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From Germany with love: A COVID-19 update from Cologne

There are more than 50,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Germany as of today, according to data from the John Hopkins University. With this number of cases, Germany currently ranks as the country with the fifth most infections globally, and yet, compared to other countries with similar numbers, has only registered 399 deaths caused by the disease colloquially known as Coronavirus.

Mareike Bire filming classmate Gabrielle Platt at Tanya Plibersek’s election night party. Photo: Bunty Avieson

On March 22 Chancellor Angela Merkel announced nationwide measures to prevent further spreading of the coronavirus. According to those rules, public meetings with more than two people are forbidden (unless participants are part of the same household) and a distance of at least 1.5m should be kept. It is no longer acceptable to have parties. All shops, including gastronomical and beauty services, are closed (yes and that includes the hairdresser). The public is still allowed to go to work or to necessary meetings but are urged to minimise social contact as much as possible. Doing sports in nature alone is allowed. The rules will be in effect for two weeks.

Many had expected a concerted, national effort earlier. By the time of Merkel’s announcement, there had already been 24,000 active cases in Germany. For almost a week, Germany was in a weird limbo. The week before March 13, more and more worrying reports came in from Italy, with almost 20,000 cases there on Friday. The office I have a student job in was in a flurry to quickly get organised to make working from home possible. My university had already cancelled all lectures for the time being and postponed the start of the new semester, usually April 1, until after Easter.

When on that same Friday, I came home to my girlfriend from eating out with my teammates from Roller-Derby, I knew something had changed. You see, I spent around three hours with 10 women and we all agreed on the same topic of discussion for the whole duration: SARS-CoV-2. This had never happened before. I had the sinking feeling that this was going to be the last meeting for a while and I was right.

The next morning our Roller Derby League announced there would be no practice anymore, following the guideline of the international governing body of the sport, the WFTDA. All my social feeds where full of people urging me to #staythefuckathome and to socially distance. Germany had around 5000 infections at the time. Watching Spain and France put drastic quarantine measures into place with similar numbers of infections, I was sure it was only a matter of days until the same would happen in Germany. But to my surprise, nothing happened.

Germany is a federal parliamentary republic, which means the individual states decide how the laws are executed in their state, unless the constitution specifies differently. This meant for example that school wasn’t cancelled nationally, but every state made its own decision. By Saturday March 14,  15 out of 16 states had stopped regular schooling, while one state opted to suspend mandatory education (home schooling is not possible in Germany). Some shops were closed, others weren’t. On Sunday, it was still possible to sit in cafés and enjoy the sun that decided to come out and announce spring was upon us.

I tried to stay home as much as possible from March 16 to 22, when Merkel made her announcement. It was a complicated week because I was waiting for the announcement of a quarantine, while my girlfriend from Australia was trying to decide if she should go back home to be with her family, or stay, a question further complicated by the fact borders were closing all around us and long-distance travel was becoming less likely by the minute. We have now bunkered down in my flatshare, while my three flatmates have luckily decided to stay with their partners or families.

Playgrounds in Cologne stand empty as children play indoors. Photo: Marieke Bire

During that week, the state of Bavaria announced stricter rules for quarantine, while the Premier of my home state, North-Rhine Westphalia, opposed such measures. I am unsure how many people had realised the severity of the situation by then, because they could still be seen in droves having picnics in parks and enjoying the sun. I don’t know who these people are or what their situations might be. Maybe they have just lost their jobs and have to take care of their three children now, so who am I to judge their behaviour. By the Saturday before Merkel’s announcement something must have changed though as a busy street next to my house was almost empty of cars.

On Wednesday March 18, I spent my first day working from home (Germans call this “doing home office”) and count myself among the lucky ones. Not everyone has this luxury and lots of people are out of work already. But I have heard worrying rumours through the office grapevine; it is a tricky situation for businesses as ordinary life and therefore spending has come to a halt. It is especially tricky for owners of small businesses.

The Government has announced financial help for them, but due to bureaucratic reasons help won’t come quickly enough, worries 62-year-old Bernd Rompf who owns a painter’s shop with two employees. “I don’t want to complain too much but only the bigger companies are going to get help. It’s always been like that,” he says.

Cologne residents picnic under set guidelines. Photo: Mareike Bire

My sister, who is a kindergarten teacher, still has to go to work. Parents whose jobs are deemed essential (like doctors or nurses) still need someone to look after their children. This new disease seems to bring out the worst in people. One of the mothers who regularly brings her child in lied about her job, trying to palm her off for the day; this is just one example of the egoism I have encountered.

But people from my home city Cologne have started organising in a Facebook group, “Corona Help Cologne”, to help each other. They offer to run errands for the elderly, volunteer in hospitals or help harvesting as Germany has stopped the foreign workers coming in who usually do a major share of the harvesting work.

The most charming thing people have started doing is the daily applause at 9pm on the balconies – for all the people who are working hard for us in this crisis: the healthcare workers. Last Sunday, we played “Ode to Joy” at our open windows at 9pm. I contributed playing my bass – surprisingly, between working from home, working on my master’s thesis, holding online fitness classes for my sports team and having long video chats with friends, I had found time again to play it, after not having touched it for years.

Germany currently ranks as the country with the fifth most infections globally, and yet, compared to other countries with similar numbers, has only registered 399 deaths caused by the disease colloquially known as Coronavirus.


Mareike Bire
Mareike Bire
Mareike Bire was at the University of Sydney last year as a postgraduate media student on exchange from Germany. She joined The Junction team to report on Australia’s federal election in May, and did it with great gusto writing several stories and joining the live cross on election night. Now she has agreed to share her experience of living through the coronavirus in Cologne, her home city. Mareike Bire is a queer feminist at heart, who does not believe in binaries.

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