Dear diary, this week I almost set the kitchen on fire. Apparently, my two oven-related routines of sterilizing masks and baking Christmas cookies got mixed up. After putting in a baking tray of masks I heated the oven up to 180 degree Celsius, which, as the smoke and smell informed me ten minutes later, is 100 degrees too high for masks. Looking at the stack full of black, shriveled, and stinking masks, I thought that this is a somewhat appropriate picture of how the pandemic collides with all the Christmas traditions I enjoy.
This September, I enthusiastically and naively promised to write (at least!) one diary entry per month. Of course, I have not written a single word since then (I am very sorry, Owain!). Over the past weeks I have been thinking and wondering about why this is the case. The short answer is that I had simply nothing to tell. The almost-fire in the kitchen is basically the most exciting pandemic related thing that has happened in a while. I am caught in by now rather well-rehearsed pandemic routines: I work from home, I do not see friends or family (except very few outside meetings and zoom calls), I try to be a good PhD candidate and parent, I sterilize our masks (usually in a very professional manner). The pandemic does not feel new anymore, it is still exhausting but in a somewhat calmer way. All my fears and worries are still there and given the raising numbers of cases, more immanent so than ever. But somehow, I became used to them. They do not keep me up at night anymore. Yet, I am so tired.
Shortly before the mask-incident, I finally watched the video that was published as part of the #besondereHelden (translate as something like #exceptionalHeroes) initiative by the German government a few weeks ago. The aim of this campaign is to encourage and urge people to stay at home. The video kicks off with an elderly man somewhen in the future, sitting in an armchair, talking about his memories of the winter of 2020 “when the second wave hit”. The entire setting mimics oral history elements of TV war-documentaries. In the video, the man tells the viewer that he was a 22-year-old student of engineering in Chemnitz “when the entire country looked at us”. Despite wanting to meet friends and going out partying, the man continues backed up by monumental music, “we gathered all our courage and did the only right thing: nothing”. Then the video jumps back in time showing the 2020-version of the man lying on the sofa, eating junk food, watching TV, all whilst looking incredibly bored. “The couch being the front, our patience our weapon” - continues the voice over - “is how we became heroes, back then, in the Corona-winter 2020”.
Initially, I found the video quite funny. It is certainly well-made; I really felt the young student’s boredom. But the more I think about the video, the more uncomfortable I get. First of all, comparing the pandemic to a war as done in the video seems like a somewhat old hat and many scholars have thoughtfully discussed why securitizing and militarizing a pandemic is problematic. Secondly, I doubt that the situation depicted in the video holds up to the current reality of many young people who may, for instance, live in student housing, have caring responsibilities, or have lost their jobs. Many simply cannot afford to ‘do nothing’ and wait out the pandemic at a comfortable and safe home. I reckon the immense privilege that is being able to, at least in parts, relate to the young hipster hero in the video.
I get the intention of the video and its attempt to capture the oddness of ‘doing nothing’ being the most important thing to do during the pandemic. Urging people to stay home is a meaningful goal and attempting to do so with modern media (a video! a hashtag!) and humor is worthwhile. I also get that it is impossible to do justice to the diverse and complex realities the pandemic holds for different people. But do we then have to pick the arguable most comfortable one for an official video?
Shortly after the release, the satirist Jan Böhmermann published his interpretation of the video. The start of his version is rather similar: an old man in the future talks about his memories of the winter of 2020 remembering how he did nothing. But in Böhmermann’s video this courageous ‘doing nothing’ is not situated into the pandemic. Instead, the man remembers that every day in 2020, refugees fled across the Mediterranean, many of whom died. Then, similar to the original version, the video jumps back in time showing the 2020-version of the man being bored and doing nothing whilst the voice over talks about the daily death of refugees. Here, the adapted line “our inactivity [became] our weapon” is not amusing anymore but cruel and atrocious. Like the original video, Böhmermann’s version ends with the old man comfortably smiling into the camera, stating “we truly have been heroes”.
While the government’s video made me slightly uncomfortable, this video really hit me. It drastically demonstrated what we are missing is care for others when physical distancing leads to social distancing. Doing nothing is not necessarily heroic, but in many cases simply ignorant and maybe even cruel. I am still figuring out how, but I want to get rid of the numbness that has become part of my pandemic life. Of course, I will still stay at home and limit physical contact to a minimum, but I will not become (or remain, to be honest) socially distant, I will care and be active. And I will write more diary entries, I promise.