In mid-March this year, life in Berlin changed noticeably. Earlier that month, the number of COVID-19 infections had started to increase. The lockdown came in a series of successive steps: at first, clubs and bars were closed, then schools and day care institutions, and a few days later cafés and non-essential shops. The city government introduced social distancing measures. Berliners were urged to limit movement outside the house to grocery shopping, exercise or short walks. Beyond the members of their own household, individuals were only allowed to meet one other person, and only outside their home, all the while keeping a distance of at least five feet.
It took a few days for people to adapt their behavior. Newspapers reported about “corona parties”, high school students meeting in the park, celebrating the closure of schools. Then, on March 18, Angela Merkel gave a rare speech on national television. “It is serious”, she said. “Take it seriously.” Drawing on scientific research and explaining the steps that the government had taken to contain the spread of the virus, she urged everyone to take responsibility as citizens – not just for oneself and one’s family, but for the larger community and society as such: “Every human, every human life counts.”
As a historian studying, amongst other things, questions of myth and memory, I am inclined (almost professionally, one could say) to be skeptical of the existence of collective moments, or the idea that one single speech by a political leader could indeed change majority behavior. Yet the following days already felt much quieter in the city; Merkel’s words, it seemed, had indeed had an impact. As the lockdown extended into April, Berlin continued to be unusually empty, with few people out and about, and little traffic in the street, almost like a perpetual European Sunday.
During that time, we left the house once per day. With two small children at home, it quickly became clear that staying inside the apartment for the entire day was simply impossible. But where to go was less clear. Playgrounds were closed (although the parks remained open) and we wanted to avoid running into other children from day care. Looking for new places where children could run around, bike or play became a daily challenge. I once spent an afternoon on a random sidewalk onto which my daughter had drawn with crayons a lake, a beach, several fish and waves. The occasional passersby were giving us curious looks as she lay on the granite and practiced her swimming skills, moving her legs back and forth.
The spring lockdown worked: Through a combination of several measures, the virus reproduction rate went down across Germany, and the number of deaths remained comparatively low. Apart from social distancing and contact tracing, one of the key factors appears to have been the capacity to conduct early and widespread testing. Researchers at the Charité, Berlin’s university hospital, developed the first coronavirus test in mid-January. By the time the virus began to spread, laboratories across the country were prepared. Luck, to some extent, also played a part. The first outbreak of the virus, which occurred at an auto parts supplier company close to Munich, was detected early on and contained through systematic contact tracing and quarantine. Had the outbreak gone unnoticed or the response to it been delayed, the virus would have been able to spread silently by late January, and the situation might have escalated within a few weeks, mirroring developments in northern Italy and other places.
In mid-May, the government of Berlin began the gradual loosening of restrictions. In many ways, the city seemed back to normal again: shops and cafés reopened, as did playgrounds and museums. People were allowed to visit friends and family at home. Day care centers and schools, though, only began to operate on a regular schedule over the summer. In shops, customers now found the obligatory disinfectant at the door, floor markings to control customer lines, and plexiglass shields at the cashier. The new normal also comprises face masks, and the ubiquitous signs that ask people to keep distance. Even at the playground, children are instructed to ensure a five-feet distance between them and others, a rule that seems quite comical.
Around that time, when overnight stays became possible again, we took the children to spend the weekend in a small village about an hour east of Berlin, near the river Oder that forms part of the German-Polish border. It was strange to stand on the German side of the river, looking over to the Polish side without being able to take the ferry across, as we had done last time we visited. Since Poland entered the Schengen Agreement in 2007, border controls between the two countries had practically ceased to exist, and people could simply walk back and forth on bridges across the Oder. For most of the spring, though, the border was closed. Students at the University of Frankfurt (Oder), on the German side of the river, could no longer cross the bridge over to Słubice, on the Polish side of the river, where part of the university campus is located. When the border reopened in mid-June, the towns’ two mayors met on the bridge and, spontaneously, hugged. (The mayor of Frankfurt/Oder later reported himself to the local public health department for having violated the rules on social distancing, but the authorities chose not to fine him, arguing, perhaps with a note of irony, that while he had acted carelessly, he had done so without intent.)
As the first lockdown came to an end, there was an overall sense that the medical side of the pandemic had been handled fairly well. Other problems, though, soon became clear. A financial stimulus package by the government was able to cushion some of the immediate economic losses. Switching to Kurzarbeit (literally “short work”), a program whereby many employers reduce their employees’ working hours instead of laying them off and the government provides an income replacement rate of 60 percent brought some relief. Still, the pandemic is expected to have a much broader impact on the German economy than the global financial crisis.
The lockdown also at once exposed and exacerbated structural problems. Around the globe, the pandemic worsened social and economic inequalities, especially for women. In Germany, as elsewhere, women shouldered more care work at home than men during the lockdown. They are also overrepresented in jobs that turned out to be essential during the pandemic (health care workers in hospitals and nursery homes, supermarket cashiers and drug store staff), yet that remain underpaid. Rates of domestic violence against women and children have gone up during the lockdown, all the while making it more difficult for social workers to be in contact with families at risk. Meanwhile, people fleeing war and persecution are even more at peril: as the European Union effectively shut its borders to non-EU citizens to curb the spread of the virus, the situation in the overcrowded, squalid refugee camps on Greek islands further deteriorated, making ever more visible the EU’s broken asylum system – and the length to which countries go to protect their own societies, while turning a blind eye on others.
It is now winter, a few weeks into the second full nationwide lockdown. Beginning in October, the curve started to climb again, and so did death rates. At first, Berlin’s government introduced lighter measures: bars, restaurants, theaters and gyms had to close, but shops, schools and day care institutions remained open. These measures, however, had no visible effect. In some part, perhaps, this was also due to pandemic fatigue, which might have made some people less inclined to take the new restrictions seriously.
On December 16, then, the country went into full lockdown again. All non-essential businesses, schools and day care institutions, museums and theatres closed. A five-person limit on the number of people over age 14 who could meet from two separate households was introduced, with some exceptions for the Christmas holidays. These measures seem to have had an effect: the number of reported new infections has since gone down. Yet it is also possible that the effect can, at least to some extent, be attributed to less testing over the holidays. In any case, the situation in intensive care units across the country remains critical. A few days after New Year’s, the lockdown was extended to January 31, but it might well continue beyond that date, too. Germany’s federal and state governments also introduced further restrictions, including limiting meetings outside one’s household to just one other person. With January being typically cold and rainy, many of my Berlin friends go through a mix of different emotions every day: uneasiness at what is to come and a general weariness of the situation, but also patience, acceptance, and gratitude for many things, large and small – as the city has turned quieter, once again.