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Lockdown: Are we all Covid hypocrites?

Our editor is fed up. She asks why it’s so hard to have a frank, honest discussion about the lockdown. Why are all critical voices in Berlin dismissed as conspiracy theorists? Is the media to blame?

Image for Lockdown: Are we all Covid hypocrites?

It’s taboo to criticise the lockdown within progressive circles these days, turning a complex topic into a shouting match. But that ignores the important issues at play, like a complacent media or ulterior government motives. Photo: IMAGO / Seeliger

It all started with a great hug from my acupuncturist.

I was on my way out of her practice (yes, needling isn’t verboten!) when she caught up with me, drew me into her arms and gave me a warm, full-body embrace that took me by total surprise. “We are physical beings – we all need that,” she whispered. It clearly was coming straight out of her empathetic Heilpraktikerin heart, but also, I could tell, from dealing with too many forlorn patients aching for just that. And it did feel a little scandalous – after 10 months of awkward elbow-bumps and vaguely Japanese bowing in lieu of hugs and handshakes, it was the first time a stranger got that physical with me, let alone a German!

An hour later my partner-in-Spaziergang – a Kreuzberg restaurant owner who took to compulsive hiking to offset the stress caused by business losses and forced idleness – cancelled our weekly walk: he had a catering order for 15 to deliver. “Fifteen people – but that’s totally illegal,” I exclaimed. “Who even does that these days?” I was promptly informed that people do order food for celebrations small and large, and it’s never just for “two people” as the regulations demand. “People are going mental with those measures, they’re sick of it,” justified my friend. “Do you know anyone who sticks to them anyway?”

Do I?

Well, what I do know is that most people around me, especially people in the so-called progressive circles I’m supposed to belong to, have been very vocal in their dismissal of anyone speaking against the lockdown.

Lockdown hardliners: The good and the bad

Since the beginning of the year, most people I know have been dutifully supporting the lockdown, or advocating for even stricter measures. A dear friend who’s on a crusade against mask-abstainers even initiated a brawl on the Straßenbahn after harassing a passenger for not wearing their mask adequately over their nose (she ended up with a bruised jaw). At least my friend is sticking to her principles: she skipped her birthday this year, and only meets one friend at a time – always outdoors.

I’m not sure about my other acquaintances. What I do know is that they’ve been vehemently dismissing anyone who dares question the measures or speak in favour of relaxing the lockdown, no matter the reason. Whether it’s a lunatic who believes everything’s been plotted by Bill Gates or a small restaurant owner struggling with imminent insolvency; whether it’s a radical-right populist eager to cause a ruckus, a psychiatrist warning against long-term consequences of isolation and stress, or a jurist worried about basic freedoms – they dismiss it all under the same outraged breath, accompanied by a very vague call for “responsibility” and “solidarity”.

I’m told it’s a privileged-person thing to complain about lockdown: who cares that ‘Brigitte’ is aching to go back to the Friseur, as a respected colleague recently polemicised? Not me. But what about those kids with no proper home space in which to study and no parents to help? What about my friend who might lose his restaurant? That single-mum colleague who’s got to take time off work because the school is closed? And what about my old neighbour Siegfried, who walks the streets with no socks because there’s no one to clip his toenails anymore? For every Brigitte, there’s a Siegfried.

The Querdenken stigma: All loonies and Nazis?

The problem is that since the so-called Querdenken demos last year, lockdown-bashing has been a no-no, especially among the progressive Left I’m supposed to belong to. Try criticising the lockdown and you’ll be shamed as a covidiot conspiracy theorist, a Covid denier or, worse, a “Nazi” – a blanket term too often used to lump together a wide-ranging spectrum of people from pro-business liberals and conservative CSU voters to AfD politicians all the way to neo-Nazi NPD supporters.

Granted, some at the demos were serious loonies, while others were suspiciously alt-right, and some neo-Nazis were indeed spotted amongst the messy mix. But from first-hand observation (last summer, they gathered every Saturday near Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, right outside the Exberliner office), there were also many people rather harder to pigeon-hole, like old-school East Germans, radical leftists, people scared about losing their jobs, businesses, or their constitutional rights.

The problem is that since the so-called Querdenken demos last year, lockdown-bashing has been a no-no, especially among the progressive Left I’m supposed to belong to.

I remember asking Wolfgang Kaleck, one of Germany’s foremost human rights lawyers, what he thought of the first measures leading into last Spring’s lockdown. Like many of his colleagues, he was concerned. “As a principle, I’d agree with people who say, ‘Never trust a government,’” he said. “Which doesn’t mean you’re not to obey rules, like the rules to contain the pandemic. But since September 11 we know that governments tend to profit from such situations, to pass exceptional measures that will negatively impact our democracies. And we know from experience that once established, such measures tend to remain.” He went on: “We can’t debate every single measure, but we shouldn’t give in to growing panic and not ask about what’s necessary, what’s not, what risks we’re ready to take or not. And it’s not for scientists to decide – it’s a political question for citizens to debate.”

“A democracy needs critical citizens,” he concluded. I would also add: and critical media.

The media: Too compliant? 

But nowadays in Berlin, as a journalist, it is not PC to say anything against the government measures and the lockdown. If you’d like to express an opinion or just take some action, better side with the #ZeroCovid ‘more lockdown’ movement, or light some candles on a square, which I see as one of many attempts for us powerless citizens to regain agency over a situation that’s totally escaping us. This is not a PC idea either, by the way. I remember the day I suggested we run a story about activists on both sides of the lockdown debate, I was confronted with a barrage of dismissive reactions among my editorial team, for equating the two.

They’re all assholes and conspirationist loonies – covering them would discredit all of us.”

A colleague made the point that anti-Lockdown proponents were “science-deniers” and dangerous “negationists”, and I was surprised to realise that most of them were lockdown hardliners, as if it were the obvious and only enlightened option. As I explained that I thought it’d be interesting to investigate and confront valid arguments across the political/corona divide, one of our editors went as far as to suggest that: “No responsible editor, no self-respecting medium should cover these people (the anti-Lockdown gang). They’re all assholes and conspirationist loonies – covering them would discredit all of us.” I was warned. Giving a voice to those people opposed to the lockdown would be an act of betrayal against my own people, my editorial team, the reputation of our magazine.

Since when is a journalist’s responsibility to conform and adhere? What about the media’s role as the fourth estate – to be critical of governments; to inform, not to enlist? To convey the facts – not government press releases? To be purveyors of common sense, not of fear, like when I keep reading of Mutanten (“mutants”) – to mutate is what viruses do! – as if we were under attack from outer space, a sci-fi horror scenario where no small sacrifice would be enough in fighting back. Are we just here to pave the way for further lockdowns?

Why not hold the powerful to account?

The ruling pro-lockdown consensus is not only clogging the democratic debate. It is also hiding the everyday reality of people’s lives. No one believes the measures are fair – you can shop at McPaper but not the neighbourhood hobby shop. You can’t drive to Brandenburg but you can fly to Paris – and no one can stick to them 100%. There are grounds to question their sustainability (few people can claim they’ve never seen more than one fellow human at a time) and rationality (better to see the same two or three people all the time than meet 20 people, each one at a time!). Most who comply aren’t doing well – they’re lonely.

Meanwhile, by dismissing all dissenting views, we’ve left the intellectual turf free for alternative-truthers to hijack the debate. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you scare sensible critical voices out of the public debate, then you leave it open to the most absurd and radical ones. We now know for sure that last March the German government – based on presumably good intentions – rustled up some data from leading scientists (including the RKI) designed specifically to justify tougher “preventative and repressive” measures: this basically consisted of an extrapolated worst-case scenario that would be presented to citizens as ‘facts’). And while it’s great that those journalists at Die Welt finally exposed the secret emails, my question is this: Why couldn’t we challenge the obvious earlier, instead of promoting the government’s scheme across every news channel?

Some local papers are slowly opening their opinion pages to credible voices against the lockdown, and their opinions have found an immediate echo among readers. In an op-ed in the Berliner Zeitung, former Süddeutsche Zeitung editor and lawyer Heribert Prantl called for society to “wake up” – and it was a big hit!

Why couldn’t we challenge the obvious earlier, instead of promoting the government’s scheme across every news channel?

In the meantime, the virus has been mutating, possibly out of vaccination range (especially with doses being distributed at EU-speed and South African mutants catching up!), the super-rich have been getting richer and the poorest getting poorer as a result of the lockdown. On the radio I caught historian Walter Scheidel explaining: “No, this pandemic won’t be the great levelling force that the Spanish flu was at the time.”

Overall inequalities are actually increasing. It’s not the privileged who are suffering most right now: big companies continue to get bailed out, and well-off people have country cottages to work from while their kids receive adequate pedagogical help – and, yeah, Brigitte can call for the hairdresser to drop by and get the family dinner delivered to their doorstep!

The next wave of trauma: mental health?

Lockdown has been sold as the humane choice in a trade-off between the economy in the abstract and the physical health of vulnerable people. Aside from the physical health risks, mental health professionals have been warning about Corona’s upcoming “psychiatric wave”. Working on the upcoming March issue of the EXB magazine, we compiled data pointing to a disturbing reality: the deep, long-term psychological consequences of lockdown policy, not so much among the older generations but, surprisingly, among younger people – mostly young millennials and Gen Z. Scientific surveys published in Japan and the US have shown that more people have been taking their own lives since the beginning of the second lockdown (but not the first lockdown, interestingly). German authorities have denied this is the case here, although no one can officially say for sure because the authorities will not release suicides rates for 2020 until this September.

Our Coronazeit lives have been dominated by fear and solidarity – fear for our physical health, and solidarity for seniors who are prime victims of a virus showing relatively low lethality among the population at large. But what about our mental health? And what about theirs? Here’s another disturbing anecdote: My French aunt, who was in her late eighties, caught Covid at the hospital where she was undergoing hip surgery. Despite her age, the virus didn’t hit her body badly – she was totally fine. What did affect her was the isolation that followed: two weeks of strict quarantine away from family and friends, without even a smartphone or an iPad to communicate. She died a few days after the end of her confinement. Does she count as a Covid casualty?

And does it make me a conspiracy ‘terrorist’ to say these things aloud – to feel aggrieved by the lack of debate, to want to share the frustration I’ve been holding for too long?

Back to my Plattenbau, hairdressers and Siegfried

There’s a joke going around that you can tell who’s abiding by the rules by looking at their hair. There are those who took to cutting their own, and those who obviously managed to score “professional help” (this is supposed to change on March 1). My neighbour Siegfried’s hair has grown worryingly long – it’s not just his toenails that I volunteered to clip. He turned 86 this month, still hasn’t received his injection (he’s not due until March, and is having mixed feelings about whether he should go) and runs a busy life wearing his mask under his nose. When I ask him if he’s scared about Corona, he gives a fatalistic shrug. He’s survived the war and the starvation that followed – he jumped the Wall and even dug a tunnel underneath it to flee to the West.

“Why would I be scared? It’s life,” he says, and presents his feet.