Berlin's drastic approach to battling the coronavirus was widely accepted by Germany's population. But that support could soon wane when strict measures are relaxed, writes Jens Thurau.
It was akin to a miracle that German society, seemingly polarized and agitated by almost every issue just weeks ago, was so wholly in agreement about the need for drastic social distancing measures, the shuttering of shops and the closure of daycare centers and schools to curb the coronavirus pandemic. People across Germany largely thought it was the right approach, and stoically remained at home.
Now the country's leaders have decided it is time to come out of isolation — at least here and there. The government has found that it can no longer look on as the entire country more or less grinds to a halt. On the other hand, the health threat posed by the novel coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, remains grave, despite the flattening of the infection curve.
As such, the country's leaders have agreed that the contact ban will remain in place until May 4. Perhaps it is a balancing act that had to be, but it is also one that could cost the government the support it has so far enjoyed throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel and other state and government leaders joined together to announce the schedule for easing coronavirus restrictions
Patience ... patience
The decision means that for the next two-and-a-half weeks, we will still have to reduce life to its essentials, remain at home, and basically see only our families. At the same time, small shops such as book stores and car dealerships will be allowed to reopen. High schools will be allowed to reopen, with all others doing so on or after May 4 — though it remains unclear who exactly will be allowed to return to the classroom. Restaurants and hotels will remain closed, too.
Although it is strongly recommended that citizens wear face masks, they will not be mandatory. That is likely because there simply aren't enough of them for the country's 80 million residents.
This all makes clear that it was comparatively easy to get people to accept severe limitations on their personal freedoms. There was good reason for it, and the vast majority of people in Germany understood that fact. Moreover, state and federal governments liberally doled out billions of euros to soften the hardest impact — something that happened with an astonishing lack of bureaucracy. Now, however, things are about to get complicated.
Just to be clear: The government really had no choice but to embark on this balancing act. Protecting life and limb is naturally the basis of every action, but politicians also must consider people's livelihoods as well. Nevertheless, in respecting the economic aspects of the situation, the government has already begun to pick winners and losers: Small shop owners will breathe a sigh of relief, but seniors will remain isolated. Some students will be able to see their friends again, others will not.
No end in sight
Now, more than ever, Germany's federal, state and local authorities need to clearly justify why this is — and speak with one voice as much as possible. This has not been the case in recent days: One state premier was in favor of a generous easing, the next was against it. Germany's federalism has been a blessing in recent weeks; virologists praised the fact that it enabled the country to react flexibly to the pandemic. Now, however, state premiers must avoid competing to see who can be the first to relax restrictions. That possibility was averted for the time being by Wednesday's decisions.
Though the first easing of restrictions is in sight, the end is not. This pandemic will be with us for a long time. One can only hope that it will not turn us against one another: parents against children, students against teachers, bookshop owners against restauranteurs, high-risk groups versus low-risk groups. With the weight of these decisions upon them, the country's leaders are not to be envied.