Email after email rolls in. The first is from your employer, canceling all meetings for the next few weeks. Then one from a concert organizer, announcing that your favorite artist won’t perform on the weekend. Then your parents get in touch, postponing their visit with the grandchildren — all taking precautions to stem the spread of coronavirus.
This glimpse of an email inbox is probably familiar to many by now. In Germany, as in other parts of Europe, public life is slowly grinding to a halt. Teams in the Bundesliga, Germany’s football league, first played in empty stadiums and then postponed games, playgrounds are deserted and all of a sudden there’s a lot more legroom on commuter trains and in workplace cafeterias. Most states have ordered schools and kindergartens to suspend classes as of next week, and Berlin’s mayor has announced that all bars must close. It seems only a matter of time before more restaurants and cinemas follow suit, as they did in Italy.
How social distancing saves lives
“We now know very well that in the current phase of the pandemic we have to cut off practically all social contact if we want to have any chance of keeping the number of infected people as low as possible,” said Patrick Larscheid, the public health officer for the district of Berlin-Reinickendorf. He has called on the Berlin senate to take more decisive steps against the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, saying public life must be restricted as much as possible to protect the population.
Read more: What you need to know about the coronavirus
The decision to cancel events of more than 1,000 people doesn’t go far enough, Larscheid said. Any place where people gather must be shut down. “Otherwise we won’t be able to control [the outbreak] anymore,” he said. Social contact — which has always been one of the cornerstones of well-being — is now considered a threat. With the virus transmitted through person-to-person contact, proximity to others can cause serious illness.
Too little, too late for Italy
Will we soon see a situation similar to Italy play out in Germany? As a measure to stop the spread of the virus, all shops in Italy except pharmacies and supermarkets are closed for the time being — which means bars, restaurants and even hairdressers have closed their doors.
“Only a few days ago I asked you to change your habits and stay home,” said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in a video message on Wednesday evening. “I was aware that this was a first step and would not be the last. It’s time to take another step.”
In other words, public life in Italy has been brought to a complete standstill. Germany is inching closer to this scenario. On March 3, when virologist Alexander Kekulé pleaded to keep everyone at home for two weeks — in order to contain the epidemic in its early stages by interrupting the chains of infection — the scientist was laughed at by many.
Karl-Josef Laumann, the health minister of North Rhine-Westphalia — the state most affected by the outbreak — responded by saying that politicians should not take measures “which are disproportionate and which therefore cause hysteria.” A few days later, only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the city of Heinsberg, the most severely affected coronavirus hotspot in Germany, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund played a soccer match in front of more than 50,000 spectators.
Coronavirus reality is a moving target
In a matter of just a few days, the situation had changed entirely, and sporting events played before an audience became practically unthinkable. And we’re no longer talking about blowing things out of proportion. On March 11, also in Mönchengladbach, the first ghost game without spectators took place against FC Cologne. Meanwhile, the German ice hockey league has cut its season short, and even the Bundesliga has now called off games until further notice.
These days, German moviegoers leave a seat free between them, though many are avoiding the cinema altogether for fear of infection. Schools are shuttering, and the state of Baden-Württemberg has postponed the start of the summer semester. Cultural events — like the traditional Beethoven Festival in Bonn or the Latin America-Caribbean Week in Berlin — are being canceled, as are numerous trade fairs. Public life is being shut down, but it’s still happening in slow motion.
Are these measures enough?
Passenger numbers at the Frankfurt airport fell by 14.5% in the last week of February. The taxi industry is reporting revenue losses of up to 40% — a loss they’re trying to make up for by offering deep discounts to people with annual or monthly public transit passes. To take the bus in Berlin, you may only board using the back entrance, so as not to infect the driver. And cleaning staff are working overtime: Long-distance trains will now be cleaned every two hours instead of every four, and doors, handholds and luggage racks are being thoroughly disinfected.
Read more: Who is particularly at risk and why?
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, has accused several countries of insufficient measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic. “We are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it,” the director-general said in Geneva on Thursday. The question of which countries he was referring to remained unanswered — but it’s very possible that Germany could have been counted among them.