The emergency brake in the Mercedes
However, this shutdown has always been linked to a political commitment that everything will be done to cushion the financial losses of this unique, elementary and drastic measure. Our “black zero”, i.e. a balanced national budget, which we have treated as a sacred cow for 5 years, has now been willingly slaughtered to prevent this horror scenario. This is what the German Chancellor stood for in her television speech to the people on March 18th, and there was no wrangling about it among the politicians or in the population. Basically, the Chancellor had said, yes, we have a piggy bank, which we have filled up well in recent years by the black zero and now we are ready to slaughter it.
After closed schools, kindergartens, partial restrictions on entry and exit, quarantine regulations, bans on major events, we have now closed down the entire tourism, travel and leisure sectors. In addition, the home office was applied to all companies throughout Germany as far as possible. Meanwhile, one may move publicly only in twos or with several, if these are from the same household, whereby there are always deviations within the individual Lands of the Federal Republic, in the Land Bavaria e.g. one may have only contacts within the household and leave the house only for good reason. Catalogues of fines for offences are published, starting from 200 € for example if one moves with more than 2 persons in the public area, for repeat offences around 1000 € and for repeat offences of larger offences such as the execution of a larger leisure event up to 25.000 €.
Close together in distance
It’s not that we all followed the shutdown like a herd of sheep, no, there were and are non-stop reports, documentaries, discussions, extra, special and superspecial broadcasts in the media with doctors, virologists, financial experts, politicians, affected, non-affected, psychologists, VIPs, everyday heroes, whatever. No, it was an absolute majority decision.
Meanwhile we are already dyed-in-the-wool representatives of “social distancing” or correct already in the term “physical distancing”, further terms which now belong firmly in our everyday linguistic life. The minimum distance of 1.5 meters to others has become second nature to us. We almost get a fright when we see scenes in films where people shake hands or even hug each other. Even here in my small village in Hessian Siberia we automatically stand in queues, always with a proper distance, that goes without saying. Even within the family in the same household we keep our distance. The parents or grandparents can only be seen through the window next to the entrance door and cashiers are now all separated by glass panes. Our skin on our hands is already flaky like leaves from the constant washing of our hands.
There is the hashtag action #We stay at home, everywhere and always present as well as #We say thanks. Well-known personalities support them in short video clips from home. The thanks go to all employees and volunteers of the companies and facilities that maintain the system. Especially in the health care sector, where people work almost 24/7, or the cashiers in the supermarkets, who are exposed to the onslaught of “hamster buyers“ drooling over toilet paper and a not inconsiderable residual risk. (The term “hamster buying“ is very common in Germany and basically means hoarding or panic buying.)
Our economic airbag
On March 25th, a subsequent federal budget was passed within a very short time, faster than ever before in German history, i.e. officially leaving behind the holy black zero with seven-league boots and thus releasing a total aid package of 156 billion euros for the economy. Companies with up to 5 employees can receive a non-repayable immediate aid of 9000 €, with up to 10 employees, of 15.000 €. The application can be made online recently and since then the flood of applications has not stopped. It seems to be relatively uncomplicated and the response is extremely fast. There are reports of 15 minutes. The money is then transferred just as immediately. An economic stabilisation fund of EUR 600 billion has been set up for large companies. The main point here is that the state provides (90-100%) credit guarantees to the banks. The loans must nevertheless be repaid in full by the borrowers. One elementary economic support is above all the acquisition of short-time work compensation by the Federal Employment Agency. Landlords are also currently not allowed to give notice to their tenants.
Reference date April 20th.
Where are we today on the first day after this dynamic, unique, world-changing March 2020? After a good two weeks of shutdown and social distancing, after the probably most unusual two weeks that we as German society have experienced together after World War II? Yes, without a doubt we are a bit like impatient children who want to unwrap their birthday present. A parcel in which there is at least a significant decrease in the number of infected people. But for the time being we have only found a piece of paper with a date on it, like in a paper chase. April 20th. On this day we receive the next clue.
Side effects of the “Drug Shutdown”
The drug Shutdown was indicated against the deficient treatment of the severe cases and the resulting undignified death of – due to the non-valid data – approx. 0.5 -10 % of our population. The “compliance”, i.e. the cooperation of the patient himself in the therapy, was and still is extremely high. Currently, compliance is strengthened above all by the pictures from New York, by halls filled with coffins, by dead people transported in body bags by forklift trucks, by sad “record numbers” of over 1000 Covid-19 deaths on a day when there was not a single fatality two weeks ago. For all the inaccuracy of the data, these pictures clearly show that the American government has played down the situation for too long and switched the system too late.
Compliance is also strengthened by the actions already mentioned, such as “We stay home, we say thank you,” with examples of everyday heroes who go shopping for risk groups, who sew protective masks, who implement creative ideas in coping with the virus-determining everyday life.
And now just with the mention of a concrete date, one can begin to gradually phase out the strong medication. Because it is also clear that this is a bitter pill that has not yet been clinically tested and has countless dangerous side effects that increase with the longer period of use. These side-effects can occur to varying degrees depending on the patient group. It is clear that under these conditions this orderly voluntary retreat into one’s own four walls together with social distancing is not a life on the Pony Farm for any of us. But for an intact family of five with a large apartment and garden it is different than for a family with potential for domestic violence in a small appartemnet of a high-rise housing estate. What are their children going through right now?
And certainly the manufacturer of “deficit goods” such as breathing masks, disinfectants, respirators tolerates the bitter pill much better than the owner of a restaurant, café or other “non-systemically relevant” shop who does not have large reserves. How are all those people who are worried about their livelihood?How long will young people swallow the bitter pill if the neighbour calls the police because he is standing with two friends on the street? How far should control and punitive mechanisms be allowed to cut into fundamental freedoms?
Time for sorting, dynamic standstill
“What happens after the 20th?” is the question that’s on everyone’s mind. But for this we need more and more concrete data, it still remains a dynamic process, every day anew. We hope for a valid quick antibody test soon, which is in progress and could be on the market in about a month. As things stand at present, people who have already had Covid-19 cannot reinfect themselves or others, and would therefore be very useful in the crisis. The number of infection tests is also to be increased significantly. We are currently conducting clinical trials with 3 existing drugs that could be effective for Covid-19. There are first successes here. Downlocked companies such as Volkswagen, for example, have shifted production areas to the manufacture of ventilators or clinical accessories, others to the manufacture of protective masks, where they are unable to keep up with orders. The number of intensive care beds continues to increase, and medical personnel are being expanded and trained. University hospitals and research centres are networking more and more. An ethics committee has been set up to give instructions to intensive care doctors in the “triage” (classification of patients according to severity in the emergency ward) in order to spare them the traumatic experiences of Italian doctors. In addition to intensive care units, palliative departments with access for relatives are also connected.
Anonymous temporary Bluetooth tracking apps are currently being advertised by the government. We are learning more new terms for different strategies: “Mitigation” is the prevention of contact in the sense of flattening the curve, “Suppression” the prevention of contact for the complete eradication of the virus, “Cocooning” the shielding of risk groups, “Containment” the opposite of herd immunisation. And with the whole numbers of dead, infected, recovered, treated, risk groups and unreliable mortality rates, mathematicians and virologists model the potential future of these strategies. For example, a mathematician from Kaiserslautern answers the question: What strategy do we follow in Germany with flatten the curve – suppression or weakening?
“The government has never said that very specifically. It is true that the measures currently in force are very strict. But I don’t know whether they are strict and long-term enough to successfully suppress the virus. That depends on how much you can reduce off-home contacts. If you reduce them by about 90 per cent, it will take just over a year. And if you want Covid-19 to disappear within a year, you would have to permanently eliminate about 95 percent of all off-home contacts, compared to the period from March 5th to 20th. But I would like to emphasize that we have made these estimates based on our simulation model. How exactly it can describe the actual course of the pandemic, as with all models, we will only be able to say afterwards.”
So we can only say afterwards whether the operation was successful and the patient survived? Good thing that mathematicians alone do not decide the fate of the patient.
Covid-19, the World and Human Rights
Human rights activists of the International Society for Human Rights/ISHR have already expressed their concern at the beginning of the massive measures that the remedy against the pandemic could prove to be worse than the pandemic itself. They cite, among others, the humanitarian disasters that could be resulted worldwide and the potential for state abuse of human rights. The proportionality of the measures in the face of other known and curable infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, with well over one million victims annually, also shows that the global community is still far from being able to cope with global crises and problems in solidarity. Are such warnings and criticisms tactless at a time when, after Italy, Spain and France, we are now confronted with American pictures of Covid-19 victims transported in body bags by forklift trucks? In a state of emergency, in which we renounce so much, risk so much, in which we all make small and big sacrifices and encourage each other to be confident and persevering. Where we are so proud of the many everyday heroes who have proven themselves in recent weeks? Proud of an unprecedented solidarity in fateful minutes?
The tact of a human rights defender
Basically for a human rights defender is always a fateful time, terrible pictures of suffering and misery, of dead people, innocent prisoners, victims of violence or humanitarian disasters he always carries in his mind. The call for solidarity is constantly resonating within him.
Of course, when he thinks of the side-effects of the global shutdown, he is not only thinking of the German Mercedes driver with his all-round airbag, but also of the Indian rickshaw driver, the day labourer who is left without a wage or bread from one day to the next, or the young Russian entrepreneur who wouldn’t even dream of receiving emergency government aid. To the families and their children who are not caught in a basic social security net. The associated social and psychological consequences. The danger that a world economic crisis could be a humanitarian catastrophe for a large part of the world’s population.
The threat to fundamental rights
Of course, he sees the potential that such a crisis brings in the restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms. While here in Germany we are discussing the danger of the application of a temporary “tracking app”, the Hungarian president already has a “Covid-19 Enabling Act” in his pocket and China has long had the unassailable “Big Brother is watching you” legitimacy.
Of course, the human rights activist compares the Covid-19 pandemic with, among other things, the world’s deadliest infectious disease, tuberculosis, whose pathogen is carried by about two thirds of the world’s population, which claims over one million victims every year and for which, in contrast to Covid-19, there are cures. At EUR 2 billion a year, this disease could have been eradicated long ago.
Inadequate transnational strategies
And of course he sees that there was no preparation for such a crisis scenario, neither nationally, continental, let alone globally. On the contrary, the globalized world has reflexively retreated into its nation-states, the bulkheads have almost closed down. Even within the 27-year-old state structure of the EU. And while the terrible scenario in Bergamo in northern Italy was followed daily, it was not as if other countries were rushing to help massively from all directions. The ailing Italian health system, which is due not least to the rigid financial policy within the EU, was obviously largely responsible for the high death toll. And after all, that south of “core Europe” has suffered traumatically, financial aid is currently being haggled over within its state solidarity community.
Blessed is he, who visited this world in its fateful hours
Nevertheless, the pictures of the empty streets of the world’s metropolises also have something fascinating, something magical. And there it goes! Almost as if the whole of mankind together stopped the globe. The simultaneous withdrawal into national realms ranging in their own homes, even into one’s own four walls, was a natural and logical reflex. It is also natural that we all need time to digest the shock. Anf for sure it is right and important that we celebrate the people who have shown backbone, civil courage and solidarity during this time. Those who didn’t drool over toilet paper in the supermarkets, but managed the rush at the cash registers and kept “the business running”. But it is also right and important now to take a step outside the door again. We know that it is only a delusion,- that we cannot stop the globe, that the earth keeps turning. And the novel virus has taught us – and still does – that we all shop in the same supermarket and that we are dependent on people with backbone, civil courage and solidarity and not on those who have built a toilet paper bunker. The Second World War had brought the globe to a standstill exactly 75 years ago and, out of this global trauma, drew up a catalogue of principles for a better future for the world community: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These experiences from these “traumatic global standstills” carry enormous suffering within them, but this is precisely where the strength for sustainable improvements in the future lies.
© The images used in this blog post are either from Wikimedia Commons or are self-made works.
Dr. phil. Carmen Krusch-Grün
Consultant Eastern Europe
International Society for Human Rights, German Section