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As for the pandemic, what are the multitude of issues all about at the core?


ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis spent time in Germany recently, which gave him added insight into the interplay between mask mandates and human psychology. In a New York Times opinion piece, he notes how Germans have a balanced, practical approach: “You see it everywhere here in Germany, day in and day out: People taking the subway or bus or train put masks on as they prepare to board. And when they arrive at their stop or station and disembark, nearly all of them take the mask off, almost in unison.”

Having spent most of the pandemic period in the United States, MacGillis was struck by this “communal, matter-of-fact approach to mitigation, turning what has become such an intensely charged symbol for Americans into a mere practicality.” Traveling throughout America as a reporter, he had wondered why it was so hard for the country “to arrive at a sensible middle ground” on dealing with COVID-19.

Even after public health experts had established the vastly lower risk of transmission outdoors, I watched local officials close playgrounds and swimming pools, leaving young people with fewer options for low-risk activity and social contact. That was (mostly) the blue states. In one red town I attended a crowded memorial service in a windowless church where precious few people were wearing masks, and many shared embraces as though the virus simply didn’t exist. All or nothing, nothing or all.

And I saw how these wildly conflicting responses were fueling a vicious cycle of ever wider divides in behavior, with corrosive political side effects….it was not hard to discern what was happening: Reports of Trump supporters refusing to wear masks in big-box stores or indoor campaign events seemed to make liberals more inclined to wear masks even when outdoors with few people around; seeing mask wearing turned into a political statement, more partisan talisman than necessary tool, in turn made many conservatives less likely to mask up indoors when the circumstances justified it.

He cites the observation of Harvard Medical School researcher Julia Marcus, who says that the mask skeptics she interviewed felt ridiculous wearing a mask outdoors or in a spacious store with few people around, but who became more amenable to wearing one when it matters most, after she agreed with them that masking isn’t as important in certain settings. “Overselling danger,” MacGillis writes, “seemed, in other words, to have the opposite of the intended effect.”

Why has the German experience been so different? MacGillis says that the Teutonic predilection for rule-following doesn’t fully explain it, because what remains unexplained is why “in contrast to what I witnessed in blue American cities, I have seen so few people going over and above the rules here, wearing masks outdoors or in other situations where they are not required.”

(As an aside, as a proud half-Yekkeh, I must add that Mr. MacGillis is probably unaware of the story told of the visitor to a Washington Heights shul who showed up five minutes early, only to find the doors locked, because as he later learned, “tzu frieh ist aucht nicht punktlicht — too early is also not punctual.”)

Rather, he says the “likelier explanation for the less polarized approach to virus mitigation behavior is that Germany is, well, much less polarized,” noting that German politics are “so consensus-driven here that for the past eight years Germany has had a governing coalition consisting of the two largest parties.” In contrast to the US, where there was a 45% chasm between right and left on whether there should be fewer coronavirus-related restrictions on public activity — by far the largest gap of any country surveyed by Pew — in Germany, the difference was only 20%.

He notes that Germany does bear some pandemic-era features similar to those in the US. It has one of Europe’s lowest vaccination rates, barely ahead of the United States. There have been large protests against mask mandates, travel restrictions and the proliferating vaccine requirements for restaurants, sports events and other gatherings, although these have been more ideologically heterogeneous than those here.

Ultimately, he posits, what has made the difference is that

German public health authorities seem to be making decisions with less concern than their American counterparts are about whether they will somehow abet right-wing narratives. For instance, requirements for proof of vaccination here in Germany can also be satisfied by showing that you’ve already had Covid, following the studies that have shown prior infection to provide strong protection. In the United States, public health officials seem to worry that anything validating anti-vaxxer claims about natural immunity will reduce vaccination rates.

The overall effect is of an environment set at a lower temperature, far closer to normalcy, where the public space is not forever on the verge of flaring into a divisive battleground of signaling, judgments and resistance. Meanwhile, the reports keep coming from what looks like an ever more inflamed landscape back home….The middle ground seems more out of reach than ever.

MacGillis concludes with his experience of attending a campaign speech by the center-left Social Democrat party’s candidate for chancellor, who said, “We saw in this corona crisis that we can hold together, that solidarity is possible in this country.” That line, he concludes, “seemed far more plausible here than if used in the United States.”

His central observation — that Covid and this country’s poisoned politics are hopelessly, inextricably intertwined — has been made by others before. But his piece provides a real-life example of how it doesn’t have to be that way, because there are places where indeed it isn’t that way, to a large extent.

It’s heartbreaking to read, because at bottom, Covid and politics are fundamentally different. When it comes to the latter, there are indeed deep ideological differences between people (although in today’s climate, anything as serious as ideology takes a far back seat to performative posturing and completely unserious culture-war antics).

But as for the pandemic, what are the multitude of issues, about masking and vaccines and restrictions and everything else, all about at the core? Life, and good health, and surviving this mageifah that the Eibeshter has seen fit to bring upon us. And those are things we all want, for ourselves and hopefully for others too.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 884. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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