The color of the blazer may change, but the message remains the same: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Germany’s 16 states announced, once again, that the country must remain locked. The fight against the coronavirus pandemic has seen the lockdown extended for the third time in three months. What is next? It all depends on the level of infection.
Does anyone really believe that everything will looks much better on February 14th, that infection rates will be low enough to open schools, shops and restaurants? Certainly not. In March? Probably not. Easter? Maybe, but with conditions. By early April, it likely won’t be warm enough to bring life to the outside – not to mention that not enough people will be vaccinated by then.
Avoid new variants
As we all know, expanded immunity is the only way to deal with the virus. If and when we achieve it also depends on how quickly and substantially it changes. How long will the vaccine be effective against the mutation? Europe has bought too few bottles to immediately vaccinate millions – a fatal mistake in a race against time.
The urgency is even stronger with the new – and more contagious – variant of COVID-19 originating in the UK, which is now becoming is on the rise in Europe. With such high stakes, virologists, ahead of a meeting of state prime ministers, urged leaders to impose a total lockdown, dubbed a “mega-lockdown.”
But the country’s leaders have decided not to follow their advice.
Politics during a pandemic
The new restrictions rely more on mandatory masks, social distancing and working from home – measures that only reinforce what already is. But is that enough? The infection and death rates have decreased slightly, but are far from acceptable.
Policy makers have a dilemma. On the one hand, the threat is still great, maybe even bigger than before considering the new variant. But to be able to enforce tough measures in a free liberal democracy, the support of citizens is absolutely necessary – and it will collapse.
Germany is no longer the country where the pandemic started. The first wave of COVID-19 infections was both surprising and motivating. There are concerted efforts to contain the outbreak. The fear of the virus keeps everyone at home, at least those who can afford it. Most of the economy was closed. The city center is deserted, the streets are so empty that individual lanes are declared bike lanes, and you can safely walk the highways.
But during the second wave, the city streets were bustling. Certain sectors of the economy are up and running, if not at full speed, and that is what political leadership wants. Even Germany unable to take the second economic hit due to the harsh lockdown, which put further pressure on the national budget.
Nearly a year since the start of the pandemic, people have learned to cope with new routines and live in constant emergencies. We are more numb to danger, but, at the same time, pandemic exhaustion and depression. And now, many will have to muster strength and resilience over the coming weeks, either in the loneliness of one household or in the chaos of a family amid school closings.
Resistance is growing
Many policy mistakes have been made – not least in communicating regulations. More and more people are questioning the steps that are sometimes contradictory and difficult to understand. Why do hairdressers have to stay closed, but at the same time people are allowed to jostle through the checkout lines at supermarkets? Why are people not allowed to go to restaurants, but can get onto crowded buses and trains? Why are the most vulnerable, the elderly and the sick, better protected? What about high-quality medical masks and mandatory home testing? This can be done faster.
Resentment also grows in the business community. A locked industry is in dire financial straits; many of them may have to file bankruptcy immediately. Arts and culture, and the entire event industry, are practically gone. Calls for help were ignored – and bitter awareness was growing that the government was not helping the gastronomic and cultural industries as fast. While Lufthansa airline has billions of euros in guarantees, many small business owners are still waiting for the financial support promised in November.
The hardest months
Even in times of prosperity, politicians can no longer score points. Calls for easing lockdown measures have become more intense. More work from home for employees? Don’t be too fast, because it can become a habit after a pandemic. Even if employers now have to offer staff the opportunity to work from home, hard-hearted employers will find ways to get around this, even amid rising infection rates.
Back in December, we were told the next few months would be the toughest. That realization now had a profound impact.
People need goals. Positive goals. The things they can look forward to. It was cold and wet and gray outside. So what if they are cheerful and sociable inside, one should be able to imagine their next vacation. None of that is on the horizon at the moment. Otherwise. Politicians rely on the principle of hope – and on everyone who grins and holds him a little longer.
This article was translated from German.