Coronavirus
The impact of health and safety

The effectiveness and legitimacy of the restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic are still a hot-button topic of debate.
The effectiveness and legitimacy of the restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic are still a hot-button topic of debate. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/AA/Abdulhamid Hosbas

The ongoing debate on whether the restrictions were justified during the coronavirus crisis emphasises the weaknesses in the biopolitical decisions federal and state governments make. Historians Hedwig Richter and René Schlott argue about the consequences for democratic societies.

By Wolfgang Mulke

Ms Richter, Mr Schlott, Germany society is divided. Some feel the far-reaching measures taken by the government were justified to keep us safe during the coronavirus pandemic, while others feel the state was far too restrictive and unduly limited civil liberties. They fear leaders will be reluctant to relinquish the power they have acquired. So do the measures to contain the virus also pose a threat to democracy?
 
René Schlott: In Germany, I am less concerned about a long-term threat to democracy and more worried about the negative impact on to social cohesion – never mind the effect on the economy. The government didn’t consider the long-term consequences of measures it enacted, which cannot even be assessed. Suspending school attendance for months and abolishing compulsory school attendance, as Baden-Württemberg has already announced for the coming school year, will create an educational gap that will only increase injustice in the German education system for children based on their family of origin. This crisis is also exposing the social division in the country in all its brutality. This is visible in the current outbreaks, which are concentrated in social hotspots and hit people in precarious working and living conditions hardest. We are erecting construction fences around certain neighbourhoods and penning people in, which only deepens our social divisions.
 
Hedwig Richter: I don’t see a divided society, quite the contrary in fact. Surveys have shown that a large majority supported the government when it enacted very strict protection measures during the pandemic. Once restrictions began relaxing though, the willingness to adhere to strict measures also decreased. Even now the majority is still more for than against the current restrictions. Only a small minority views the government’s actions as an illegal acquisition of power. Overall, people are taking the crisis seriously and behaving sensibly. The logic is compelling: I potentially pose a danger to other people, so I have to limit my own freedoms – and the state has both the right and the responsibility to demand that I do. I share the majority opinion here. There is no evidence whatsoever that the federal government is fraudulently trying to seize additional powers. So I don't think the pandemic poses a threat to democracy. In fact, our democracy has proven to be particularly effective because, all in all, politicians have succeeded in bringing people on board. Prof Hedwig Richter was appointed to the professorship for Modern and Contemporary History at the Bundeswehr University Munich in 2019. She studied history, German literature and philosophy at Heidelberg University, Queen’s University Belfast and the Freie Universität Berlin. Prof Hedwig Richter was appointed to the professorship for Modern and Contemporary History at the Bundeswehr University Munich in 2019. She studied history, German literature and philosophy at Heidelberg University, Queen’s University Belfast and the Freie Universität Berlin. | Photo detail : © privat Parliamentarianism might still be working, but how are things going for civil society? Young people are angry about having their freedoms taken away and citizens are protesting an enforced quarantine. Has the government gone too far?
 
Hedwig Richter: Canvassing has tended to show that most young people are willing to follow instructions out of a sense of solidarity. Some polls have shown that they are even more willing to adhere to restrictions than older people. Isn’t this an indication that the controversy around the threat to democracy is artificial and lacking in persuasive arguments?
 
René Schlott: Wrong! The Infection Protection Act, which few people knew about before March, has proven to be a security gap in our democracy. Parliament has surrendered a lot of rights to the executive branch, and this is still the case, although the anticipated catastrophe didn’t actually happen. We completely suspended the fundamental right to freedom of assembly for a few weeks. This represents a serious infringement on our fundamental rights, and others have been infringed on as well. The courts have lifted some limitations because some citizens have protested. The state seriously curbed freedom of religion, economic freedom, and freedom in the arts and sciences. At times, freedom of movement was prohibited in Germany. Some governments passed excessive restrictions, closing playgrounds and banning reading a book on a park bench, like in Bavaria, along with restrictions on the freedom to travel and the basic right to asylum. Confidence in the state and its institutions has fallen in recent weeks because the restrictions placed on fundamental rights – the most extreme in the past 70 years – were solely based on regulations issued by the federal states with no time limitation at the start and with unclear objectives.

Hedwig Richter: Apparently though, most people understood that the government’s approach frequently changed because we initially knew so little about Covid-19 and only began to understand the problems involved bit by bit. How do you explain the high level of acceptance if so much trust was lost? The CDU party, which was closely associated with the protection measures, is enjoying a higher approval rate than in quite some time, whereas the AfD party, who criticised the measures, has really fallen in people’s estimation. When it comes to freedom of assembly, the internet means that these limitations were not as severe as they would have been years ago. 
 
René Schlott: The internet can’t take the place of the demonstrations on the streets, as the past few weeks have shown. Dr René Schlott studied history, politics and journalism in Berlin and Geneva. He was awarded a doctorate in modern history from the University of Giessen in 2011, and has worked on various research projects and taught at universities in Berlin, Giessen and Potsdam. He founded the “Grundgesetz a casa” initiative, which invites citizens to read articles from the German constitution from the comfort of their homes. Dr René Schlott studied history, politics and journalism in Berlin and Geneva. He was awarded a doctorate in modern history from the University of Giessen in 2011, and has worked on various research projects and taught at universities in Berlin, Giessen and Potsdam. He founded the “Grundgesetz a casa” initiative, which invites citizens to read articles from the German constitution from the comfort of their homes. | Photo (detail): © Angela Anker So maybe Germany needs something like a biopolitical council to balance the interests of the different generations regarding protecting health and lives?  
 
Hedwig Richter: I think the institutions we have have done a pretty good job far.  
 
René Schlott: That’s true. We have the skills. What we need is better balance between competing interests. The state cannot bow to one, single objective, even if this is people’s health. After all, in fighting the pandemic we have accepted risks to the health of people with diseases that will go untreated or who suffer from loneliness.
 
The coronavirus restrictions have changed how many people act. There is more solidarity and a refocus on the importance of family and friends. The economy, slimmed down for efficiency and globalisation, is also undergoing an upheaval. Could this be opportunity for our society?
 
René Schlott: I’m blown away by that question. I haven’t noticed a shift in focus to family and friends. The first thing I noticed was people hoarding supplies, the very opposite of solidarity. State authorities even appealed to people to denounce their neighbours for violating quarantine conditions. That is frightening. I can’t see how we have learned anything positive about the economy either. Sure, the state pumped in billions to keep the economy going. But I don’t see a will to restructure the system and make it fairer. All health-care workers were promised a 1,500 euro bonus, which nowhere near all of them have seen yet.
 
Hedwig Richter: I think people can always learn from history – and have done so quite often. We see this happen in the aftermath of a war or a serious crisis. Following the Second World War, for example, people systematically established international institutions to prevent wars. From this pandemic, we are certain to learn how to protect ourselves better next time and react faster. I think gender equality is a serious issue we need to address. This is a much more serious problem than any alleged threat to democracy. Women are doing all the unpaid caring work, so they have less time to pursue paid work and other things – we have to do a better job next time.
 
Politics follows the advice of scientists during a pandemic. This would also be nice to see in other areas like climate change. At the same time, this poses the risk that democratic decision-making processes are limited by expert findings that offer no alternatives. Do we need more or less technical expertise in politics?
 
Hedwig Richter: In modern societies, politics and science are two systems that follow different logics. As far as I can see, this principle applies to both the pandemic and the climate crisis. These two areas cannot act independently; they depend on each other. At the same time, there cannot be a one-to-one transfer from science to policy nor vice versa. For our democracy, this mean politicians have to balance what they can demand from citizens with what burdens other areas like the economy, the family and the health care system, can bear. So they are often forced to make concessions that go against scientific advice. There is no such thing as a policy with zero alternatives for the simple reason that science always offers alternatives and even competing viewpoints in many areas. So it has to self-correct from time to time.
 
René Schlott: We agree on that. Politicians should listen to scientists, of course. But most scientists only look at their own field of expertise. Christian Drosten might be an exceptional virologist, but he is not an expert on social cohesion. Politicians and institutions need to make the decisions, and take as much scientific knowledge as possible into account as they do. In an open society, we cannot have any decisions for which there is no alternative.

What should democratic societies learn from how the crisis has developed so far?
 
René Schlott: We need to learn that no crisis justifies such major restrictions on fundamental rights. We cannot ever again afford to subjugate all the freedoms we fought so hard for in recent centuries to flattening the epidemiological curve and restricting freedom in the name of health.
 
Hedwig Richter: Assuming the crisis does not take a completely unexpected direction, forcing us to restrict the economy again, I see one key positive takeaway: We can stop talking about a supposed crisis of democracy. After all, our democracy has managed even this highly complicated crisis. And while there was no way to avoid it taking a toll on people’s fundamental rights, it has not divided society. As far as capitalism is concerned, some argue, not without reason, that a strong social market economy, which always has some capitalist elements, is closely tied to a good health-care system. 

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