Should coronavirus measures be “revised”? The terrifying fear is that sensible discourse is no longer possible.

Person with a gorilla mask on his head stands on the street

Protest against restrictions during the pandemic in April 2020 in Berlin Photo: Karsten Thielker

One of the strangest phenomena in history is how little the Spanish flu (1918 to 1920) made its way into commemorative literature, historiography, or popular culture. After all, the influenza pandemic, with an estimated 50 million victims, has claimed more lives than any other disease to date. But even in contemporary journalism it was only a side note and did not appear at all among the editorials about the revolution, the overthrow of the imperial families, the end of the war, Bolshevism or the struggle for democracy.

Subsequently, the mass extinction was quickly suppressed. Intelligent people attribute the fact that this disaster has had so little entry into the collective memory to the following fact: there are very few episodes that allow us to tell heroic stories about it. On the contrary, people did not like what the epidemic turned into them: that is, into selfish people who only want to survive. Epidemics are not a school of solidarity. You can understand this a little better today.

Jens Spahn, Minister of Health during the coronavirus years, is not famous for his particularly intellectual heroic acts, but in the midst of the pandemic he uttered a profound phrase: “We will have to forgive each other a lot.” leave the years behind. The coronavirus pandemic has caused many discords and hysterical debates that have reached the closest circles of friends and family.

Supporters of the measures against those who were skeptical of them, some condemned the vaccination, others uploaded their portraits on social networks “Stay at home.” All of this was not only “controversial” but it was also full of emotion and anger. Female doctors were intimidated and, in individual cases, even killed. On the other hand, people felt very marginalized, nice hippies who practiced homeopathy or meditation suddenly saw themselves as “blasphemers” and “unvaccinated” socially excluded in a way that seemed petty and brutal.

Danger sometimes overestimated, sometimes underestimated

And now there are two options. Option one: just forget about it. Option two: “work,” whatever that is. “We'll have to talk about it, otherwise everything will blow up in our faces again,” a doctor and public health expert, who was a prominent public voice at the time, told me recently. In principle, many can also imagine a “re-evaluation” in the public sector; We hear that the idea of ​​a study commission in the Bundestag is increasingly accepted.

In Austria, the federal government even commissioned the Academy of Sciences to prepare a study. By the way, the study is quite clever. They were presented at a press conference on December 21. That was the Thursday before Christmas weekend. They wanted it to sink.

An Internet portal close to conspiracy theories has claimed the records of the Robert Koch Institute and, of course, the thousands of pages are now being sold as a “proof” document of how we were manipulated, imprisoned or whatever. In the transcripts of the debates you can find exactly the opposite: scientists and experts deriving their recommendations based on uncertain knowledge and in the face of constantly changing facts and evidence bases.

You see what you knew or thought you knew and when. First the danger was underestimated, then perhaps it was overestimated. It was soon assumed that the case fatality rate would be around 3 percent, which would have meant many hundreds of thousands of deaths in Germany. There were controversial debates about exit restrictions, lockdowns and their duration, and concerns about psychosocial effects were raised early on, and it was soon realized that young children and young schoolchildren should be left alone.

Difficult conditions for politics

Politicians, in turn, had to make decisions based on recommendations and under conditions of uncertainty that were sometimes correct, sometimes too lax, sometimes too strict. Those affected by the rules, as citizens are called in technical jargon, reacted with irritation. Some felt exposed to an unnecessarily high risk of death, others felt they were being controlled by authoritarian measures, and overall the government's actions affected people in a much more existential and blatant way than they would otherwise.

Of course, the prosecution would also include discussing the question of how clear and unambiguous a risk assessment must be to massively intervene in individual freedom rights, because in general the eternal tension in the democratic constitutional state is between the binding rules of a social order. and the rights of individual liberty of the individual. The issue of unjustified double standards would also be a problem, as support for the measures collapses when people feel that things are not being done fairly.

In Austria, for example, you could go skiing in a gondola, but not to the theater. On the other hand, politicians were also in a hurry, logically they often fell behind in their tasks and had to take into account hundreds of parameters, not only health but also economic. The Austrian Minister of Health governs for 16 hours during the day and at night he searches on Google and reviews the latest studies, which is personally detrimental to the subject that the official has in charge, that is, health.

What if it were possible to resolve irritation through a calm and measured public conversation? My suspicion is that we have already lost confidence in the possibility of speech. And that's really what's really scary.

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