BERLIN — After work, there is now a simple choice: pop into a shopping center or maybe a visit a DIY store? Coronavirus has turned city slickers into suburbanites. People who were used to the hustle and bustle now find themselves eating at home every night and spending their evenings on the sofa rather than in bars or art-house cinemas. The pandemic seems to be the great equalizer.
Everything that allows people to pursue diverse lifestyles in big cities has fallen away. Added to this is a new intensity of social surveillance. People still don't know their neighbors by name, but they have started drawing the curtains — to prevent people from calling the police if they see strangers sitting at their kitchen table.
The priorities of the second lockdown are clear: Work, childcare and shopping are essential, but cultural experiences and meeting anyone outside your household are not. Some lifestyles have been destroyed by the pandemic, while others are almost unaffected. The state is making sure that above all, nuclear families are hardly impacted: Nurseries and schools are staying open at any cost; daddy is still allowed to go to the DIY store; and mummy can still go shopping. There are still soccer games on TV, and you can go to church on a Sunday.
But if an unmarried person wants to go for a walk with two close friends or invite them over for dinner, he or she is breaking the law. In France, it's even stricter. As it was in spring, people are not allowed to visit others except for 'necessary family reasons.' Friends don't count. The French government recently announced that there will be no easing of restrictions in the next few weeks. According to the prime minister, the hope is that they will be able to save the all-important Christmas shopping boost to the economy.
In 2020, it's as if Europe has stepped back in time. All the hard-won freedoms of the last 40 years have been rolled back. The nuclear family once again enjoys the kind of special status recognizable from nostalgic black-and-white Christmas films.
In Poland, hard-line Christians are brazenly declaring their towns 'LGBT-free zones,' while women have to take to the streets to fight for their reproductive rights. Hungary is rewriting its constitution to ensure that transgender people are not recognized. And everywhere, women are being held back at work because the burden of childcare falls on them.
For months now, the Draconian laws introduced by Europe's governments to protect it populations have been driving millions of people to loneliness and depression because of the simple fact that they live alone.
In 2020, it's as if Europe has stepped back in time.
We're in the middle of a culture war. It's suburbs against cities, reactionism against progress, religion against freedom, and conformity against diversity. Coronavirus is a litmus test: who really matters, and who doesn't? Politicians claim that there is no alternative to these restrictions, but is that really true?
The New Zealand model
In March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country was in lockdown. The rules were strict, but they allowed every individual to form a bubble with another person. This made a huge difference for single people and single parents who didn't have to go through this difficult time alone.
Loneliness can affect everyone. But for gay people, the pandemic has been an especially trying ordeal. For most, their social lives don't take place within a nuclear family structure and their meeting places have been closed now for months, their events canceled. Many young gay people living at home are finding themselves unable to express their identity, and may even have to hide it.
There aren't many statistics available yet, but a survey in Portugal found that 59% of young gay people felt uncomfortable with their own families during lockdown. Even before coronavirus, the suicide rate among homosexuals was far higher than heterosexuals. This year it will go up even further. And yet, no one in government seems interested. Their main focus is saving Christmas, keeping churches and factories open, making sure people keep reproducing.
It wouldn't have been hard to make life easier for those outside the mainstream. Why was Jacinda Ardern the only leader who thought about allowing people to create bubbles? (The UK did later adopt this idea.) It's the same virus in France, Italy and Germany. But Ardern didn't let her coronavirus policy be shaped by a narrow definition of family, unlike Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Giuseppe Conte.
In Ardern's cabinet of 20, there are eight women, eight indigenous people and three gay ministers. This diversity is also reflected in the New Zealand parliament. In her time as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has decriminalized abortion and given birth herself. During lockdown, she addressed her fellow citizens in tracksuit bottoms and introduced a 20% pay cut for herself and all government ministers, because times were hard for everyone. The leader of the opposition followed suit.
At the 2020 Berlin Pride — Photo: Imago/ZUMA
In the middle of the biggest global crisis since the World War II, German Health Minister Jens Spahn bought a luxury villa in a Berlin suburb. Spahn's counterpart in New Zealand stepped down this summer because he had taken his family to the beach once during lockdown and was photographed mountain biking. An empty gesture? It shows a politician who understands his personal responsibility when his country is going through hard times.
Of course, some of the restrictions are unavoidable. Everyone understands that clubs and bars can't simply be allowed to stay open while the virus is running rampant. But in Germany in early summer, why was the Bundesliga allowed to put on soccer matches with fans in the stands? Why were churches allowed to hold services without a limit on attendees, or couples allowed to have 200 guests at their wedding? Who are the state's policies serving, and who is being left out?
It's clear that European governments have different priorities from Jacinda Ardern. Their decisions favor traditional family units over people living alone, the mainstream over subcultures, the old over the young, heterosexuals over homosexuals, big companies over the self-employed, religion over the arts, and professional sport over sexuality. They value conformity over resistance and reproduction over creativity. In short, they have come down on the side of suburbia.
Coronavirus policy will continue to shape society long after the pandemic is over. The post-COVID world, which we got a tantalizing glimpse of earlier this year, looks set to be a total disaster for some and a triumph for others. This prolonged societal disruption will not push us forward into a progressive future; instead it will re-establish an old, heteronormative and patriarchal worldview.
Politicians are introducing restrictions targeting those on the periphery, while their ad campaigns and TV appearances claim these policies are for the good of everyone. This is cynical and misleading, but effective. In other words, power politics in its most basic form.
The pandemic won't last forever, but the experiences will stay with us for a long time to come. The experience of not being an integral part of our social structure, of being considered disposable by those who set the tone of our national debate. It's telling that the murmurs of discontent among the cultural sector are only now growing louder. Sought-after actors and refined museum directors are belatedly realizing what others have long since known: they are inessential, tolerated rather than valued, the half-time show rather than the main event.
German politics is set up to benefit heterosexual nuclear families. This isn't a conspiracy theory, but a fact. As long as she could, Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to prevent homosexual couples from having the same rights as heterosexuals, namely the right to get married and have a family. In the final vote on equal marriage in 2017, Merkel voted against. She lost.
The message is clear: What you're allowed to do depends on who you are.
And there is still discrimination. Married lesbian women have to allow complete strangers into their homes to decide whether their wives have the right to adopt their child — even when the child was born when they were already married. By contrast, men are allowed to claim paternity as long as the mother agrees, without any official assessments. These double standards show what kind of families are valued in our society.
Leading German politicians have always sought to exclude minorities from mainstream society. Now, with the additional pressures of the coronavirus crisis, they are aggressively forcing people to obey what they claim are unavoidable policies, telling citizens to follow the rules and not ask too many questions. All the talk is suddenly about 'us,' about 'our' responsibilities and 'our' values. But who do they mean by us? Why should people sacrifice their freedom to protect a society that actively shuts them out?
A so-called ‘fetish party'
The crisis has turned back the clocks on social progress with impressive speed. Diversity is now not a proof of cosmopolitanism, but a shameful example of irresponsible, antisocial behavior. Take for example the German police report on a so-called 'fetish party' that was broken up towards the end of October. This was a long-established queer event in Berlin, which was arranged within virus restrictions to take place outside, with a permit and an approved health and safety plan. Three hours before the end, it was stormed by police. They later claimed that social distancing was not being observed — although by law it doesn't have to be at outdoor events where people are wearing masks. No law was broken, but the attendees were publicly shamed by Berlin politicians.
The rules are not the same for everyone. Even during full lockdown, religious services — both outdoors and indoors — were allowed to take place with no limit on the number of attendees. The message is clear: What you're allowed to do depends on who you are.
The restrictions introduced by European governments to combat coronavirus are not unavoidable or rational, despite what politicians persist in arguing. They privilege certain groups and restrict others. Museums, cinemas and theaters have more in common with gay bars, queer communities, 'fetish parties' and techno clubs than they might realize. And that's why most reactions to lockdown from those in the arts are misguided. Theater directors, musicians and filmmakers claim that the German government doesn't see them as essential. But it never has. It has simply pretended to, just as it pretends to tolerate minorities.
This has come as a rude awakening for many. But they had to wake up at some point. Staying meek and mild as long as their budgets continue to grow has lulled cultural institutions into a false sense of security and allowed them to slip into state-funded mediocrity. It would be no bad thing for that to come to an end. The rise of gray suburbia isn't a valid alternative to our colorfully diverse society. It is the death of freedom.
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