The semi-lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Berlin has been extended until at least February 14 — and will almost certainly last much longer. People are trapped at home, or trapped between the office and work, wondering when things will get back to normal. The Süddeutsche Zeitung declared “normality” to be the word of the coronavirus pandemic.
But what is “normal”? For me, it means eating enchiladas in a Mexican restaurant, watching a cheesy Hollywood movie in a cinema, and above all, going to a festival in the countryside. Will festivals take place this summer? I’m hoping people will be able to dance outside with masks.
Lots of people are expecting the virus to kind of go away when the weather gets warmer. Last summer was a breeze, after all. But there are places around the world where Covid-19 is raging despite warm temperatures. As Germany’s best-known virologist Christian Drosten explained, the low numbers we experienced in the middle of 2020 were not due to heat or fresh air. They were a result of the successful lockdown in March-April — which was ended far too soon, in the name of “restarting the economy.”
Lots of people are expecting the virus to kind of go away when the weather gets warmer. But there are places around the world where Covid-19 is raging despite warm temperatures
The most vulnerable people are getting vaccinated — even if the pace is maddeningly slow pace. At least one estimate, based on research from Israel, says that by vaccinating only people over 80, we can cut the death rate by half. So time to throw away the mask? No! Again quoting Drosten, if we use the first vaccinations as an excuse to lift restrictions, then many times more young people will get infected. And even if a smaller percentage of them die, they will still fill up the ICUs.
All of this, of course, is not even counting the potential havoc from new mutations of the coronavirus.
In an October column, I argued that Berlin’s lockdown would be ineffective because the government insisted on keeping offices, factories, public transport, and schools running as if there were no pandemic — apparently based on the theory that the virus wouldn’t infect people at work. It has been very unsatisfying to see Germany’s politicians coming around to that position, after tens of thousands of deaths.
No government in Europe has attempted to stamp out the virus entirely. At first, they claimed that would only be possible in a police state like China. But then, relatively liberal Australia showed that lockdowns can work elsewhere.
Now there is an initiative calling for a zero-Covid policy across Europe. It could be done here. We just need to convince the people in power that protecting lives is more important than protecting profits. I’m not holding my breath.
So if we were to have a few months of serious lockdown, followed by a serious push for vaccinations, combined with serious testing and contact tracing, could we go back to Mexican restaurants and movie theatres and music festivals, or back to normal?
Well, what do we mean by “normal,” exactly? For me, the late 1990s felt pretty normal. It felt like the world was getting more harmonious and things just kind of worked. And there were, in fact, a number of years of fairly steady economic growth. (It was a difficult time to become a communist, but I was contrarian enough to try!)
A decade or two ago, things felt normal — but only because we did not entirely understand the crises that this capitalist normalcy was preparing for us.
But that normalcy was an illusion. To take just one horrific example, that was the time of the murderous sanctions against Iraq, followed by an equally murderous war. The 1990s were a time of increasingly risky financial speculation — building up contradictions that exploded in 2007-08. It was a time of widespread environmental destruction that led, among other things, to the emergence of novel pathogens with pandemic potential.
Above all, “normality” meant uncontrolled growth in greenhouse gas emissions, and has thus been leading us to catastrophic climate change. 2020 wasn’t just about Covid-19 — it was also the hottest year that has ever been recorded in the history of our species (tied with 2016). It was a year of unprecedented fires on the US West Coast and unprecedented hurricanes on the East Coast. Here in Berlin, we have not yet seen such dramatic effects. But we are also confronting droughts and wildfires that the region has never seen before.
So a decade or two ago, yes, things felt normal — but only because we did not entirely understand the crises that this capitalist normalcy was preparing for us. In reality, nothing was normal. Nothing was OK.