Dundalk man living in Germany looks at how the country has dealt with Covid-19 threat
I live in a small German town, Rheinbach, roughly the size of Dundalk - where I was born, lived and worked for many years.
Usually, Rheinbach is bubbling and throbbing with activity; parks, swimming pools and playgrounds all full. Sports fields always busy.
The town has many kindergardens and primary schools, three big secondary schools, and also a third level college, so the student population is about 10,000. The restaurants and bars are usually packed each evening, and with a wee bit of sunshine the street outside the restaurants and bars have extended seating areas. A local train service ferries passengers to and from Bonn, 20 kms away, every 15 minutes. The sweeping Kottonforst (Cottonwood Forest) is five minutes walk away from the centre of town. Walkers, joggers, dogs-a-plenty out enjoying the wildlife.
However in the past few weeks the situation has taken on a dramatic change. The Germans are quite good at keeping their distance, being reserved and hesitant about engaging too quickly in conversation with ‘non close friends’, so the request from the government to practice ‘social distancing’ was relatively easy to adopt.
Schools shut down very early, about a week before Ireland, masses were cancelled, all social centres closed, and the population retreated behind the wall of safety indoors. Foodstores, banks, petrol stations, post offices, DIY, builders suppliers and garden centres, chemists, pet food shops, and funnily enough hairdressers (until March 24) are all open. The Irish government list of essential services is much more extensive than here.
The novelty of the situation took over common sense for a while, and some of the youth got involved in Corona Parties, meeting at a designated spot for a bit of social life. The immortality of youth is everlasting! However the police, or more accurately the ‘Ordnungsamt’ (a second layer ‘policing’ force responsible for public order) soon started to patrol the meeting places and send the people home. This party mood has now evaporated.
The mood is somber but hopeful. There is no total lockdown in place in Germany, although some cities, for example Leverkusen, have gone to lockdown. But taking only essential journeys, and only doing what is absolutely necessary is the order of the day. Essential workers like carers have all got a pass issued by the employer to enable free movement from home to work. The belief is by following the directions about distance and hygiene there is a good chance to survive.
So far (as of March 26) 13 residents of Rheinbach have tested positive, as yet none hospitalized. Sadly our neighbouring town of Meckenheim has had one death. It appears as if there is not a problem with testing and results. Testing takes place quite quickly, results can take 3-4 days to come back.
But a visit to a test centre can only happen with a doctor’s note, and the doctor assesses the symptoms in relation to the virus before issuing a note. People very quickly self quarantine if an anxiety sets in. I know people, my son Christopher for example, who were in a situation where they were in voluntary quarantine, (like Angela Merkel!) because someone a few stages removed tested positive, and there had been some contact.
Universities have delayed opening after the semester holidays for a month so far, and are planning online teaching and learning. I am Skyping, Zooming and Moodling my way along. All medical students are expected to volunteer for hospital work to relieve the permanent staff. Christopher is a fourth year medicine student, and he has had two scares so far. On the last day of his practical placement, all students were sent home and told to isolate.
A friend of a friend of one of the students had tested positive, so the student in question needed testing, and all who had come in contact were at home anxiously awaiting that result to see if they (and their families!) also needed testing. Luckily the student tested negative. The second scare involved the father of a member of an orchestra Christopher plays in. The father of the girl tested positive on return from a risk area; so once again home arrest for Christopher for two weeks or until a negative test result. Luckily once again the result was negative. But working in hospitals, even as a volunteer, does put one in the front line, so family life takes place at a distance, via Skype and phone calls.
Restrictions on walking and meeting others are in place. No more than two people together are allowed, unless they are all members of the one family, or live together in the one house. Dog walking is essential, and no problem so far. Individual sports, horse riding, cycling, jogging, running are strongly encouraged, to maintain a level of fitness and sanity.
However all team sports, including social sports like tennis and golf are shut down. An aunt of the family died, and the funeral was restricted to the graveyard burial; no mass, and no tea and sandwiches in a restaurant afterwards. A maximum of 20 people were allowed in the graveyard. Quite a sad send-off for a beloved family member, but necessary in these troubled times.
Shopping is interesting. All open stores have got social distancing markings on floors, creating two metre square boxes, and woe betide anyone who strays into another person’s box! Fear and anxiety can take over sometimes. There was a bit of a ‘run’ on toilet paper, after some manufacturer said they were moving production to face masks instead of toilet paper. The stores quickly got round to posting the following signs: ‘Shop normally. We are staying open, and we will not run out of stock’. This seems to have settled the mood, plus the typical German approach of keeping an eye on what others are doing. A serious look at an over-full trolley can bring a certain level of nervousness!
We usually do a lot of painting inside and out at this time of year as the weather becomes warmer, so a trip to Obi (DIY store) was in order. The queue outside moved fairly quickly. ‘One out one in’ was the system, when they had reached the number (30) permitted inside.
Of course, as the schools are all shut, home office has become the way to work for all students and teachers, and Microsoft offering Office 365 and MS Teams free of charge for at least six months has given them a head start in the distance learning field. Telecom has now also rowed in with free everything for six months, plus hugely increased bandwidth for customers to help them with the flow of data. Of course not every family is a four-computer family, so time-sharing resources with family members is also important.
A lot of parents are also housebound, and are developing systems where the whole family can successfully work from home.
Some of our friends are professional musicians, classical and folk, and sadly they have no chance of any income until the health risk is over. An initiative KeepYourTicket has started. We have tickets for some small gigs, 80 to 100 people in the audience. The idea is we don’t ask for our money back for those tickets, to help the musicians. Big stars, playing to thousands are a different matter. I hope Clannad stay healthy, and reschedule the German part of their farewell tour for 2021.
We have tickets for two different venues, and know the tickets will be valid for rescheduled concerts. I am not so sure about KeepingMyTicket for Robbie Williams though, scheduled for May in Bonn. I think he can refund me without any worries!
Rheinbach is not an industrial town, most industries here are service industries and small businesses.
However there is of course a potential huge cash-flow problem for any small business. An electrician friend of mine has a four man company.
The new contracts he can take are strictly controlled, and he has work for four weeks, but afterwards it will be a serious cash-flow problem. I feel Dundalk could be much worse than Rheinbach in that respect.
The Lord Mayor of Rheinbach, Stefan Raetz told me the town has a reserve fund set up to help businesses at risk.
The town is also cancelling certain payments businesses normally make, outdoor rental for example, and a Business Advisory Group is available to inform small businesses about access to the reserve fund. The mayor’s office has also published a list of all local businesses with a phone-in and delivery service, with the request to shop locally, online or by phone, instead of using multi-national online services. Our florist took a phone order and delivered flowers to us!
All around me people are talking about the forecast 80% of the population will get the infection.
A selfish thought: it would be grand to be in the other 20%! A wish is the medical requirements, both personnel and equipment, will hold out to manage such numbers. God bless all front line people, both medical and ‘essential services’ workers.
Thoughts are of course with family and friends back home and around the world, and the fervent hope is all will survive.
With the difficulties around, some great beacons of light shine out from Dundalk and district.
A wonderful impromptu Saint Patrick’s Day car parade through town and district, organized by Joseph Keenan could only help to raise spirits. It looked so much fun! Also the sight of my nephew and his children having a Saint Patrick’s Day parade performance, entertaining the granny through the window with dancing and Irish music was wonderfully uplifting.
These and other events showed the spirit we need to get us all safely through this! C’mon the town!