Back in 2020, Germany got a lot right during the first wave of Covid. We had infections, but the levels were moderate and the health system coped comfortably with the spring surge. We had a tracking app up and running quickly and just 4 weeks into the first lockdown, the rules were being relaxed so the cafes and beer gardens could stay full. Most foreign press coverage was positive with a hint of jealousy at the inevitability of Germany “getting it right again”.
After a long hot summer, Germany had another “shot in the arm” with the news that the first successful vaccine had been invented here – and what’s more by Turkish immigrants! Angela Merkel’s steady-hand, middle-of-the-road politics and relaxed attitude to immigration in 2015 had all been vindicated during that glorious autumn of 2020. The popular press even had a proper “baddie” to make Germany look even better. That buffoon Johnson was busy getting everything wrong with post-Brexit Britain heading for a future as a virus-addled colony picking up the pieces of their crumbling economy.
The world, or at least the Guardian, agreed that only Angela could hold a candle to St. Jacinda in New Zealand (who had heroically protected her sparsely populated island, just a few thousand miles from the next land mass, from the evil pandemic). Once again we German residents were, with a certain degree of justified smugness, thanking our lucky stars that we lived here. Then winter came.
Things start to go wrong
Things had been getting slightly worse in October 2020. The numbers of infections were rising and hospital admissions went up. The political reactions were just starting. We have a federal system here in Germany and it is up to each of the (16) states to decide on the lockdown rules and regulations. Usually Bavaria was the finger-wagging state with the strictest rules and eager desire to get back into lockdown. It is a common misconception outside Germany, that Bavaria is a free-wheeling fun-loving state. The beer-swilling, rosy-cheeked Bavarian in Lederhosen does exist but the state is politically the most conservative and uptight. And so it wasn’t long before Bavaria was reintroducing restrictions and the head of state, Markus Söder, was all over TV imploring other states to get into line and introduce a new lockdown.
Angela got the states together and a soft lockdown started in November 2020. The idea was that after a month, the second wave would be nipped in the bud and we could get on with enjoying Advent and Christmas. Unfortunately, the virus wasn’t listening and the soft lockdown in November turned into a hard lockdown in December. This time just to get things under control so we can have a bit of knees-up over New Year. That didn’t happen either. The numbers kept going up and only started dropping after Christmas.
By now, people were really getting tired of the lockdown (which included 2 months of curfew between 9pm and 5am). In early 2021 some friends of ours (Maggie & Hans-Georg) phoned us and said they were going stir-crazy and would we care to join them for a drink – starting at 5pm so we could have a few glasses of wine and still be back home by 9 and beat the curfew. On that Friday evening, my friend Alan Brown, was coming down to visit us but we reckoned he would arrive just before curfew so we’d meet him back at our place as we arrived. Fuelled by our “early doors” drinking, we soon abandoned that plan and phoned Alan to tell him he needed to put his foot down and arrive a bit earlier and drop by at Maggie & Hans-Georg’s for a cheeky glass of schnapps. As they live just up the road, we could then walk the few hundred yards back and still beat the curfew. The plan started well but everyone was so pleased to meet again we all agreed that it couldn’t hurt to have another glass of schnapps. And seeing as it seemed to slip down easily, we thought one for the road was a must. We were, at least, sensible enough to know that drinking hard liquor like that is not a good idea if you plan something the next day. Which is why we opened a bottle of wine to slow things down a bit…
We had a wonderful evening, but somehow time got away from us and before we knew it, midnight had passed. We decided to make a run for it and reluctantly said our goodbyes, quietly got Alan’s bag out of the car and set off quietly down the street back home. We were stealthily sneaking through gardens and driveways so as to avoid being detected by the police. I’ve seen enough police-chase reality TV to know the basic moves. In retrospect, thinking about the boozing beforehand and the fact that all three of us have got dodgy knees, we probably weren’t quite the “ninjas” we’d imagined ourselves to be in the moment. Still, it felt like a great adventure and we enjoyed the adrenalin-buzz of having dodged the long arm of the law. Probably not actually that difficult as we hadn’t actually seen a police car on our road for most of lockdown.
Eventually, spring arrived and rules were relaxed to some degree. As summer came, England enjoyed “freedom day” but the German love of making and abiding by rules meant that the mask-wearing continued. Then along came Delta and when we finally thought things were looking better, Omikron proved to be the next booster for FFP2 masks and lateral-flow tests. I’ve been keeping an eye on the number of infections, hospitalizations, excess-deaths in both England and Germany since Covid started more than 2 years ago. The infection rates have swung up and down, usually out of sync, in each country and sometimes I thought England had got it all right, and at other times Germany. Yesterday I read that the “excess deaths” in all European countries have been roughly the same and that in the end we probably saved lives with vaccinations but the pandemic had to run its course.
Why did I write all this? Well, last week we finally got rid of the compulsory mask rules! After numerous extensions, people had just got tired of it and the politicians admitted defeat. I’m going out for a meal tonight in Schönaich and looking forward to seeing people smiling and not fiddling with masks every time they get up. We’re walking there and I shall order a cold beer. I might even have a schnapps afterwards. We’ll walk back along the main road and wave to the cops as they cruise by. Freedom again.