The invitation was tempting: an autumnal hike along the river Elbe outside Hamburg, a hearty dinner and an overnight stay in a country hotel. What began as a friend’s 50th birthday gathering last weekend, however, soon turned into a small-scale reflection of Germany’s growing Covid-19 dilemma.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, and almost a year after launching vaccinations, Germany’s fourth wave is turning into its trickiest. After a rapid rise in numbers all week, Germany on Friday announced more than 37,000 new Covid-19 infections in the previous 24 hours. This is the highest daily number ever, up a staggering 51 per cent in just one week.
Though alarm bells are ringing all over, state health ministers meeting on Friday in Bavaria once again struggled to present a coherent response to inconvenient truths.
While more than 55 million Germans are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, roughly a quarter of the adult population are still unvaccinated – and many plan to remain so.
My alarm bell began ringing days before last weekend’s gathering. The birthday boy – let’s call him Lukas – announced a last-minute change in plans: the overnight hotel stay had been cancelled, he said, because “some in the group are not yet vaccinated”.
It was an hour into the hike when I realised the reality: of his six friends present, three were somewhere on the Covid sceptic-denier spectrum. What should have been an invigorating hike through the “Altes Land” region outside Hamburg turned into a wearying trek through “an ideological minefield”.
I remembered Paul from Lukas’s wedding as a witty, mild-mannered civil servant. On our hike, though, he delivered an hour-long monologue on why infection numbers are inflated, the “so-called pandemic” restrictions an insult and the politicians responsible are “all criminals”. In a test question, I asked whether he saw the various problems and political failings as simply down to poor planning for an unprecedented pandemic. His dark response: “No, it’s all connected.”
As we hiked on, I fell in with another friend of Lukas who told me I should be more worried about the side effects of the vaccine than the virus – this though a steady stream of unfiltered cigarettes.
Over dinner that evening a third friend – who got into the restaurant without any checks – passed around anti-vaccination cartoons on his smartphone. He, too, was worried about the vaccine health risks, then offered us a lift home after an evening drinking white wine and Armagnac. I hailed a taxi instead.
The lengths some Germans will go to avoid vaccination reached a new extreme this week when a man went on trial in the western city of Osnabrück, accused of falsifiying documents to secure hundreds of digital vaccination certificates for clients. The court struck down the charges: a loophole in the law meant that what he had done was not illegal.
Germans – particularly those with memories of East Germany – don’t take kindly to mandatory state orders. But as numbers spike for the fourth time, public opinion has begun to shift on vaccines. In August, opinion was almost evenly split on whether Covid-19 vaccines should be mandatory; today some 39 per cent oppose mandatory vaccinations while 57 per cent are in favour.
That collides with a second survey, asking why unvaccinated Germans have avoided getting their jab. The representative poll by the Forsa polling agency for the federal health ministry presented respondents with a list of reasons not to be vaccinated. Three quarters agreed – fully or in part – that vaccines were not adequately tested or could cause negative or unknown side-effects. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with the idea that there was too much pressure on them to get vaccinated.
Just 5 per cent of unvaccinated respondents said they were certain, or likely, to get vaccinated in the coming weeks. The survey’s worrying bottom line: of roughly a quarter of the German adult population that is not vaccinated, two-thirds of this group have no plans to change their minds. Germany faces a weary winter of discontent.
In the taxi home from his birthday dinner, Lukas insisted he would not allow differing pandemic views to tear up his circle of friends.
Hoping I would never meet his friends again, my mind turned to an ironic German expression: if everyone thinks about themselves, then everyone’s been thought of. It is a local variant on “I’m all right, Jack” and loomed large over our weekend hike. It weighs heavily, too, on Germany’s fourth wave of Covid-19: a full-on collision between individual rights and societal responsibility.
Watching the lights of Hamburg harbour pass by, listening in my head to Lukas’s vaccine-avoiding friends, I could hear the ghost of Margaret Thatcher join the chorus, whispering: “There is no such thing as society.”