• Mary MacCarthy

Life under lock down in Germany, from a resident of Bonn

Updated: May 6, 2020

Today’s story is from Alexandra Rüdig-Ironside - a resident of Bonn in the German state of North Rhine- Westphalia, the region of Germany that’s been hardest hit by Covid-19.

For now, Germany is very much the Covid-19 success story of Europe, with fewer than 1,600 dead. The low death toll is attributed to widespread testing that’s free for everyone.

Another factor in stopping the rate of contagion is that German political leaders and citizens are taking social distancing very seriously - as Alexandra recounts.

Quarantine afternoon: chess on the balcony

HOW AM I GETTING BY? Well, first of all, I’m happy to be going through this in my hometown. Just last year, after more than twenty years abroad and most recently in the U.S., we moved back to where I grew up: Bonn, Germany. I had been missing my family terribly, and I couldn't imagine going through this crisis far from them.

With regards to Covid-19, Germany was about two months behind China and two weeks behind Italy.

During the second week of February, we went skiing in France - that’s when the situation deteriorated in Northern Italy. But we were still very detached from it, seeing it merely as “news in a neighboring country.”

It was unimaginable that, within just a week or two, our own situation would change so drastically. Strangely, the threat wasn’t at all clear, then; but there was a storm brewing, and we all seemed to feel it instinctively.

Everyone was very calm, but everyone was somehow getting prepared. People started to fill up their medicine cabinets and cupboards. Some children didn’t show up at school or in the afternoon activities anymore. In my family, my parents insisted on us getting together and discussing what steps to take if one of them fell seriously ill. They told us where we would find their documents, their will, what to do with their belongings, and so on.

Among our friends, some of us started to talk about at what point we should and would take care of each other’s children - if worse came to worst. Many of us approached it with a good portion of very dark humor, too.

Things then moved very quickly as our federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia, was hit hardest in all of Germany. Within days, the Federal Health Minister had issued a travel warning.

Feeling that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the worsening situation in China and Italy, I did try to warn several American friends - telling them what was happening around me. It was frustrating to hear their reactions, with most of them downplaying the threat.

I felt like I was in one of those nightmares where you dream that you call for help, but your voice breaks down.

In the meantime, the unimaginable has become a fact of everyday life - here, over there in the U.S., and almost everywhere. Our former life has come to a full standstill.

Homeschooling at Alexandra's house

Most people work from home, children are being home-schooled, and production in most industries has stopped.

Even German car production - which is among our most important industries - has stopped, as our borders with all European neighbors have been closed.

The border shutdowns caused my first panic attack.

I am half-German and half-Croatian, my husband is British, our daughter grew up in Brussels, and earlier in my life I lived and worked in Sarajevo and Geneva. I feel truly European, having family and friends spread all over the continent. Knowing that our borders are closed - in some ways more so than they were when I was a child - I feel trapped. Doubly-trapped: stuck in my home, and also stuck within my country.

New rules and restrictions are announced regularly. German authorities introduced a ban on gatherings of more than two people. Where we live, the police control the situation, and over the last days they have fined thousands of people for disrespecting the orders. People who break the rules have to expect fines between 200 euros and 25,000 euros ($250 to $27,000). You can be fined for disrespecting the required 2-meter (6.5-foot) distance between people, and for gathering in any public place if you’re not part of the same household. Getting together with more than ten people can result in a criminal charge.

I do worry about what could be an increasing loss of our civil rights. Not just in Germany but in all European countries, which are applying similar new rules. It's basically a form of emergency law, and in some ways it's concerning how easily citizens are accepting it - even the fact that we were officially told that the German telecom industry would track us via our cell phones, checking whether people are leaving their homes.

I have a great amount of trust in our government and I believe they're doing the best they can. But I do worry about this. What if - afterwards - they don’t return to the status quo? It wouldn’t be the first time in history that political leaders take advantage of a crisis situation.

Store asks customers to limit quantities they buy

On the flip side, the crisis has brought back quality time with loved ones,

and has created a new sense of solidarity. I love to see how people help each other. How much they care.

We all try to make sure that the elderly stay home. My parents haven’t left their house for weeks. We do their shopping once a week, and leave the bags outside their house and chat through the open window

I currently do the shopping for five households, to help elderly people and friends with health issues. We reach out via Skype or Whatsapp to those who live alone. Everyone I know does exactly the same. People help each other if they can, without regard to how close they were before the crisis. When you take walks you see drawings with positive messages stuck to the windows, or beautiful chalk drawings on the pavements - mainly in front of grocery stores or pharmacies. Messages thanking those who still work for us.

People create new rituals, like one of our neighbors who stands on his balcony each night at 7pm and plays the trumpet for us. I love how everyone functions well together as a community in crisis.

I have experienced the greatest proof of love and solidarity within my own family. I have one daughter - an 11 year-old - and my sister has three daughters. Almost four weeks ago, my niece who is as old as my daughter came to our house right after school and asked to be locked in with us. She explained that she didn’t want to leave her cousin alone in this situation and that it would be fairer to have two children per household.

Every day I ask my niece whether she would prefer to go back to her own house, and every day she refuses. It is crystal clear that my daughter would have struggled with no real contact with another child for weeks. And I’m sure that my niece misses being with her mom and sisters, too. For me personally, her love and empathy will always remain the highlight of this time. It touched my heart.

I know it might sound strange, but I want to say that I gain strength from the history we are surrounded by in Europe. For example, we live very close to the so-called “pest chapel.” It was built as a gesture of thanksgiving, in the place where the last wave of the plague was stopped - in 1666, right here in Bonn.

It's said that the church keeps some remains of Saint Sebastian in the chapel - believers worship him as a protector against the plague. The plague caused countless victims all over Europe over several centuries. I don’t know whether Saint Sebastian will help us or not, but the little chapel reminds us of what our ancestors went through and survived. For me - and for many people in my town - it’s a sign of hope.

Ferry crossing the Rhine

I also like to go down to the banks of the Rhine. Our town was founded as a Roman settlement about 2,000 years ago. Even today, for long stretches of the river in Bonn, there’s no bridge joining the two sides. Instead, we use ferries to cross - and I like to believe that the ferryman is one of the oldest professions in our region. While everything else has come to a halt over the past few weeks, it calms me and reassures me to see that the ferry continues to cross the river, as it has done for centuries. Things come and go, just like the river's waters. I use the time that I’m gaining now as time for reflection.

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