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Germany: COVID solidarity goes local

Stephanie Höppner
July 1, 2020

A few months ago, most people in Germany agreed with the countrywide coronavirus restrictions imposed on daily life. Are they now losing their community spirit? Not necessarily, say experts.

Helpers hand over diapers to Toennies employees and their families who are quarantined
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/M. Meissner

Workers have been quarantined at their homes in the German town of Verl after a major coronavirus outbreak hit the Tönnies meat-processing plant. Fortunately, some kind locals have vowed to make life more bearable for them. They include 32-year-old Julia Held, who already joined a group in her neighborhood that calls itself "Helping Hands" at the start of the pandemic.

With other volunteers, she wants to provide practical help. They have hired a caterer who provides food to those cooped up inside. Naturally, they make sure Muslim families don't receive pork. Held and the other helpers pass cake, toy cars for children to ride on, water pistols, sun cream and much more through the fences around the houses.

All this, she tells DW, is also meant to signal to the workers and their families that they have not been forgotten and that they shouldn't feel responsible for the outbreak. That's why "we want to be there for them now more than ever," Held says.

Dozens of people crowd together on rubber dinghies on a Berlin canal
A protest party against the closing of nightclubs in Berlin went down badlyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Bruckmann

Party protesters flouting the rules

Their activities were soon covered by various German media outlets, probably in part because they contrast strongly with the behavior of many people in Germany, who now seem to be ignoring the danger posed by COVID-19. Recently, Berlin's public transport agency, the BVG,raised the alarm because passengers had begun ditching face masks. Any passenger now found without a mask is fined at least €50. Repeat offenders will have to pay an even steeper fine.

In early June, a massive protest party was staged on a Berlin canal in support of the city's club scene. Berliners took to the water in hundreds of tiny rubber boats, flouting recommended social distancing guidelines and not wearing face masks. They were broadly condemned as egoistic. Berlin's club scene dissociated itself from the protest.

But even apart from such headline-grabbing events, large gatherings are being seen again across the country, with parks and playgrounds teeming with people. Many in German society seem to have forgotten that a pandemic is still going on.

Times change

Just a few months ago, whenChancellor Angela Merkel gave a much-lauded television address on Germany's fight against the pandemic, most people in Germany were all for "flattening the curve" and showing solidarity with others. Younger people volunteered to go grocery shopping for their elderly neighbors and those with preexisting medical conditions.

People felt that staying home and limiting their social interactions was essential and appropriate in light of the pandemic, especially as the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's disease prevention authority, had warned 10 million people could catch the virus if these rules were ignored.

The governmental measures were strict. But the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) found in a March survey that more than 90% of people in Germany approved of them — even though this meant that some faced financial losses, or even economic ruin.

Professor Alena Buyx, who does research on biomedical ethics at TU Munich, says it was a unique display of solidarity. Speaking to DW, she said, "This potential was always there; now we've witnessed it." She argues that this large amount of potential for solidarity explains why Germany has weathered the outbreak so well.

Volunteers give a thumbs up as they prepare to wheel trollies filled with aid
Solidarity, like that shown by "Helping Hands" in Verl, is becoming more localImage: Julia Held

Creeping carelessness

For weeks, however, infection rates have been falling, and public life has been returning to normal. Now, things are not as clear-cut. Meeting friends in the park should be okay, as the risk of infection is low. But what about meeting at home? Is it a bad idea to go on holiday? What about working in the office or working from home?

What has happened to the much-vaunted nationwide solidarity? Buyx feels that it has not disappeared, but has taken on regional forms in places where it is required.  These "solidarity hotspots," as she calls them, emerge wherever there are rapid increases in the numbers of infections.

"We are not showing less solidarity than before; our solidarity has merely changed — and it had to change," Buyx explains. After all, she stresses, "We still have nationwide rules in place like wearing masks in certain locations, keeping a safe distance and meeting hygiene standards. But we have another level that is more complex. And that is where solidarity hotspots are needed."

Are masks making us socially distant?

Regional solidarity

This is exactly what is being seen in and around the city of Gütersloh,where the meat-processing workers have been quarantined and are receiving help from Julia Held and other volunteers.

But Buyx says the potential for it in society is not infinite. That's why the German Ethics Council, which she chairs, urged lawmakers to consider lifting coronavirus restrictions sooner rather than later. She says it is also why she welcomed the introduction of a regional upper limit for infections for imposing lockdowns.  "We can't demand that everyone show the same level of solidarity everywhere, but only where there is a concrete need," she says.

This regional approach envisions that new social distancing restrictions can be imposed if more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents are recorded within a seven-day period.

For now, Julia Held still has the energy to support those in need — even if that sometimes means getting up at 6 a.m. and getting to bed at midnight. "I don't even ask myself if I should be doing this; it's totally obvious I should be," she says "It's really not hard for me because I can see how thankful these people are."

Coronavirus at German meat plants