It was a quiet December here in Berlin. Thanks to climate change, it was one of the warmest winters and there was nary a single snowflake. People were coming-and-going, with little on their minds other than welcoming 2020 with a clean slate. Social media was rife with posts that anticipated what the future could bring. The new year seemed so promising. People, like myself, had hoped that it would usher in “that plot twist you had been waiting for” as that popular meme states. Plot twist, indeed.
But even then, residents of Wuhan were already experiencing a gut-punch of a plot twist—the emergence of the Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Reports of this virus, however, only came to light a month after. At that time, the virus was not yet present in the minds of most German residents. It was just a blip on the radar, one or two minor posts that easily gets lost in their newsfeeds.
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However, with most Filipinos being so prolific on social media, many have been flooding my feed about the Coronavirus outbreak in China and the fear of its spread. Here, the ever-escalating tension between Filipinos and their view of China was even more apparent. The anger, but even more particularly, the fear, was tangible even from a distance. By February 2, 2020, the first death outside of China was reported. This case took place in the Philippines.
And by the time my son returned home to me and the daily grind started again—taking public transport to his daycare, excursions to the park and other public spaces—I already had it in my mind that it would find its way to Europe. And of course, it did. As a mother to an active toddler who is in that stage of fearlessly and happily touching every single surface, I worried. I worried a lot.
But whenever I would share these concerns, these fears were often brushed aside even by doctors or pharmacists. I was often told that the “German flu is much worse and much more dangerous” or that it would likely not reach Germany. And if it did, the hospitals here were the best and people would be fine. There was such a confidence in the German healthcare system, as well as this bubble of invincibility especially since there was a perception that this virus only “targeted” the old and the sick.
I wonder if this state of living in denial was partly cultural. The dark days of Europe—from the two World Wars to the Berlin Wall—were far behind and Germany, in particular, was strong and unflappable in many respects. Whether it’s your nerves or an illness, the answer for them often seemed to be to just drink a cup of tea and you’ll bounce back just fine. That’s my perception as an antsy Asian, at least.
Mid-February, as the outbreak spiked in Italy and cases began to pop up in Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe, there was still this view that this virus was minor. I remember going to the doctor complaining of extreme body aches and pain. The Coronavirus came up. She said, as long as I didn’t travel directly from China, then there was no threat. I think that’s the perception that many Berliners or even Europeans had at that time. Even as the cases in Italy began to swell, there was this overwhelming sense of denial that was perplexing to me. A friend of mine had to work in Italy at the time and within the proximity of the outbreak. His colleague, who was feeling unwell, returned to Berlin and asked to be tested for the Coronavirus. He was turned away. No one looked him over. No one asked him about his symptoms. They just told him that it was not COVID-19 and to just go home. It was this blasé attitude that made the situation even more threatening that the virus itself.
There is a stark difference, too, when discussing the early days of the pandemic with other Asians compared to Europeans. In every instance, particularly for those in my generation who grew up in Southeast Asia, has said that they knew right away that the Coronavirus was a sneeze away from becoming a pandemic. I think that’s why during the early days of this virus’ journey, most Asians in Europe were already wearing masks to protect themselves. This was often misinterpreted as a sign that the person was sick and thus people moved away immediately. However, in most cases, they were just protecting themselves.
For most of my fellow Southeast Asian millennials (or Generation X-ers), we have already lived through SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) 17 years ago. This epidemic was actually far deadlier. Memory and trauma served as a good trigger for this internal alarm. While the Philippines had the lowest casualty rate amongst the countries affected by SARS, there is still this deep awareness of how a virus—and panic—can easily escalate. I didn’t do it consciously, but in early February, I already started stocking up, buying enough for the next two months. Looking back, I was likely operating on this subconscious kopfkino (a movie in your head) imprinted by the daily news of regional fear and panic occurring in 2003.
Even if the first case of the Coronavirus was confirmed on January 27, 2020, it was only the end of February that the mood in Germany began to shift. The number of cases began to steadily climb. There was this greater recognition by the government that this was serious and that it was spreading fast.
On March 1, 2020, Berlin had its first Coronavirus patient confirmed and put in quarantine. Within a few days, people began “hamster kaufen” or panic buying. Shelves were emptied out, and toilet paper suddenly became a precious commodity. A heavy, dark cloud loomed over Germany. By mid-month, most events were cancelled and schools were closed. And when Minister-President Markus Soeder announced a lockdown in Bavaria, the rest of the country took notice.
It was only a short amount of time until Berlin would follow suit. And suddenly, the bustling streets of Berlin grew quiet. Surrounded by bullet-riddled graffiti-laden buildings, Berlin’s empty streets felt like one had stepped into a dystopian film.
For the most part, the citizens here took their cue from the government and the freewheeling Berliner vibe was replaced with caution and distance. Then the sun started shining. Eager to shed winter, most people—admittedly myself included—busted out of their homes and spilled into the parks and lawns just to feel some sun on their skin.
But in the last week, the social distancing rules have gotten stricter: 1.5-meter (4.9 feet) distance should be kept at all times when in public, gatherings of more than two people are banned, etc. For the most part, people have been following suit peacefully. While there are fears and anxieties, there’s also a sense of security, too, that there are various systems of financial support in place. Plus, a sense of cooperation is palpable within various groups. From what I can see, there are efforts made—whether its between neighbors or communities—to ensure that no man is an island. That there’s togetherness even as everyone is forced to stay apart.
There is a stark difference in Merkel’s leadership and the efficiency in which the pandemic is being handled in Germany compared to the Philippines and the US, the other two countries that I also call home. It’s during these great challenges, both on the global scale and at home, that the strength or weakness of a government and how it serves its people are made clear. It seems like in both the case of the Philippines and in the US, people are finding that there is little or no support. In both countries, poverty is highlighted and the poor are once again casualties of a system that not only neglects them, but also exploits them. It seems that it’s the independent communities and/or local governments that are bearing the weight and setting the stage for how people—particularly the vulnerable—should be treated.
If there’s any positive to this pandemic, it’s that it’s the reset button that we never asked for but perhaps we needed. On multiple levels, it’s a chance now for us to take a step back and re-examine our way of living, the leaders we’ve chosen, and our values as a society.
Everyone is terrified of this pandemic, but well, it isn’t the apocalypse. People don’t fear the Coronavirus, they fear how much and how long their lives will have to change. I keep in mind what my former teacher, social and cultural anthropologist Samuli Schielke recently posted on his Facebook page: Ehem, ehem. This is just to remind you that Covid-19 is really bad but it's not the end of the world and it won’t kill us all. The mass extinction event caused by the rapid spread and destructive economic activity of our very own species will do that a little later. Thank you for you attention. And next, more photos.”
And as I scroll through your feed and look through memes beaming of annoying positivity, I can’t help wonder what really will be next.