Aachener Housing Association property manager Benjamin Marx faced off with Covid-19 after it rocked his radical Roma integration project in Harzer Straße in June last year. Sixty-four of Harzer Straße’s 400 Roma residents tested positive. All recovered. The episode was relatively early in the pandemic, months before Germany was confirming more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases per day at the end of 2020. It was a moment of media hysteria, egged on by local politicians.
“Corona doesn’t hold any horrors for me any more,” Marx says. “I don’t mean to downplay it, because it’s so contagious. We’ve also got no idea about Corona’s long-term health effects.”
Neukölln Council sounded the Corona alarm. Harzer Straße’s 137 flats and six other Neukölln housing blocks went into 14 days’ enforced quarantine on June 13. Neukölln Council tested 604 of the 989 quarantined residents. Around 400 residents refused tests or stayed below the radar. Ninety-eight residents tested positive, 41 of them children with few or no symptoms.
Neukölln Council’s June 16 press conference threw Harzer Straße’s Roma to the media wolf pack. A feeding frenzy set in. Neukölln Mayor Martin Hikel (SPD) called Harzer Straße’s “cramped living conditions” (Mietskaserne) an ideal Corona breeding ground, lamenting Corona targeting society’s poor and needy. Neukölln Health Councillor Falko Liecke (CDU) called for hard-handed treatment for quarantine breakers, baiting the media with hundreds of police cordoning off Harzer Straße.
Marx ran up Harzer Straße’s battle ensign in his Cologne-based Aachener Housing Association head office. “I got first wind of the outbreak from the media, who pointed the bone at Harzer Straße’s Roma as coronavirus agents,” says the 65-year-old Marx. “Germany’s Jews received similar treatment in the past. Roma are Mediterranean. They have close-knit families, like Spaniards and Italians. Roma work insecure jobs, such as house cleaners. They rub shoulders with strangers. But Harzer Straße’s Corona infection could have come from anywhere. Visitors, relations, sushi bars.”
Germany’s media laid siege to Harzer Straße. Children shopping for urgent groceries ran the media gauntlet as quarantine criminals. Journalists juggled the books to come up with 10 Roma per flat. Roma Corona stress levels went stratospheric and residents pelted the media with rotten eggs, tomatoes and insults. Neukölln Council dispatched translators, social workers, medical specialists and food supplies to defuse the situation.
“The derogatory term Mietskaserne dates back to the 19th century,” says Marx. “Harzer Straße’s courtyard is spotless. A meeting place for residents. The Roma stuck to the quarantine rules as if they were Germans. Masks. Hand washing. Social distancing. The slur about ‘cramped living conditions’ incited the Roma. The other six quarantined houses’ courtyards overflow with rubbish. Not Harzer Straße. The lockdown meant media couldn’t get a clear picture of the living conditions inside Harzer Straße. Terms like Mietskaserne fuel neo-Nazi attacks like those in the past. Nobody’s happy about the media hype. Harzer Straße’s got a clean bill of health now. It’s a normal house like any other.”
Marx’s blood boils at number crunching from the media’s pseudo-Einsteins. “Harzer Straße’s got 137 flats and 400 residents. A thousand residents in seven housing blocks with 367 flats were quarantined. That’s an average of two or three people per flat. How can journalists cook up 10 people per flat?”
Corona’s invisible tentacles throw the best sleuths off its scent. Neukölln’s Health Department fell on its sword trying to pin the blame on a Pentecostal priest for Harzer Straße’s Corona crisis. “He died in September after a long battle with Corona. His remains were flown back to Romania a few days later for burial,” says Marx.
Marx’s Harzer Straße report card for the media and Neukölln Council plumbs the highs and lows of human achievement. “Berlin’s Tagespiegel and rbb did a first-class job. Berlin’s gutter press repeat the class for whipping up waves. Neukölln Mayor Hikel gets an A. Mayor Hikel apologised to me for his ‘Mietskaserne’ slip after he inspected Harzer Straße. He’s a good, sympathetic man. Neukölln’s Health Councillor Falko Liecke scores an F. He patted me on the back in 2013 holding up Harzer Straße as a model of integration. Liecke’s threat to cordon off Harzer Straße with hundreds of police wasn’t necessary. That’s structural racism.”
Eight months on from the Harzer Straße outbreak, Germany is deep into a devastating national second wave, counting over 1,000 deaths per day at its peak. The current “hard lockdown”, introduced in early December, has just been extended again, and will run for at least three more weeks. As for Harzer Straße, they’ve stayed safe from Corona’s second wave. “There haven’t been any further infections,” says Marx.