I think it’s important to consider the way we use the term “lockdown” as politicians and medical experts are talking at the moment about bringing in a new lockdown to control the rising number of Covid infections. 

READ ALSO: Could a ‘bridge lockdown’ be the answer to Germany’s spiralling Covid cases?

“Aren’t we already in a lockdown?” I’ve heard people ask. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines a lockdown as “a period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely because of a dangerous disease”.

By branding all tough coronavirus measures as a lockdown, we’ve risked taking away the seriousness of what it actually is and means to be essentially banned from socialising, moving around and therefore stuck inside most of the time. 

I’ve been guilty of it myself – often talking about “Germany’s lockdown” with friends and family. At times I may have even called it a lockdown in stories for The Local although we have tried to make a big effort to call it a shutdown, lockdown measures or a partial lockdown. 

From ‘lockdown light’ to ‘hard lockdown’

Although the first action taken in November was widely called a “partial lockdown” or a “lockdown light” by German media and politicians (although not in official government documents as far I’m aware), come December when schools and hairdressers were closed, it was suddenly branded a “hard lockdown”. 

Yes, there were stronger restrictions, but this was no hard lockdown. 

The way we talk about the rules leads to people both inside and outside Germany thinking the country is in a different position than the reality. 

People in Germany have had a lot more freedom than other countries.

In France there was a full national lockdown last spring and people needed a form every time they left the house. Spain and Italy also had very strict lockdowns in the first wave, with more regional tough restrictions in the second wave.

I regularly give the word on the ground from Germany for BBC Radio in my home country of Scotland. During these reports I’ve had to emphasise that Germany’s “lockdown” is a partial lockdown, and not the same as Scotland’s. 

In Scotland, among other measures, people are still not allowed to visit anyone else indoors and there was until very recently a legal requirement to stay at home for all but essential purposes, which had been in force since January 5th.

A tweet by German political scientist Marcel Dirsus that gathered more than 11,000 likes sums it up.

“I wish Germans had never started using the word lockdown,” he said. “It made them overestimate the severity of pandemic restrictions and now it’s tougher to sell an actual lockdown to people because they think they’ve had it all along.

In the tweet thread he pointed out that people in Germany have “kept working at the office. They could always go see a friend at their house if they wanted to. They never needed to fill in a form to go jogging. Germany never had a hotel quarantine for international arrivals.”

“If you want to let people hang out with friends or work at the office even though they clearly aren’t essential personnel, so be it. It’s a legitimate position I happen to disagree with. But do everyone a favour and stop calling it lockdown.”

When I contacted Dirsus he added: “Germany never had a lockdown… But because journalists and politicians kept referring to existing contact restrictions as lockdowns, it’s now more difficult to impose one because Germans think they’ve had it all along.”

Tobias Kurth, professor of public health and epidemiology at the Charité in Berlin, said using the term lockdown for any rules “absolutely was and is damaging”.

“In the end, Germany never had a real lockdown and the consequences we all feel now,” he said. “Likely, as we have used the word lockdown in variations since November, now people may think, ‘Well but we are already in a lockdown so what is new and why do I need to change?'”

My colleague Rachel Stern, editor of The Local Germany, said the flaky way that restrictions are put in place and then taken away adds to the confusion.

She said: “As time goes on, the term ‘lockdown’ seems to be losing its seriousness for Germans.

“Measures are put in place, only to be quickly repealed following criticism, or in some case lawsuits. In many states, night-time curfews were quickly overturned, and the ’15 kilometre rule’ – which was about how far Germans living in coronavirus hotspots could travel – barely lasted a couple of weeks.”

A half-arsed lockdown

So if we haven’t had a proper lockdown what have we had for the last six months? In my opinion, it’s been a long-drawn out, half-arsed (as we’d say in Scotland) kind-of-lockdown. 

And it’s been excruciating, for every single person I’ve spoken to. We may be able to go outside often and meet up with a small number of people, but these restrictions have been a nightmare. Life is far from normal.

Yet I am very thankful for the little freedoms we have when I think of some other places.

I do wonder, though, what difference it would have made for Germany to have brought in a real, tough lockdown way back at the beginning of the second wave or at least in December during the peak.

Instead there’s been back-and-forth on various rules, talks of an Easter lockdown before a U-turn, mixed messages and people travelling. Meanwhile, the B.1.1.7 Covid variant has wreaked havoc.

On Friday German Health Minister Jens Spahn and medical experts pleaded for a lockdown, saying the health system is is on the brink of becoming overwhelmed.

But if an actual lockdown is proposed – or at least much stronger measures – will people in Germany be on board with it?

Member comments

  1. A very good Article, & spot-on. You can’t “advise” people to not do certain things, because people will always find an excuse to ignore the advice as they see fit.

  2. Yep, what would have fixed the problem would be needing a piece of paper filled out to leave the house like a prep school juvenile….Talk about Big State overreach. It hasn´t worked any better in France doing just that.
    Lock down is a prison term. It means that all cells will be locked down and no exercise yard privileges will be given while the authorities search the cells. No wonder, it was a stupid term to use in the first place. The problem here is that the authorities here don´t seem to know what to do. Just pronounce and fudge the policy while blaming beach/park go-ers and vaccine manufacturers wherever possible.

  3. “All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone.”

    A so-called lockdown is not – and never been! – a bad idea…

    However, we all know people who have flouted the social distancing and mask wearing rules.
    (Anyone with common sense must appreciate that following these simple guidelines protects us?)

    It is still confusing for many of us that some parts of society are forced to stop their business/work, but so many selfish individuals – with a secure monthly salary! – are continuing life (partying, catching up with numerous friends/family, not social distancing etc.).

    The government is to blame for the slow vaccine rollout. But the the disgusting attitude of the majority are prolonging this misery through their selfish behaviour.

  4. It seems as if the production of vaccines is so lackluster and not taken seriously. Get people vaccinated and make it a national priority.

  5. This piece would be a lot more helpful if it differentiated between measures that limit indoor activities (which actually drive infections); and those that limit outdoor activities (which don’t). The fact that you have people gathering indoors while police prevent outdoor meetups is Kafkaesque, and journalists should do their part in exposing this absurdity.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.

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