“Since German unification, no, since World War II, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not a fan of pathos. Her preferred choice of words is sober, analytical and reserved. Even when it comes to the largest of political challenges, she sounds like the holder of a natural science doctorate that she is. Not to mention that she’s always optimistic, just think back to the refugee crisis’ “We can do it.”
So when the woman who has led Germany for more than 14 years makes her first unscheduled, televised speech and appeals directly to the citizens of Germany with a historical comparison to a war that cost the lives of 55 million people around the world and left Germany reduced to rubble, then something has gone terribly wrong.
And we are all affected. Our daily lives are dominated by closed schools, day care facilities and stores; companies have furloughed employees or sent them to work from home; consumers are panic buying and fighting in supermarkets. Social restrictions that range from canceled vacations to forced quarantine are all commonplace now. The virus is the only topic if conversation with family and friends.
When they talk about exponential growth, mathamaticians’ forecasts show us the size of the threat. At the beginning of March there were 130 COVID-19 cases in Germany — now it’s over 11,000 and within scientific experts’ estimates. If the curve continues at this speed we’ll soon reach the 100,000 or even the million-mark: and that doesn’t even include unregistered infections. What’s worse: the coronavirus isn’t a national threat but a global one.
Faced with such conditions, the chancellor did the right thing. She did not issue orders, but appealed to our common sense. She trusts that, as informed citizens, we will act as the situation requires. Social distance is the new expression everyone is talking about, but the hashtag #staythefuckhome gets the point across in a blunter manner. Or, as the chancellor says, “We are not doomed to helplessly watch the spread of the virus. We have a means to fight it: We must practice social distancing out of consideration for one another.”
More dead, less freedom
The catch is, and Merkel mentioned this too in her speech, is that a forced break of a few weeks won’t be enough. “The weeks ahead will be even more difficult,” she said. More people will die, there will be massive economic costs and possibly even social upheaveal.
We will also have to give up some of our freedom. For us as a society — regardless of where we live — this will be an enormous challenge. But something positive could come out of it. The little virus has already shined a light on the outrageous idiocy of populists — just watch videos from US President Donald Trump. We are already learning that there are other ways to communicate as video conferencing becomes the norm. And we can sense that we are all a part of this, and that solidatary with people we don’t even know does us all good. Consideration for others can even be expressed in the tiniest of gestures, such as switching sides of the street not to walk right past someone.
The philospher Slavoj Zizek summed up what’s in store for all of us when he said that even if life returns to normal, it will be a different kind of normal than we were used to before the outbreak. For me, he means we will learn that life is delicate and full of threats. We’re in the middle of a revolution and it’s up to us to decide whether it has a happy end.
Please, stay healthy.