At the moment, there is little sense of coronavirus panic gripping Germany’s capital. There are not yet any cases of COVID-19 identified in Berlin, which is perhaps why things continue as usual: That is, beer-drinking on public transit at all hours, and almost no masks in sight – unless they’re the kind you’d wear in a dark techno club.
However, there are indications of tension under the surface. Signs are beginning to appear on pharmacy doors that say “keine Atemschutzmasken verfügbar” (no breathing masks available). ITB, the world’s largest tourism conference, begins in Berlin next week and organizers are barring people who have recently travelled to heavily hit parts of China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. With around 20 cases of the virus identified in the south and west of Germany so far, Health Minister Jens Spahn warned this week that the country is “at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic.”
Still, Germany’s approach is calm, or in the words of the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “level-headed.” The German government is not yet freaking out and imposing the kind of travel restrictions we see in other countries – restrictions that are ineffectual or even counterproductive, according to experts. “At this time, travel restrictions or even closing borders would not be an appropriate measure,” Mr. Spahn said. He condemned the fact that Germans of Asian background were enduring racist attacks.
People in other countries are curling in on themselves like potato bugs. Few appear to be heeding the warning of World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said this week: “Fear and panic doesn’t help.” Fear and panic seemed to be the dominant emotions in the world – as well as anger and resentment – for several years before the new coronavirus added fuel to the fire. I’m living in a city that honours its torn-down wall, at the very moment the rest of the world is deciding to put new ones up.
This is how I found myself on the streets of Berlin this week looking for a man in pink lipstick and running shoes, wearing a baseball cap that says Make Humanity Great Again. It was raining and cold, and all sane people were in bed with a book and a companion. Yet the British comedian Eddie Izzard was out in that foul weather – in London they’d say it was “chucking it down” – running his 23rd marathon in 23 days. That’s not a typo, and it’s not all: Mr. Izzard is running 28 marathons in 28 countries in 28 days to raise £100,000 (around $170,000) for a variety of charities that benefit children and international co-operation, including Unicef.
I’ve long followed Mr. Izzard’s charity marathons from the safety of my desk. In South Africa, he ran 27 marathons in 27 days to honour Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison (I have to agree with Trevor Noah, who asked him, “Isn’t that a bit excessive?”). He began this latest marathon of marathons on Jan. 31, the day Britain left the European Union, with this message: “In our country and in our world there is far too much talk about division. Let’s change that. Let’s talk about unity and humanity … United, not divided, we can make humanity great again.” Expand, not contract. Reach out, not in. Symbolically, he would run across 28 countries, the number that had been in the European Union until one country pulled a hissy fit, took its football and went home.
When I saw him post an update at the beginning of his Berlin marathon, on a rain-soaked boulevard not far from my apartment, I thought: I’m going to see if I can find him. If he can run for seven hours a day, 28 days in a row, undeterred by a sore Achilles tendon or the threat of coronavirus, the least I can do is get out of bed. How hard could it be to find someone whose lipstick matches his running shirt? (It appears as if he might be wearing MAC’s Craving, an awesome shade.) I wandered the streets, noticing on Twitter that Mr. Izzard had stopped to make a video about the Stolpersteine, the stumbling stones that mark the last known residence of the victims of the Third Reich. Of course he did.
Reader, I failed to find him. In my defence, the only running I do is out of ideas. Back at my desk, exhausted, I watched his postmarathon video update, recorded in a nail salon in West Berlin, where his broken tips were repaired. I remembered another video Mr. Izzard, who identifies as transgender, had made at a nail bar on his marathon tour of South Africa: “Doesn’t matter what sex or sexuality you are, how you self-identify, or who you fancy. Matters not one whit. What do you do in life? What do you create? What do you make? What do you add to human existence? That is what matters.”
What is it that matters? Mr. Izzard’s extraordinary feat – I’m not sure what’s more impressive, the marathons or his belief that he can help the world turn outward again – has been largely drowned out by a deluge of coronavirus coverage. Anxiety itself has gone viral. It’s entirely possible that the efforts of one person don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart. Systems and structures are the things that bring about meaningful change, not individuals. But try telling that to the guy who’s just run across a continent.
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