Germany is still living in Covid’s shadow

The German governing coalition appears determined to make its first full winter in office as dark, lonely and cold as possible. The mood in Germany is gloomy. People don’t trust the government to solve the nation’s problems – and the government has given up trying.

Germany’s biggest problem is of course the energy crisis. This has already resulted in a steady trickle of bad news. Power outages are likely, hospitals have to close and bankruptcies are on the rise. Indoor pools, museums and churches stay cold. The Berlin Christmas lights – a cherished winter tradition – could also be canceled this year. The German government seems unable or unwilling to find solutions to the crisis (it has been reluctant to extend the life of its nuclear power plants and ruled out fracking for gas). Instead, it encourages Germans to drastically reduce their energy consumption.

As if that wasn’t grim enough, the government is now stoking Covid fears. Parliament passed a new Infection Protection Act in September, which comes into force today (October 1). It mandates the use of FFP2 face masks on public transport, in hospitals, retirement homes and other healthcare facilities. And it allows state governments to impose other restrictions as they see fit, including social distancing measures and mandatory testing.

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Will the Germans live forever in the shadow of Covid? The government has already broken the promise it made last fall to lift all mask requirements by March of this year. The new law has also given the pro-lockdown lobby a shot in the arm to call for even tougher measures. In fact, a teachers’ association has already criticized the fact that the new face covering law does not include elementary schools.

The new Covid policy is a mess of contradictions. It is a product of Germany’s shaky coalition government struggling to reconcile the diverse interests of its electoral base, from radical Greens to nanny-statist Social Democrats to neoliberal Free Democrats. Indeed, on almost every issue – from the energy crisis to the war in Ukraine to Covid-19 – government policy tends to be cobbled together seemingly haphazardly in ways that leave no one satisfied. The government has no coherent guiding philosophy. His only priority is his own survival.

As an online newspaper, the LocalHe puts it in a nutshell: “Germany’s autumn Covid rules are a huge mess beyond parody.” Why should masks be worn in all subways – even if they are empty – but not on crowded platforms? Why should higher infection rates lead to new restrictions when the disease is now mild for the vast majority of people? The right-wing liberal Justice Minister Marco Buschmann, who negotiated the law alongside the hysterical SPD Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, was unable to answer such questions. Instead, he only scolds with platitudes about a “reasonable compromise” and the return to a “responsible normality”.

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As a result, German voters are becoming increasingly cynical. According to a September survey, more than 60 percent no longer trust any party to solve the country’s problems. And even before the pandemic, 61 percent of those surveyed thought the German state was overwhelmed by its responsibility. “We have worrying signs of a general loss of confidence in the state’s performance in Germany,” said the chairman of the civil servants’ association in 2019.

This impression of an overwhelmed, dysfunctional state has only increased since the pandemic. Not least because most government employees have barely set foot in their offices since the first lockdown began. Officials are always the first to warn that “the pandemic is not over yet” and assert their right to telecommute. But public confidence in the state will not be restored if civil servants continue to huddle at home.

Public trust in political parties is even lower. Numerous scandals have shown that German politicians don’t take their own Covid laws (or their own citizens) very seriously. Most recently, Green Economics Minister Robert Habeck was pictured maskless on a flight to Canada along with other government officials. The images caused outrage on social media. At that time, there was still a strict mask requirement for normal citizens on airplanes. As a tabloid picture Outraged: “Citizens have to wear masks, but apparently not top politicians when traveling abroad.”

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In fact, the scandal caused such a stir that the mask requirement on planes was subsequently lifted. Of course, that only raised the mystery of why the dreaded virus apparently spared planes, but not trains or buses, where masks still have to be worn.

Many have criticized the inconsistencies of the new Infection Protection Act, and many more are now offering passive resistance. On the Berlin U-Bahn, a significant proportion of commuters do not properly cover their noses and mouths (despite regular, booming admonitions from the Tannoy reminding commuters to wear masks). And local protests against Covid measures have also increased. So there is some resistance.

The government, for its part, continues to spread fear and terror. It expects ordinary Germans to spend the winter under cover – hiding from Covid and from the cold. The Germans deserve so much better.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is pepperedis Germany correspondent.