Queues in front of supermarkets, banks and post offices. Closed shops, closed kindergartens, schools and universities. Empty shelves where you normally find flour, yeast, toilet paper and pasta. Despite the ever-present warnings about Covid-19, public spaces have been busy this weekend, during the first days of warm weather. In groups of two, with the obligatory 2-metre distance between groups steadily controlled by ever-present police, people gathered outside to enjoy the sun. Whether this distance is kept elsewhere, beyond the gaze of those enforcing the law, is questionable.
This is the current situation in Baden-Württemberg, the second hardest hit state per capita in Germany. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, 76 days ago in Germany, according to the Robert Koch Institut (RKI), the government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, a total of 120,000 people have tested positive, and 2,500 have died. Over 560 of these deaths have taken place here, in Baden-Württemberg, the third highest populated state, home to industrial giants, such as Daimler, Porsche, and Bosch.
This international connectivity most likely led to the first infections occurring here along with the other heavily industrious states Bayern and Nordrhein Westfalen. Now, there are over 75,000 cases in these three states alone.
The threat to public health, unprecedented in recent times, has led to extraordinary cooperation between the federal state, states and communes. They have implemented regulations to keep new infections at a minimum. The constitution grants communes and states a lot of independence – but in the middle of a global health crisis, central authority has asserted itself, creating what is known as the Infektionsschutzgesetz (IfSG) – the “infection protection law”.
The IfSG has imposed the biggest restrictions on civil liberties since the end of the Second World War. While time spent outside is not limited, civilians are only allowed into public places with members of their household or family and one person who does not belong to either. Others must keep their 2 metres distance.
The government has also ruled that “necessary activities”, such as going to work, visiting a doctor or even individual sports are still permitted, but they’re supposed to be kept at a minimum. Shops have increased hygiene measures, limiting the number of people inside their stores at any one time.
Non-compliance is met by heavy fines. The Federal Court in Karlsruhe has ruled that these penalties are restricting the rights granted by the Grundgesetz, the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany. Be that as it may, the court has also remarkably announced that, given the dangers imposed by the pandemic, the normal rules and restrictions don’t carry as much weight. The fines can be permitted to continue. A new normal is in town.
According to a study conducted by the University of Mannheim, over 90% of people in Germany support the new restrictions, which seem to reflect the general mood on the streets. Mask use in particular has increased over the last weeks. Later in the evening and on weekends, streets are completely empty.
Yet people don’t seem to be panicking, and are even seen joking around, a situation reflected by surveys done by YouGov. Most prominently, supermarket workers, who are hidden behind big plastic shields, don’t hesitate to make light of the situation. This leads to some people not taking the rules too seriously, but many are also willingly, even cheerfully, compliant with the new laws of the land.
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One reason for this good mood is the very transparent outline of the latest information by the RKI, as well as the clear and quick actions by the federal state and states during the outbreak. Hessen was the first state to implement this kind of lockdown on the 21 March, but the country promptly followed suit.
As has been covered ad infinitum in the international press, testing facilities are also excellent all over Germany. According to the RKI, there are now perhaps some 500,000 tests happening every week across the country every week.
The Robert-Koch institute recommends testing if you have Covid-19-like symptoms and have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed in the last 14 days. Other patients who suffer from flu-like symptoms get moved to less busy times, such as early in the morning, or late in the afternoon. This approach taken not only reduces contact to other people, which is crucial, but also doesn’t burden the healthcare system too much: over 80% of all symptomatic cases don’t need special treatment.
Yet, health authorities in the states are also eager to use tests wisely. In a country of over 80 million people, even 500,000 teste per week are not an inexhaustible resource. Most people who show symptoms are still being told to stay at home after a call with their GP.
This reduces demand for tests, where there is no need to get tested. Christian Drosten, Director of Institute of Virology at the Charité in Berlin, believes that there will not be excess demand for tests, unless everybody who feels ill gets tested. Of course, this also means that the reported numbers of cases might be under-representing the actual infections: only serious cases and travellers get regularly tested at the moment.
All the while, hospitals have been stocking up. At the moment, Baden-Württemberg has approximately 3,200 ICU beds, 2,800 of which include ventilators. The state government hopes to increase the latter number to 3,800 by the end of the month. To reduce strain on the system, the government has implemented a new law to increase potential working hours of health care staff to above 12 hours, citing the state of emergency. The strain on the system has been moved onto the people who form the frontline against this epidemic.
As elsewhere, heavy costs are being paid in the effort to protect public health. To further stem the tide of infections, the federal government, as many others in Europe, has closed borders. The routes to Austria, France, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Switzerland are now closed. In these days of spring, this hits seasonal workers working in agriculture particularly badly, as well as farmers.
Although, the borders to Poland and the Czech Republic stay open for now, and in April and May 40,000 seasonal workers will be allowed to come under strict hygiene controls. They will be badly needed to help farmers harvest, and efforts have been taken to match volunteers with farmers in demand of those services, and make good the shortfall in labour.
But not only the agriculture sector has been hit by the global pandemic. Car manufacturers, such as BMW, Daimler, VW and Opel have stopped production in Europe for 4 weeks. And despite the employee-friendly labour laws in Germany, over half a million workers are in short-term employment. In total, 44% of all workers have switched to working from home.
Olaf Schulz, finance minister, has recently announced a Covid-19 relief package of up to €750bn. Self-employed and small companies (up to 5 employees) are eligible to receive funding of up to €9,000, medium-sized (up to 10 employees) €15,000 and bigger (up to 50 employees) up to 30,000. The fund for smaller companies has been lauded for extending help to artists and creative industries. The application process for this is straight forward, online, and the money is deposited within the next few days.
The process is open to exploitation, however, as people seem to have taken advantage of this generous scheme to enrich themselves. Some states have experienced fraud, which has recently led Nordrhein Westfalen to stop paying out these grants for the foreseeable future.
For now, most of us are staying inside, working from home, attending online lectures or, if privileged enough, developing other skills without having to worry about immediate family members getting sick. But, in general, this privilege is limited to a select few – and we cannot afford to be complacent. Staying inside, using masks and gloves, washing hands and volunteering or donating blood are the most productive things we can do in this time of national crisis.
While major political parties, like the CDU, are calling to reopen up big parts of the economy, it is believed that the country has only just made it past its peak and is about to “catch the curve”. For now, not only are huge parts of the German population against loosening the current rules – this possibility also brings with it risks allowing the situation to deteriorate once more, creating a “second wave” and leading to unnecessary deaths.
The social distancing restrictions will be in place until the 19 April at least, and on Wednesday 15 April, Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to discuss with Germany’s state premiers how to proceed further.
Niclas Knecht is a post-graduate student in Economics at the University of Mannheim.