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We must take social distancing seriously

Martin Muno
Martin Muno
April 30, 2020

There is increasing dissent against social distancing rules, which had previously had broad public backing. That could have fatal consequences, writes DW's Martin Muno.

Pedestrians fill the street in late April in Dortmund
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

Across the world, many countries have imposed lockdown measures to contain coronavirus outbreaks. By international comparison, Germany has so far weathered the pandemic reasonably well — even though the virus continues to spread here, too. People are dying, and hundreds of thousands are out of work and deprived of income.

Germany has introduced only limited restrictions on public life, and the COVID-19 death toll remains low compared with many other countries. There has also been a remarkably broad consensus that social distancing measures are essential to contain the pandemic.

Read more: Germany: Record number of workers on reduced hours

Martin Muno
Martin Muno

Yet this consensus is now beginning to erode. Increasingly, people are flocking to high streets and parks, ignoring social distancing rules. Business representatives have begun calling for restrictions on commerce to be lifted as soon as possible.

Rather distastefully, Boris Palmer of the Greens party recently said that many of the often elderly individuals whom the measures are designed to protect might have passed away soon, anyway. Theater director Frank Castorf has complained that he doesn't want "a fretful Mrs. Merkel telling me I need to wash my hands." And the well-known virologist Christian Drosten reportedly even received death threats for supporting the public health measures.

Read more: World's top coronavirus experts face fame, scorn amid pandemic

Nostalgia for February

Not all of the complaints are misplaced. It's perfectly understandable that some parents of young children are desperate to see day care centers and playgrounds reopen. It's only natural that we want to return to the time before the coronavirus pandemic.

Back then, we had other serious problems on our hands: climate change, displaced people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, airlines going bankrupt and US President Donald Trump spouting nonsense. None of these problems have gone away. But, at least back then, we could still visit our relatives, grab a drink at the local bar, hug friends. Christians could still go to Sunday church, and Muslims were free to break the daily Ramadan fast together.

None of this nostalgia is any help right now. A return to that type of normality isn't on the horizon anytime soon. At first, the lockdown seemed like an exciting break from our everyday lives. Now, many of us have grown weary of the restrictions — with no end in sight.

A healthy debate?

There is confusion over whether face masks really help protect wearers from spreading or contracting the virus. It seems that German lawmakers are sending mixed messages, and even the country's disease control and prevention authority, the Robert Koch Institute, has failed to offer a clear answer.

Germany's 16 federal states have not adopted a shared position on when wearing a mask is mandatory, either. All this somewhat undermines the public's trust in politicians and experts.

Read more: Coronavirus tracking apps: How are countries monitoring infections?

The curtailment of constitutionally guaranteed rights that we are experiencing today is unprecedented, which is why we need to carefully weigh the pros and cons. The debate over a coronavirus app that would store personal data — and for how long the data is stored — illustrates this well. We also need to discuss which lockdown measures should be lifted and when, even if Chancellor Angela Merkel disapproves.

Making a trade-off

All the considerations sometimes make us forget what we're up against: a virus that threatens the health, and even lives, of countless people across the world.

We need to stick to the policy of flattening the curve. Otherwise, we will see a huge spike in infections — and millions of deaths. All this should be abundantly clear, though some are starting to raise doubts or downplay the danger.

Read more: Museums prepare for reopening amid coronavirus crisis

We have to balance the costs of temporarily sacrificing civil liberties with the benefit of keeping people healthy. It's a trade-off we all — from Chancellor Merkel to cashiers at the supermarket — have to make. We must take social distancing seriously, no matter how unpopular it may be.

What matters is that all decisions must be reached via the democratic process. They must be reached on the basis of free, transparent discussions and decision-making processes. And we also need to reconsider the notion of liberty. Maybe, in these times, liberty isn't so much about doing what we want to do. Instead, today, liberty is maybe more about making rational choices, as the philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel argued.

This, by extension, would mean simply accepting the lockdowns.

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Martin Muno
Martin Muno Digital immigrant, interested in questions of populism and political power
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