I was socially shamed three times at the grocery store when I accidentally strayed too close to another shopper, and never have I been so happy to live in Germany.
First transgression: At the checkout line, a woman glared at me and stuck out her arm (think of Diana Ross singing Stop! In the Name of Love). During the second, I accidentally stepped outside the box that the grocery store had just taped in front of the bread bin, à la Les Nessman and his invisible office walls in WKRP in Cincinnati. “Entschuldigung,” said a nice man next to me, pointing to where I had strayed into his box. Finally, a grocery store employee in charge of queue maintenance beckoned me farther back from the conveyor belt, indicating another line taped to the floor.
I’m making light of it, because we can all use a laugh at the moment, and yet I’m also completely serious. The German tendency to social policing and adherence to group standards is very comforting at times such as this, when observance of strict guidelines may literally save lives. And if people are doing this in Berlin, which is the German equivalent of the cousin who shows up already drunk to the wedding and delivers an inappropriate toast, you know they’re doing it all over the country.
Of course, this national predilection to conform to authority is a stereotype, and also “a sensitive topic,” as a friend who was a long-time resident pointed out, given its dark historical associations. It’s more illuminating, then, to talk about the bonds of trust and fellow-feeling that make the country feel like an oasis of relative calm in a pandemic landscape. There are possibly useful lessons here for the rest of the world.
This should all be taken with a grain of salt – I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple of days, let alone weeks. Germany could soon be as crippled as Italy or Spain, or be placed on full lockdown. At the moment, though, while German cases continue to rise, the death rate is comparatively low (41,519 diagnoses and 239 deaths as I write this). Although it’s too early to be definitive about anything, German health authorities attribute these figures to widespread and early testing, and the relatively young age of those diagnosed so far, many of whom brought the illness back from skiing vacations in February. One official estimates that the country is currently administering 500,000 coronavirus tests per week.
Equally important, though, Germans seem to be listening to their Chancellor. Angela Merkel had warned that she might impose tighter restrictions if people didn’t follow her orders to avoid groups of more than two and to stay 1.5 metres apart. (The Chancellor is in self-isolation after being exposed to the virus, shortly after she was pictured pushing a shopping cart filled with today’s necessities of life: three bottles of wine and a small package of toilet paper. So far, she’s tested negative for the virus.)
People are careful on the street, in the parks and, as I discovered, in the grocery store. There are random idiots, such as the guy who licked the ticket machine in a Munich train station (and was arrested), but in general good sense has prevailed. What accounts for this? Well, for one thing, Germans came into this pandemic prepared, in the sense that they had a relatively high level of trust in information delivered by their government. In a 2018 Wellcome Global Monitor survey, between 83 per cent and 85 per cent of Germans said they had some, or a lot of, trust in medical advice delivered by their government, the highest confidence in the six countries surveyed (only 55 per cent of older Americans, by contrast, expressed similar trust in their government). In Italy, more than a third of the population said it mistrusted government health advice.
Then there’s the issue of community bonds, which are also strong in Germany. “Despite all the dire predictions, Germany continues to exhibit a high level of social cohesion,” reads the Social Cohesion Radar, a 2017 report from the Bertelsmann Stiftung. It notes that “high levels of cohesion result from strong social relations, a positive feeling of connectedness to the community, and a strong focus on the common good.”
It’s not an entirely rosy picture, of course. The report explains that social cohesion is strained by income inequality, and by historical grievances between the states of the former East and West Germany. Still, across the country, people feel they are tightly bound by a set of common expectations, and – crucially – a vast majority believe that their fellow citizens follow social rules. This is a vastly different picture than the one I’m seeing in the United States, where governors are pitted against governors for vital medical supplies, and the government is debating the idea of sacrificing elderly and vulnerable people to the great god of the stock market.
Germany has just passed a €750-billion (around $1.2-trillion) bailout package, which will give direct subsidies to the self-employed, guarantee loans for businesses and keep landlords from evicting renters during the crisis. At the same time, the Chancellor’s CDU party, which had been slumping, is receiving a boost in the polls.
For now, the parks of Berlin remain open, although you’re not allowed to gather or have picnics. So far, Germans are obeying the rules – not because it’s some immutable element of the national character, but because they know that they are all safer, better off and more free if they do.
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