They Conquered COVID-19. Now They’re Struggling.
From the Czech Republic and Germany to the Indian state of Kerala, governments that dealt decisively with the first wave of the coronavirus are drowning in the second wave.
Kerala is a coastal state in southern India. A few months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic was starting to engulf the country of my birth, the Marxist-ruled state was an exemplar of what was possible, even in poor countries, when political will, an educated population, and a pinch of foresight came together.
Kerala has long been a supplier of workers to other economies, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere—workers who came flooding back when the coronavirus pandemic started shutting down economies worldwide. Many of them carried the virus with them. The first confirmed case in India was reported in Kerala. But as national numbers peaked over the summer, Kerala’s own indicators remained stubbornly good. The positive rate was lower than the national percentage; test-and-trace systems actually worked; recoveries led the nation.
In the last few weeks, however, cases have mounted, hospitals have filled up again, and the proportion of those testing positive has risen.
This is a pattern repeating itself around the world. Places that seemed to have gotten out in front of the virus earlier in the year have started to see their numbers rise, in most cases exponentially.
Germany, where I now live with my family, is a case in point. The near-panic of early spring—buy toilet paper!—settled into a calm acceptance of what the government was recommending. The country came together to defeat the spread of the virus by complying with what the experts recommended. The results were obvious. Germany opened up before most of its neighbors; the warm weather saw guests flocking to the nation’s beer gardens; our kids went back to school in safety.
But dubious records are now falling like dominos. Sometimes it seems that people are, too. Last week, a fellow student almost collapsed in my German class. The anxieties of the moment crystallized in the immediate aftermath of his dizzy spell; in those few seconds as we debated coming to his aid or giving him a wide berth. When he could walk, the school had him leave. He came back the next day with a clean diagnosis from his doctor. He had been dehydrated. Nothing more.
For six months, the pandemic was something that was happening to other people. The trepidation we felt when checking our phones in the morning was for others. These past few weeks, it has gotten very, very real.
It isn’t just Germany, of course. Or Kerala. The Czech Republic and Poland, two of Germany’s immediate neighbors, were routinely praised for their responses to the pandemic over late spring and summer. Now cases are surging in both, and the Czech government is moving toward a full national lockdown.
Germany’s western neighbors, all of which took a beating in the spring, are flaring up again as well. This is all complicated by the freedom of movement within the European Economic Area. Nations have scrambled to stay on top of who is allowed to enter, and what to do with those returning home. It is even more of a headache in areas like the German-Swiss border or the Dutch-Belgian frontier, with citizens of one country routinely having their entire lives in another.
Within Germany, the emergence of local virus hot spots has led to recrimination and finger-pointing. Earlier in October, those who were from or had visited certain Berlin neighborhoods were told by Schleswig-Holstein (a northern German state) that they would be quarantined for two weeks if they arrived without two negative tests in the previous five days.
This measure, among others, sparked charges of discrimination and questions of enforceability. Even in a culture as compliant as Germany’s, who is going to show up at the local health office, demanding to be quarantined? There are dark whispers of invasive monitoring of mobile usage and profiling based on license plates. People in less-infected areas are asking for greater restrictions; those from the hot spots naturally chafe at this.
The word “Ausländer” (“foreigner”) takes on a whole other meaning in this context.
To make matters worse, no one knows exactly what is driving the surge in places where the coronavirus was once well contained. Was the resurgence of the virus in Kerala due to the loosening of restrictions around Onam (an important regional festival) in late August and early September? Is it just down to the superior rate and quality of testing in a state that prides itself on the efficiency of its health system? Or were the numbers artificially low to begin with—some detractors claim the Marxist state government has been fudging the numbers—and the true picture is only really emerging now?
It depends who you ask. What is clear is that skepticism is growing, and an already fractured Indian polity has new fault lines to contend with.
This is happening, to some degree, in Germany as well. Various commentators have speculated that the rise in numbers in Europe was practically inevitable. As in Germany, so in its European neighbors.
Vast numbers of people returned from their summer vacations in places where compliance was perhaps not as stringent as at home. Kids went back to school, releasing the combined germs of their family units into the petri dishes of their classrooms. The weather in October has been unseasonably cold thus far, driving more people indoors.
The idea of “pandemic fatigue,” a combined listlessness in the face of restrictions seemingly without end, is gaining traction as well. This is despite—or perhaps because of—its intangibility. Who doesn’t yearn for the old normal again?
Allied to this, and perhaps more insidious, is a discernible turning away from factuality. Skeptics of all descriptions point to the absence of verifiable conclusions. “You told us to wash our hands,” goes one argument. “Now it’s masks! Will they still be relevant next month?” From there to a justification not to wear masks at all is but a small step. This breakdown of the consensus on COVID-19, if indeed that is what is happening as the QAnon conspiracy theory gains traction in Germany, is deeply worrying.
Back in India, an anti-mask protester recently described his stand as based on a lack of “policy-grade evidence.” The facts aren’t enough, in other words; the fact that policymakers are dealing with this in real time, just like the rest of us, makes no difference.
The policy must be shown to be working, before it is adhered to. That this puts the cart before the horse is immaterial to people who think this way.
There are countries that have preserved their records, thus far, of dealing with the various crests of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Zealand has leveraged the privilege of its geographic isolation and solid communication from a trusted leadership. Certain Asian countries—South Korea, China, and Taiwan—have made a virtue both of their previous experience with SARS and a robust attitude toward digital monitoring that nations in the West balk at. (Personally, I’m fine with giving up some data privacy in return for the certainty that the guy next to me in the train doesn’t belong in quarantine.)
But these success stories are few and far between. My experience of living in Germany tells me that yesterday’s shared triumph can morph too easily into standing by as a man you’ve known for six months collapses next to you.
Back home in India, restrictions are easing, as they must. The economy demands it. Diwali is around the corner. Winter is also wedding season. Couples around the country won’t wait until the pandemic is over to get married, and Indian marriages are famed for their clamorous conviviality.
We’ll wear masks and distance, the groom’s family might say. But what if the bride’s crew are skeptics, choosing instead to hug and dance and sit 10 to a table? Will you cancel the wedding if they arrive with naked faces?
In Germany, the talk is of canceled Christmas markets and holidays without extended families. The implacability of mid-March, the steadfast determination to get on with things—to “manage it,” as Chancellor Angela Merkel memorably put it in another context—seems to be eroding. The minister presidents of the German state governments point fingers at each other, the numbers rise ever higher, and parents worry, again, about sending their kids to school.
Hunker down, goes the wisdom. Prepare for the restrictions to come, because they’re now inevitable. And keep an eye on the local supermarket’s toilet paper aisle.