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German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a press statement about the coronavirus disease. Photo/Getty Images

In Berlin, the coronavirus disease is a tale of two realities

Online and TV reports of Covid-19 have been in sharp contrast with the lack of doom on Berlin streets, writes Cathrin Schaer.

It’s been an odd few weeks in Europe and not just because of the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic that the World Health Organisation says we are at the centre of.

It’s because it feels like we’ve been living in two almost-separate, surreal realities. One takes place online and on TV via ever-changing live updates about the effects of the novel coronavirus, Sars-CoV-2. School closures, shuttered museums, cancelled sports games, quarantined celebrities and perturbed politicians speed into view, then away again, to be replaced by Italian shoppers queueing like well-spaced-out dashes on a page and by crowded hospital corridors. All that information can be anxiety-inducing.

And then you go outside to another reality. Out on the streets of Berlin, things mostly seemed normal until very recently. Children went to school, dogs were being walked, bikes ridden and rubbish trucks filled. Two animated blondes sat close in the window of a crowded cafe, drinking and laughing directly into each other’s open, smiling mouths. They clearly haven’t read the news, you think unkindly as you slink by.

Occasionally, you catch someone trying to stifle a cough like a dirty secret. But that’s about the only sign of impending doom on the street. No face masks, no gloves, nobody coughing into their elbows as instructed by experts. Nobody pulling a cart, shouting “bring out yer dead!” either. Until really recently, the only visible evidence of possible disaster was a few empty supermarket shelves, denuded of disinfectant, pasta and toilet paper.

Part of the reason things have felt relatively normal until now is Germany’s Protection Against Infection Act. This stipulates that only local and state authorities can decide whether schools should be shut or buses cancelled. Central government doesn’t get a say. This is supposedly because local authorities know their own neighbourhoods best. It’s also why the German lockdown, to facilitate “social distancing” and prevent Covid-19 cases from spreading too rapidly, has been a little slower and more piecemeal than neighbouring countries’.

That began to change in the middle of the month, after a watershed meeting between local and federal authorities and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Berlin started taking more serious measures the day after the meeting: bars and nightclubs were shuttered over the weekend, schools closed on Monday, international travel was restricted and all non-essential businesses are stopping work. Supermarkets, delivery services, hardware stores and hairdressers – yes, hairdressers – may remain open. But it’s probably only a matter of days before the roughly four million residents of Berlin are confined to their homes. Our French, Italian and Spanish neighbours are already locked in.

That may actually be a good thing. This past weekend, the police were politely asking bars and pubs to close. But even as they were doing that, other establishments that hadn’t shut yet were crowded with enthusiastic drinkers getting in one last beer. It was also a sunny spring evening, playgrounds were packed and footpaths crowded.

Which brings us to another strange disconnect. In a situation like this, you want to feel that, urban or not, your community will come together, putting communal good above that of the individual’s selfish need to hoard toilet paper and pasta sauce. It’s true, some locals are doing their best, offering to help those quarantined at home with shopping and other tasks. But sadly, looking around at all the people having a great time last Saturday night in the city, it’s hard to know how much that’s going to help. Right now, this pandemic feels like it might be all about the survival of the best informed.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This column was first published in the March 28, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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