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COVID-19 pandemic
How the coronavirus is changing our lives

“The world is temporarily closed”: The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily brought large parts of social and economic life to a screeching halt.
“The world is temporarily closed”: The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily brought large parts of social and economic life to a screeching halt. | Photo (detail): Edwin Hopper/Unsplash.com

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has held the world in thrall since spring 2020. Drastic changes to our everyday lives are supposed to slow its spread, and the coronavirus could have a lasting impact on some areas of our society. We look at developments so far.

By Petra Schönhöfer

Environment: Just a brief respite

Dolphins where normally only cruise ships ply the waters – this supposedly good news from Venice went around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. But environmental organization Green Peace was quick to call foul, noting that the video did not show dolphins in Venice, but rather in the Sardinian city of Cagliari, where they are not a particularly unusual sight. And the purportedly cleaner water in Venice was not a sign of increased water quality either. It was simply that the stirred-up sediment that usually clouds the water had time to settle. So did the coronavirus crisis do the natural world any good at all? Fewer cars on the streets, industrial production at a standstill in some places, abandoned offices, airplanes grounded – it would be easy to imagine the virus could help save the climate. The German Environment Agency provided a little perspective: “If the coronavirus crisis has had a positive effect on air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and noise-related health risks, it will only be short lived.” Lasting improvement, the agency says, is only possible if we enact comprehensive environmental policies that change our infrastructure and our patterns of consumption and mobility sustainably and over the long term. In plain English: if, after the crisis, the economy just resumes business as usual and traffic increases again, environmental damage will rise right along with it.

Economy: severe recession

The COVID-19 lockdown and the accompanying challenges to foreign trade, especially regarding the USA, have pushed Germany into a recession. According to the Federal Statistical Office, private consumer spending took the hardest hit along with investment in machinery, equipment and vehicles. In the first quarter of 2020, gross domestic product lost 2.2 percent. Compared to other large European countries, however, Germany is still in very good shape. In the Euro Zone’s second largest economy after Germany, France, GDP plunged by 5.8 percent between January and April 2020, while in number three, Italy, the figure was 4.7 percent. And economists estimate that this first-quarter economic slump has not yet hit bottom. The German government expects the worst recession in post-war history for 2020 as a whole. According to current estimates by the German Council of Economic Experts, Germany's gross domestic product will shrink by a total of 6 to 7 percent in 2020. Compare this to the 5.7 percent fall Germany’s GDP took during the 2009 global economic and financial crisis. Unemployment in Germany also increased during the coronavirus crisis. The unemployment rate in June 2020 was 6.2 percent, 1.3 percent higher than in June 2019, which is around 640,000 more people out of work than in the previous year.

Working worlds: hybrid solutions bring new flexibility

While many people were put on short-time work during the lockdown and are now suffering a loss of income or are threatened by unemployment, other workers involved in the food supply or health care, for example, have faced heavier workloads and a particularly high risk of infection. Other sectors have shifted to working from home. Microblogging service Twitter was one of the first companies to send its employees home to work as early as mid-March. Their offices will remain closed at least until September 2020, when employees can decide for themselves if and when they want to return to office life. This situation has made the traditional, in-person office seem outdated as new, more flexible options prove both feasible and effective. A study by human resource solution provider Adecco has suggested that “hybrid workingc, where some employees are on site in the office and others are mobile or in a home office, could be a way forward. Many employees have also been forced to interact with new technologies, such as video conferencing, which could reduce the number of business trips and face-to-face appointments in future. This would have an impact on mobility, leading to less congestion in commuter traffic and fewer domestic flights during the week. The study also found that the coronavirus crisis could herald the end of hour-based contracts and the 40-hour work week, as employees become less inclined to accept the strict 40-hour model. More than two-thirds (69 percent) are in favour of “results-oriented work”, where contracts are based on the fulfilment of agreed objectives and not on a specific number of working hours.

Media: linear television returns

It is not surprising that media consumption increased during the pandemic. News providers such as Deutsche Welle reported record access figures to their online products. News was the format of the hour and in demand in all forms. According to consulting firm Deloitte’s Digital media trends survey, the number of daily readers of advertising-supported online news rose by 35 percent across Germany. And more and more users were prepared to pay for content, with regular use of paid premium content increasing by 25 percent and the consumption of newspapers as pdfs or via apps going up by 31 percent. Linear television also experienced a renaissance: 21 percent of those surveyed by Deloitte reported watching TV more than two hours a day longer than before the pandemic. Even young target groups, whose TV consumption had been declining both continuously and significantly, reengaged with linear TV. This revitalization did not make inroads into video on demand (VOD) and almost half of VOD users reported consuming significantly more content than before the coronavirus quarantine began. Thirty percent of those surveyed said they listened to the radio more. Podcasts in particular enjoyed a boost and expanded out of their tech-savvy niche existence. Podcasts often delve deeper into a topic than conventional TV or radio news programmes and provide relevant background information users value and enjoy. Worried by the pandemic, many users also turned to traditional media providers. According to a study published in summer 2020 by the Reuters news agency, such media enjoy a much higher level of credibility than social media. The pandemic also came with a paradox, since despite higher usage many publishers are experiencing serious financial problems because their advertising revenues have collapsed as a result of the crisis.

Art market shifts to online

In July 2020, the Art Fair Mannheim was the first to go entirely online. During the pandemic, the art world has taken to live streaming, TV broadcasts and digital exhibitions. For a long time, the conventional art market has looked askance at collectors from the business and financial world who buy pieces via smartphone instead of from the gallery owner of their choosing. The coronavirus could lead to a trend reversal, as the crisis has made online trading more important to the art world. Berlin gallery owner Thomas Fischer uses the sales platform BerlinViews.com to feature his artists’ work: “The website offers around 25 Berlin galleries a way to feature one artist from their repertoire at a time and sell pieces as well.” While some observers fear this trend could soon make new discoveries in underground galleries, alternative spaces, subcultures, and art schools history and also make it harder for young, unknown artists to enter the market, Fischer feels it will be more problematic for highly commercial areas. Well-known auction houses like Nagel in Stuttgart have found themselves in financial difficulties, and renowned art fairs from Cologne to Brussels and Switzerland have been cancelled. He attaches little importance to one-time events in the industry such as vernissages: “For most galleries, building lasting relationships with interested parties is the decisive factor. A museum curator cannot always come to a vernissage and will make an appointment as needed instead.” In his experience, the temporary closure of many cultural venues has not kept artists from creating art.

Theatre: How much money is enough?

In summer 2020, Germany began allowing cultural events again as long as they comply with distancing and hygiene rules. But whether it is open-air concerts where attendees keep a safe distance, outdoor festivals, smaller drama formats in public spaces, or thinned-out rows of seats in concert halls – all result in lower revenues and less funding for productions. State theatres are less affected by this than many private theatres, independent stages and freelance artists. Nowhere in the world were there as many theatres, museums and concert halls per capita as in Germany before the pandemic: 130 public symphony and chamber orchestras, around 6,800 museums, 40 festival halls and around 7,000 festivals are the legacy of Germany’s national cultural policy. Local governments tend to be responsible for the cultural sector, but they are also struggling to cope with the increasing burden of the pandemic. "After the coronavirus, we will have to figure out just how much money is left for the independent scene and what types of funding we can continue," explains cultural policy expert Julius Heinicke in an interview with Deutsche Welle. The German government has set aside around one billion euros for the cultural industry in its “New Start” package for 2020 and 2021.