WSG member Stephan Grünewald, co-founder of the rheingold Institute, has been observing how Germans are currently dealing with the effects of the Corona pandemic. He summarizes his research in an essay published in the daily newspaper DIE WELT on March 1, 2021.


Stephan Grünewald

The land of the sealers

Many people currently experience everyday life in Germany as a seemingly endless repetitive loop. The corona virus greets us every day. The tunnel vision outshines every ray of hope. Life drags on like chewing gum. And experts, citizens and some politicians wonder with astonished horror why so many sensible and reasonable measures are stubbornly not being implemented.

As a psychologist, I see the German handling of the pandemic, with its tendency to inaction and dithering indecision, as a failure. Failures are an expression of unconscious resistance. They cannot be dealt with by rational argument, but by an understanding of their psycho-logic. In analyzing hundreds of in-depth interviews we have conducted with people in Germany in recent weeks, I increasingly encounter inner contradictions, crude thought traps, and latent hopes of redemption. These mental factors are partly responsible for the fact that Germany has gambled away its pioneering role in combating the pandemic since the summer.

Thus, a central psychological dilemma in dealing with the pandemic is that there are two completely divergent attitudes with which one can confront the virus. Passive in the form of a lockdown and the resulting reduction of contact. Active in the form of the use of efficient and targeted preventive measures: rapid tests, FFP2 masks, tracking/location systems, hygiene concepts, rapid reaction in the event of outbreaks, consistent monitoring of the measures and sanctions, but also strengthening the personal responsibility of each individual. Both approaches are justified. Ideally, they intertwine and reinforce each other.

In Germany, however, both attitudes seem to increasingly hinder and invalidate each other. The passive attitude is undermined by a claim to activity, the active attitude is slowed down by a habitus of passivity.

The status quo is characterized by a passivity with holes and an activity that is inhibited by goals.

The second lockdown, and thus the return to passivity mode, was thus too late and too mild. Citizens experienced a partial curtailment, but unlike last spring, they did not experience a quick sense of accomplishment. The thus necessary prolongation loops of the lockdown produced increasing attrition and corona corrosion. On the surface, people play by the rules, but behind the scenes, a shadowy everyday life emerges in which everyone establishes their gray areas and exploits their loopholes. This holey passivity thus counteracts the goal of contact reduction.

The target inhibition of activity is particularly noticeable at the present time, when the incidence is stabilizing and the desire for a formative transition to a controlled life with the virus is growing. But this transition, in turn, requires that policymakers and citizens implement all available measures quickly and consistently. However, this is happening at best partially and too hesitantly. The analysis of our in-depth interviews identifies five reasons for this:


Many citizens feel that in the face of an invisible threat from the virus, all that can be done is to duck away, and it is best to cease any active intervention. Ideally, one would put oneself and the entire country into a collective hibernation that would only end when the virus is eradicated by external saving powers. The federal government's commercial, with its praise of laziness ("We were like sloths and did nothing"), has ennobled the idle wait-and-see attitude. Sections of the population have increasingly fallen into a bureaucratic rigidity of acquiescence. Their social activity beyond the private gray areas is often exhausted in denouncing even the Corona-unobjectionable activities of their fellows.


The first lockdown was more successful because people, fear-driven by a still immeasurable disaster scenario, reduced their contacts. Passivity was less spotty then, activity not yet so target-restrained, because the opening was creatively driven by many clever measures and the development of effective hygiene concepts. As the numbers rose in the fall, however, this German inventiveness was blanket discredited. Quote from the in-depth interviews: "The third wave is, after all, the receipt for the fact that we have relaxed again and opened bars, clubs or restaurants." But if clever measures and resourceful solutions appear to be a fall from grace, then Germany loses its vigorous creative power and its nimbus as the land of ideas and patents. The land of poets and thinkers threatens to become the land of poet-makers and lateral thinkers.


If you try something, you make yourself vulnerable. Conversely, the blanket lockdown offers a kind of insurance protection similar to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. This attitude can make it difficult for politicians in a super-election year to dare to take the risk of differentiated and targeted measures. After all, even a smart measure can open the door to recriminations should values rise. For many citizens, too, the desire for full coverage is currently topping the principle of personal responsibility. Many describe their reluctance to use rapid tests themselves as if they were interfering with a state sovereignty.


Even during the initial lockdown, I noticed in our studies that just under a third of respondents did not suffer from the shutdown.
Rather, they experienced it as a decelerated time, a kind of sabbatical in which one can finally pursue things one loves. In the second lockdown, the division between people who see the lockdown as an existential threat or restriction to their circle of life and those who have settled comfortably into a small Corona-Biedermeier circle of life deepens. The latter sometimes have no interest in actively opening up, because the Lockdown way of life relieves them of many of the impositions and challenges of modern life. Fewer contacts, less shopping, fewer obligations, less travelling also mean less alienation for them, less need for development and more legitimate self-reference.


"I'm not restarting life until the virus is eliminated!" proclaims one subject in an in-depth interview. As a psychologist, I find it troubling when narratives of final victories emerge during a crisis. To be sure, they are fascinating right now as pipe dreams. In their claim to absoluteness, however, they lead to an obsessive war against the virus that, in my view, can never be completely won, or they cement a wait-and-see fatalistic attitude that ties the active and controlled opening of the circle of life to a condition that is hardly redeemable. The indecisive swaying between holey passivity and target-locked activity creates the illusion of getting through the pandemic blamelessly, but leads to a vicious cycle of unproductive endless discussion, constant blame-shifting, and rigid camp formation. The psychological and social collateral damage is growing, and at the same time the population is increasingly losing its orientation and trust in politics.

Are we allowed to do this - to test ourselves? The habituation to the seemingly offered idleness and a decelerated Corona-Biedermeier destroys our creativity in the fight against the pandemic.

One way out seems to me to lie in a new determination with regard to a truly active stance. It is too late for a resolutely passive attitude with a hard lockdown. People have been worn down by months of restriction, and the bursting energies of optimism of the approaching spring must be channelled. However, resolutely relying on efficient and targeted measures, and thus the use of hitherto little-used technological tools from rapid testing to tracking systems, requires four aspects:

The strengthening of citizens' personal responsibility, also by politicians who do not hide behind a fully comprehensive claim, but appeal to Germany's creative and creative side. The creation of a clear and for the people tangible target perspective with consistent and comprehensible step-by-step plans. The consistent monitoring of all measures. And if there are setbacks on this active path, education, fault tolerance and encouragement are more helpful than moralizing and pessimism.