In Germany, Coronavirus Is No Longer a Distant Threat
Germans used to be happy they were far away from China, but as COVID-19 ravages Europe, they no longer feel safely removed.
“Corona, corona, corona. It is all I hear. Keep your faith in Jesus and all will be fine!”
Thus proclaimed the ecstatic man to my left, hands triumphantly raised, conspicuously unwashed, perilously close to my face. My classmates behind him looked on in disbelief. The woman to my other side, her hands fastidiously sanitized, like the rest of ours, cowered away in terror.
“Scheiße,” she whispered to me. “In a crisis like this, why would Jesus waste his time saving him?”
This was two weeks ago. The next day, March 13, we were sent home mid-class. We are all recent immigrants, thrown together in a German language and culture “integration” course. We run the spectrum from professional expatriates to refugees.
Our course at the Volkshochschule (an adult education center) in our town near Stuttgart had been summarily called off till March 29. The date was completely arbitrary; it has since been extended to April 19. Outside, we found that the building had emptied. My phone pinged. My son and wife were on their way home from his school as well after orders came down to shut all schools by March 17.
The education authorities in Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany had finally acted—and not a minute too soon.
[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]
I knew it was only a matter of time. I had spent much of late January and the whole of February glued to WeChat—a messaging and social media app that is ubiquitous in China. My family lived in Beijing until July 2019, prior to our move to Germany. My own connection to the place is still alive and kicking, and I was desperate for news of the new illness that was sweeping over it.
This past winter in Beijing was full of snowstorms, of a caliber that aridly frozen city isn’t used to. What should have been fodder for social-media celebration was reduced to a cataloging of pristine snowmen in forlorn compounds and ice dripping off eaves in empty streets.
The photos were all lovely, but the paucity of people in that most crowded of cities stopped me dead, every time. I knew what it took to empty those avenues. That distant virus—so far away in a country I wasn’t in and couldn’t visit, anymore—was so immediate in the timelines of my increasingly desperate friends: It showed itself in the absences of people and things I had taken for granted.
As the lockdowns spread across that country and the spaces I’d known in my former life were shuttered, people who weren’t in China kept asking me the same question: “Aren’t you glad you left Beijing?”
Beyond its insensitivity, beyond the willful ignorance of the diminished existence of my friends whose lives were “locked down,” what struck me about that question were two key assumptions. First, that COVID-19 was a Chinese problem. And second, that the virus would behave itself and stay there.
This will get worse before it gets better, I told a friend in mid-February. He is an Indian living in Singapore who was going to Bangkok for work. He would avoid Chinatown, he replied. “Anyway, the Chinese tourists don’t come to the places we go. I’ll be fine.”
So much for that. Earlier this week, our native country, India, placed 1.3 billion people under lockdown. Yet there are still people running around who think this disease is something that happens to other people.
“There are young men and boys playing football in the woods!”
“Ja! I told them to stop.”
“What did they say?”
“They showed me the finger. If I see them again, I’m calling the police.”
My neighbor was indignant. She is older than I am, and her parents are still alive and active. The casual idiocy of other people places everyone at risk. While we aren’t yet in a full lockdown in our corner of Baden-Württemberg, the advisories are explicit. And we know what the lockdown is doing in Italy, in France, in Spain. Why would anyone in their right minds want an advisory to become an imperative?
This movie just played in China, and it’s currently screening in the rest of Europe. Do you want us all confined to our homes?
In the Indian capital, New Delhi, my own father was told by the government to stay home from March 19, on account of his age. On March 25, the rest of the country received the same orders.
In many ways, India has been incredibly proactive, at least in theory. It started screening flights, monitoring arrivals, tracing contacts, and issuing travel restrictions before many other countries did. But in other, more baffling ways, it has lagged behind.
One issue is the government’s persistent refusal to test the population. If you hadn’t been abroad, went the government line before the lockdown, if you hadn’t had contact with someone who had been abroad, then you were not eligible for testing. Which was to willfully ignore the very real possibility that the killer had bypassed passport control and temperature checks and was already inside.
As always, public health took a back seat to political and religious priorities. Take Ram Navami Mela, a religious fair that was set to kick off on March 25 in Ayodhya in eastern Uttar Pradesh, site of a dispute over a religious site that has polarized India and its politics for decades.
The state government was proudly expecting hundreds of thousands of visitors, citizens who were not told to make other plans until March 21, when the fair was finally called off. Apparently, social distancing was still subservient to the religious-political needs of the ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
“If there was a way to fence those pious pilgrims in and remove them from society, I’d be happy,” said one adamantly atheist friend. Cull the herd, in other words.
But the herd isn’t always that far removed—either geographically or demographically. Not in India. I was rubbing shoulders with hundreds of people on Feb. 27 in the bar of the Delhi Gymkhana, one of New Delhi’s oldest social institutions. My fellow revelers were all animatedly chattering about the coronavirus and its effects on the city. Some schools had already closed, while others were on the brink. This will affect every aspect of our lives, was the consensus.
That bar finally closed on March 21.
Here in Germany, the normally bustling streets of our little town are empty. We aren’t in lockdown yet. In part this is due to a society that is, apart from some rebellious teenage soccer players, falling in line with the advice coming down from the experts.
People stopped shaking hands weeks ago. Now, we cross the streets to avoid each other, and lines on the floor in grocery stores indicate safe spacing. The first wave of panic buying seems to have subsided, though toilet paper is still in short supply. On the credit side, fruits and vegetables are plentiful.
As the number of coronavirus-related deaths accelerate in our neighboring countries—who knew watching graphs stiffening on television could be quite so morbidly gripping—Germany’s own mortality rate remains stubbornly, blessedly limp. Opinions as to why vary. Credit the well-resourced public health system, say the positive-minded. The pessimists point to a lag in testing, especially post-mortem.
Closer to home, my son’s East Asian schoolmates have reported being yelled at while they played in the street. Those children weren’t alone; there were adults present, pushing their little group across the limit set for public congregation (now down to two people at a time).
They were breaking the rules, and Germany isn’t cool with that at the best of times. But it serves to remind us all that even in the face of reports that Germany’s main avenues of infection came from Europe, rather than Asia, the idea of this being a Chinese problem—a modern-day yellow peril—lives on.
China now seems to have come to grips with its crisis, at least for now. There have been few new cases and coronavirus-related deaths in Wuhan in recent days. In another superb indicator of how the tables have turned—China-based expatriates who had fled are now scrambling to get back into that country, before it completely closes its own doors to prevent reinfection from the rest of the world.
I’m seeing people in the streets on my WeChat timeline again. Which is more than I can say when I look out the window here in Germany.
And nobody’s asking me if I’m glad I left Beijing anymore.
Avtar Singh is a writer and editor based in Germany. Twitter: @avtar1_singh
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.