“Here we go again…”
As well as a lot of heavy sighing and shrugging, this seems to epitomise the general feeling here in Berlin, as Germany prepares itself for a tougher new lockdown from Wednesday. Planned until January 10, it will see everything from schools and nurseries to cafes and non-essential shops close, Christmas gatherings restricted to five persons (plus children up to 14 years of age in the closest family circle) from December 24-26, and bans on public drinking and the sale and use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
As dismaying as this news is to many, it was also very predictable. The ongoing (and still current) ‘lockdown light’ — in place since early November — has not been denting the rise in cases that emerged at the beginning of autumn and continued spiking into winter. This has gradually undermined Germany’s previous reputation for dealing well with the virus, and prompted Angela Merkel to point out that “an acute national health emergency” will almost certainly occur if a bigger compromise is not made.
For the last few weeks, despite bars, restaurants and gyms being closed again (as well as the clubs, which haven’t reopened since they closed in March), we have been allowed take-away services, and contact with up to ten people at a time, while schools, kindergartens and church services have remained open and active. What this has meant in practice is that people have gathered around outdoor Glühwein and pop-up food and drink stalls to try and secure some festive cheer as the winter closes in, shops have been crowded with shoppers as we near Christmas, and regular outbreaks have been reported in schools around the country.
The figures, meanwhile, have continued to rise. By Sunday the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) registered over 20,000 new infections, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 1.3 million infected and 21,787 dead, with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier calling the current situation “bitterly serious”. Hence the new measures, despite their obvious inconvenience, are deemed not only necessary but are being welcomed by many. As national media have reported on the possibility of hospitals becoming overwhelmed, some German states, such as Saxony and Bavaria, have in fact already introduced their own restrictions to try and curb local numbers, with the latter even implementing curfews.
Helping to counterbalance the justifiable frustrations of businesses, especially retail and hospitality who will suffer most at this time of year, the government has stepped up with another round of economic support. Companies with up to 50 employees, and the self-employed, can claim 75% of their income, while there are also emergency loans for self-employed workers and cheap loans for smaller businesses (with less than 10 employees). Clubs and cultural institutions will also continue to receive support, although the cost of all the hand-outs combined by now is reckoned to be as much as €10 billion.
Though many are happy to suffer the new regulations for the sake of the bigger picture, a healthy percentage are, of course, very much not happy, including smaller businesses who don’t think they will survive another lockdown, and those in the so-called Querdenker (‘lateral thinkers’) community, which is made up of conspiracy theorists, anti-lockdown protesters, and the far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The largest anti-lockdown protests were held in Leipzig and Berlin last month. The former drew over 20,000 attendees, and the latter around 10,000, who were dispersed with water cannons by police after bringing children along and refusing to socially distance or wear masks, as per the official rules. In return, protestors threw bottles, bricks and firecrackers at the police. A planned protest planned for New Year’s Eve in Berlin, which has allegedly drawn 25,000 registered attendees, is likely to be cancelled under the current lockdown measures.
Exacerbating current tensions is the fact that while the UK, the USA and other nations have been planning and announcing mass vaccine distributions, not much seems to have been happening in Germany. We will apparently only be getting three or four million doses by the end of January, which media reports say is due to production problems with Pfizer/BioNTech — somewhat paradoxical given the latter company is based in Mainz, Germany.
All in all it looks to be a fairly quiet, uneventful festive season. We can only hope that the latest sacrifices will help bring the numbers down, and that the vaccine will eventually consign the concept of lockdowns to history. How long that will all take, however, is still very unclear…