Pandemic Panic vs. Democratic Freedoms

Why Germans are more concerned than most about a COVID-19 lockdown

I have never been a supporter of Germany’s conservative parties but their leader, Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel, is making German politics great again, at least seen from across the Atlantic. In a rare, televised address to the nation on 18 March 2020, Dr. Merkel urges her “dear fellow citizens” to voluntarily practice the hygiene and distancing measures recommended by public health authorities. At the time, there were some 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 28 deaths in Germany.

Dr. Merkel’s speech can be seen as a last attempt to avoid enforcing stricter isolation rules. There is a unison of voices from politicians, epidemiologists, and the public calling for the “total shutdown” of society to stop the coronavirus spread, both in Germany and over here in Canada. Merkel however conveys a deeper understanding of the risks of social isolation. She characterizes COVID-19 as the greatest challenge faced by Germany since WWII – not in general terms, as was wrongly reported, but in terms of a challenge that requires every single person’s solidarity and commitment to flattening the curve. Merkel acknowledges the degree to which limitations on non-essential activities are already invading not just our personal lives but our understanding of a democratic society. She refers to her upbringing in totalitarian East Germany and the struggle to fight for the freedom of movement that is now effectively being withdrawn. She established that “such restrictions can only be justified if they are absolutely imperative” and “these should never be put in place lightly in a democracy and should only be temporary.”

Fast forward five days to March 22nd and approaching 25,000 COVID-19 infections and 100 deaths, Germany’s federal and provincial governments agreed on a contact ban, but still did not impose a general curfew. Citizens are free to leave their homes for any purpose as long as they keep among their co-habitants or stick around with no more than one other person. In a commentary entitled “The Other Danger“, Die Zeit journalist Christian Bangel acknowledges that Merkel did not take the easy route. He views her speech as a reminder of what is at stake, reminder to those who call for more drastic measures. Bangel, also born in East Germany, notes how many people who usually lament Germany’s culture-of-prohibitions (“Verbotskultur”), e.g. when it comes to taking climate change action, now call for lockdowns and celebrate the Bavarian premier for jumping the gun with a province-wide curfew. Bangel cautions against the collective-conformist effect of the coronavirus panic, when we forget the difficult balance of freedom and safety in our democracies. He asks what restrictions on civil liberties will be acceptable in the next crisis situation? Accepting such restrictions out of ease and convenience reminds me of how we willingly trade privacy for the convenience of digital services. Bangel concludes that in addition to fighting the virus we also need to fight against complacency and an attitude that views civil rights as a burden for public health and wellbeing.

Germany has learned from two totalitarian regimes in its not too distant past, and Dr. Angela Merkel, the Leader of the Free World according to some, set the tone for a thoughtful, measured pandemic response. Maybe that’s what you get with a conservative, female leader who boasts a doctoral degree in physical chemistry. Merkel shows great empathy when she thanks supermarket cashiers and warehouse employees for keeping things going (“den Laden am Laufen halten”, akin to the expression “the show must go on”) and is cited with the frustration over keeping families from enjoying the sunny spring weather if confined to their homes. In addition to the political dimension of the crisis, I expect that we will also see broader public health issues from a wide-spread sedentary life style under coronavirus lockdowns. Our mental health will be challenged to say the least. And the expected increase in domestic violence is a real danger, too. I therefore hope that other leaders will take a page from Dr. Merkel’s book and avoid full lockdowns or clearly limit them in duration, plus justify them in the context of democratic standards and civil liberties.

To be clear, I am not suggesting to take the coronavirus pandemic lightly or disregard public health guidelines, rules, and laws. I do argue to take a step back and not call for hasty political decisions in a panic. Some experts even recommend “social-media distancing” to “Flatten the Curve of Armchair Epidemiology“! Let’s consider the possible longterm impacts of our response and ensure that we as individual citizens can continue to monitor our authorities’ actions rather than be locked out of decision-making. But ultimately, a slowing of economic and social life under COVID-19 may not be such a bad thing, for nature and humans alike.