Lifestyle & Culture

Lockdown showdown: American expat sociologist Lily Cichanowicz compares the US and Germany’s handling of the pandemic

Many commentators have pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the structural failings of the United States. It’s hard to disagree – with a death toll of 850,000 and counting; huge lines winding their way outside of testing centers in the freezing cold; and in the midst of all this, the CDC recently shortened the mandatory quarantine period, purportedly so people get back to work sooner.

It’s easy to take these conditions as the norm when you’ve got nothing to compare them to, but as an American expat and sociologist living in Berlin – especially during months of lockdown – I’ve had a lot of time to observe and reflect on how different countries have dealt with this crisis.

For better or worse, the contrasting cultural differences in each place played out in the handling of the pandemic

Lockdown and quarantine

When the pandemic reached global proportions in March 2020, I was vacationing in Argentina. Forced to evacuate the country, I was faced with the decision either to return to Berlin where I have been living for the last several years, or – at the behest of my family – return to my hometown in Upstate New York to weather the pandemic there. It was a difficult choice, but I simply had more trust in the German system, with its excellent statutory healthcare schemes, social welfare, and pragmatic outlook.

Indeed, in many ways the German system is robust against crises.

I actually began to find comfort in and appreciate the bloated bureaucracy and stubbornness that define the German collective psyche – even though prior to the pandemic, I’d be the first to complain about these to anyone who’d listen. Germans are conservative in the purest sense of the word. As popular blogger Mary Scherpe, of Stil in Berlin, noted in a post, being too quick to adopt changes is seen as foolish and frowned upon here. The behemoth state and its countless regulatory policies felt like a safe cocoon against the unprecedented.

But oh, how Germans love their rules.

By the sixth month of full lockdown, trying to keep up to date on the current policy measures felt like a full-time job. One week, single households could only meet with one other household. Another brought a new curfew. Then, only expensive FFP2 masks were allowed. After that, a negative test was required to enter most places besides those deemed essential.

It was daunting and overwhelming, as by spring of 2021, it seemed my American friends and family in New York State were already getting their second doses of the vaccine and enjoying the easing of restrictions.

Vaccine rollout

Speaking of the vaccines, it’s worth pointing out that Germans are thorough, but – contrary to popular perception – not especially efficient. It has meant that their vaccine rollout was appallingly slow. Merkel and her team continuously made meticulous plans for vaccine distribution only to find a hiccup and return to the drawing board. In the first months after the vaccine became available, hardly anything got done.

In the States, the gutting of social safety nets over the last decades has meant that the country has been abysmally ill-prepared to handle the crisis, but its willingness to innovate and position itself within the free market has meant that the population could access the vaccine much sooner. In Germany’s defense, however, COVID tests have been made free and easily accessible to all residents since April

Economy and unemployment

Businesses received massive subsidies, and vast numbers of employees were put on Kurzarbeitergeld (short-term allowance), they were paid 60 percent of their salaries while not working during the lockdown. In the U.S., things vary dramatically by state, and even though I am from New York, one of the places with the strongest social policies nationwide, there is still a prevailing disdain for “handouts.”

On a national level, the seemingly sporadic Economic Impact Payment rollout of $1,200 in April, another $600 in December, and a final $1,400 in March regardless of regional living costs just doesn’t stand up in comparison. Still, when I went home to visit my family after nearly two years of not seeing them, I was giddy and relishing in that certain – if perhaps somewhat deluded – optimism that is baked into American capitalism. I was finally able to easily access vaccines and lapped up the euphoria of seeing more than two people in a room in over half a year.

Testing and current measures

My experience of the pandemic in this comparison between two countries is surely a mixed bag. I can see the frustrations and silver linings of the different structures and cultural tendencies in each. Admittedly, I have enjoyed taking a break from Germany’s strict tutelage every now and then in my travels back to the United States.

That said, it is a relief to live under German pragmatism where motives aren’t the primary deciding factor in decisions about public health.


About the author:

Lily Cichanowicz is an American freelance writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. In the form of cultural analysis, her writing is a critical exploration of everything from the personal to the political, and her aim is to share the insights she has with readers.

On her website, you can find a curated selection of her favorite pieces.

You can read more of her Dispatches posts here.

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