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7 May 2020

Germany’s road out of lockdown leads not to normality but to a strange new version of it

Cafes are reopening and the Bundesliga will soon return, but anxiety lingers over infection numbers. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Something like normality is returning to Germany as the spread of Covid-19 continues to slow. The process began tentatively. On 20 April, smaller shops of up to 800 square metres in size reopened and some pupils, principally those taking leaving exams, returned to school with new rules to ensure social distancing. Politicians and commentators clashed over whether this reopening was too slow, imposing too high an economic and educational cost, or too fast, risking a second wave. Angela Merkel reportedly complained in a closed-door meeting about Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien, or “orgies of discussions about opening”. 

But over the subsequent weeks the infection rate has stayed low: below the crucial “reproduction” level of 1 above which the spread becomes exponential again. On 30 April, Merkel and the heads of the 16 federal states that are primarily responsible for many areas of domestic policy, went further and agreed to allow religious buildings, hair salons, playgrounds, zoos and museums to reopen.

Despite that, the momentum behind relaxation has continued to grow, particularly with the awareness that Germany’s high testing levels and hospital capacity have shielded it from some of the worst effects of the pandemic (bemused newspaper articles have covered the “Merkel-Mania” abroad). State governments have outflanked the recommendations. Earlier this week, North Rhine-Westphalia’s government threatened to reopen nurseries unilaterally, Saxony-Anhalt relaxed its contact ban and Lower Saxony moved to reopen restaurants. Here in Berlin, public areas have been growing busier and the traffic steadily heavier. The vast majority of shops are open again and restaurants, cafes and pubs can serve guests in-house again from 15 May. 

During another online summit yesterday, Merkel attempted to reassert the federal government’s authority by agreeing another wave of relaxations with state premiers: all shops can now reopen, restaurants can admit guests within certain capacity limits, small outdoor protests can take place and people can meet with members of another household in public again, albeit while abiding by rules on distance and mask-wearing.

In the second half of May, the Bundesliga will resume football games behind closed doors, and later this month hotels will start reopening in some federal states. At this rate people will be free to travel on holiday, domestically at least, when the school holidays begin from mid-June. 

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After the meeting, Merkel declared herself cautiously pleased with Germany’s progress and emphasised the importance of mutual trust: “Our federal republic is built on trust… and if we don’t have trust, we might as well give up.” The sense of progress was further reinforced this morning when the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s main disease control authority, announced that the Covid-19 reproduction rate had fallen further, to 0.65, with daily new cases well below 1,000. 

Yet anxiety lingers about how far the relaxations can go before numbers rise again. Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, on Tuesday (5 May) predicted “with great certainty” that there would be a second wave, and probably a third wave of the virus beyond that.

It looks probable that a new national lockdown, as strict or stricter than the original one, will have to be imposed at some point – perhaps in the autumn with the return of the cold weather. That likelihood, added Weiler, meant it is still necessary to roll out Germany’s contact tracing app: a project thus far mired in the country’s particular sensitivities about privacy.

“The first phase of the pandemic is behind us,” said an upbeat Merkel yesterday. And now, observing events here in Berlin, the contours of the second phase are coming into view. What is emerging is not so much normality per se but an uncanny, alternate version of it.

Cafes are returning, but as less convivial places with bigger gaps between tables and patrons discouraged from lingering. The crowd scenes of Western society are back, but in bloodless forms of themselves: near-silent football stadiums; socially distanced parks and beaches; and heavily restricted political gatherings (plans are afoot for Germany’s next federal election, due by autumn 2021, to take place entirely by post).

Conventional left-right divides in politics are giving way to a new spectrum based on the degree of intrusion – lockdowns, surveillance, economic intervention – justified by the fight against the virus. This version of normality is fragile. The spectre of new lockdowns continues to loom. Among the German measures agreed yesterday was an onus on local authorities to reimpose restrictions in any districts where new infections rise above 50 per 100,000 over a period of seven days.

How long will it last? On Monday (4 May), 43 world leaders, Merkel prominent among them, committed money towards the search for a global vaccine at a spendathon hosted by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. And yet the language used by experts here in Germany – about a “new normal”, about second and third waves, about contingency plans for a pandemic-era election even in late 2021 – speak to the grim reality.

Contrary to what the likes of Donald Trump optimistically claim – and among Merkel’s strengths during this crisis is that she has avoided setting unrealistic expectations – the quest for a vaccine could run not just far into next year but into the year beyond that or even the mid part of the decade. It is even possible, as the World Health Organisation envoy Robert Navarro noted on Monday, that no vaccine will be found. The second “phase” of the pandemic, to use Merkel’s formulation, may be with us for a long time.