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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: I became a German citizen to vote but paying taxes should have been enough

The government's reforms to citizenship law are a step in the right direction, writes Brian Melican, but should it really be necessary for foreigners to take this step in order to cast their vote? Paying taxes should be enough.

OPINION: I became a German citizen to vote but paying taxes should have been enough

It was my anniversary recently, and once again, I completely forgot it. As of 15th April, we’ve been married for seven years, Germany and I. We got together a long time before that, of course, flirting in 2006 and then shacking up together in 2008 before, in mid-2015, I decided to propose (read: go to the Einwohnerzentralamt). Before the year was out, Germany had made an honest citizen of me in legal terms, but I always count 15th April 2016 as our wedding day: that’s when I was invited to Hamburg’s imposing town hall to receive my citizenship certificate from the then-Mayor of our fair city, one Olaf Scholz.

Truth be told, our relationship has been up and down since then – my relationship with Germany, that is, not with Mr. Scholz, to whom (state prosecutors following up on the cum-ex dividends scandal, take note!) nothing more than that fleeting handshake connects me. In the years prior to getting citizenship, and for a while after, Germany and I were very much in love – and love, as they say, is blind. While that’s something of an exaggeration in my view, love certainly does put the rose-tinted spectacles on and make you more forgiving of each other’s less attractive traits.

That’s probably why, although I was aware we had a dangerously Russophile elite patently jeopardising our energy security (and, accordingly, bought emergency electric radiators back in 2014 after Putin annexed the Crimea) and certainly disliked some of Germany’s more pedantic tendencies, I was pretty sure I’d made the right choice. Of course, these character flaws have since come to the fore, thanks to Covid and the full-scale invasion of the Ukraine, and made our relationship more difficult. But we’re still together, still just about getting along. After all, we’ve taken solemn vows: I pledged to respect Germany’s constitution and Germany pledged to treat me as one of its own.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Critics need to wake up to the reality of dual citizenship in Germany

Gaining the right to vote

Looking back on it, besides the sheer practicality of finally getting a handy credit-card-sized ID card and the (as it turned out: quite perspicacious) sense of foreboding I felt at the prospect of the UK referendum on leaving the EU, my primary motivation for taking German nationality was simple: I wanted to be able to vote in national elections. Having paid income tax in Germany for seven years and intending to pay it for at least another seven, it was only logical that I should want to have some say in how things were run; especially since Merkel’s delaying tactics on, well, everything were already driving me to despair back in 2015 – a despair I wanted to register at the ballot box in the 2017 elections to the Bundestag.

I remember thinking at the time that, while I had absolutely nothing against getting German citizenship – indeed, was quite enthusiastic about the idea – there was, strictly speaking, something wrong with the fact that I had to in order to vote. It certainly struck me that Germany had been more than happy to let me earn and pay my taxes (and was somewhat demanding on this latter point) and that it would have let me do so for the rest of my life without conferring on me in return the right to have my say in how these tax Euros were spent. I’m not quite sure that’s fair.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

Germany's electronic tax-filing portal, Elster

Germany’s electronic tax-filing portal, Elster. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

If that sounds whining or petty, it’s worth remembering that revolutions have been triggered over exactly this point: ‘no taxation without representation’ was a precept of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the slogan having been coined by Boston politician James Otis, who declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny”.

Not exceptional – but reprehensible

On the subject of fairness, though, I should say that I’m not singling out Germany as a particularly egregious example. The citizenship process here is comparatively smooth for German bureaucracy, reasonably priced, and faultlessly friendly: as ever, there are regional differences (in left-wing, cosmopolitan Hamburg, the state is generally more welcoming of newcomers than in, say, Bavaria) and some people’s cases are more complex than mine (white man with one easily-documentable European nationality seeks other European nationality); but by and large, Germany does not make it excessively hard for long-term residents to obtain citizenship. Moreover, I have no quarrels with the requirements: it seems reasonable to ask applicants to document a basic knowledge of the country and the language, no criminal convictions, a minimum number of years spent living here.

That the tripartite coalition is now lowering the number of years required and, more importantly, extending the possibility of holding multiple nationalities to many numerous, yet previously marginalised groups, is a welcome step further down the road to becoming a society truly at ease with its cosmopolitan reality – and to fulfilling its dreams of attracting skilled immigrant labour. Compared to many of our neighbouring countries, we will have some of the most generous and attractive citizenship conditions. That is unquestionably a good thing.

READ ALSO: How could Germany’s planned reforms to citizenship law change?

Yet as a general principle, I think it is reprehensible that any country should deduct money from long-term residents’ wages without giving them the right to vote. The right to vote doesn’t, by the way, necessarily have to mean citizenship: there may be good reasons why some long-term residents don’t want or need it (perhaps they plan to return to their home countries or move on elsewhere). Yet in my view, anyone in a tax system for more than a few years must be entitled to some form of proper representation. Germany should lead the way by offering them this – especially if they come from one the numerous countries which, even following the reform, will not be on the dual-nationality list.

Maybe that’s one reason I so rarely remember my April anniversary: although there certainly was an emotional component to getting citizenship and while the day itself was lovely (Olaf Scholz certainly puts on a good spread!), the day that really matters to me generally only comes round every four years in September.