At the beginning of April, German lawyer Beate Bahner was apprehended in her home in Heidelberg by police and brought directly to the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic. A strange story, perhaps made stranger (and indeed fodder for conspiratorial types) given her recent opposition to the stringent lockdown measures introduced by the German federal government. Is this a tale of political silencing? And why is there a growing movement to end lockdown restrictions?
Most European countries are currently in some form of ‘lockdown’. Measures introduced to mitigate the negative effects of Covid-19. Germany is no exception, with slightly more lenient measures introduced by their federal government, but allowing certain states to introduce more restrictions. There has, however, been some criticism for the measures introduced in Germany, most notably from prominent lawyer, Beate Bahner.
Bahner, has a history of challenging the constitutionality of government measures. She previously won three cases in the federal constitutional court in the area of unlawful infringements of the right to practise one’s profession. She took to her website to condemn the confinement laws, calling them the ‘greatest legal scandal in the post 1940s history of Germany’ and urged the 83 million people of Germany to demonstrate in the streets in protest.
The reason she dubbed the laws ‘flagrantly unconstitutional’ was based on their curtailment of the fundamental rights of German citizens. In her view, to protect the small minority of the public at risk of serious harm from contracting Covid-19.
This call for a public demonstration, of course illegal during the pandemic, drew the attention of the police in her native Heidelberg. They announced their intention to prosecute Ms Bahner the following day, and her website was shut down. This police attention would seem to strike a fear in the lawyer bordering on paranoia. Later referring to herself as ‘number one enemy of the state’, she believed the authorities were surveilling her. On Sunday 12th April she noticed a car in her underground car park that she believed to be following her and ran into the street beckoning for someone to call the police. The police arrived at her home and reported finding Ms Bahner in a ‘confused state’. She allegedly greeted them with hostility, kicking one of the officers. Violently resisting, she was handcuffed and brought directly to the psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg.
This part is a little strange. The fact that she wasn’t brought to the police station and instead brought straight to the psychiatric hospital could certainly raise a few eyebrows. Those dubbing themselves Coronavirus ‘truthers’ may feel this is their ‘aha’ moment. However, it’s worth noting that the police were called to the house by Bahner herself. It’s not as though they busted down the door unannounced, in fact, they would have been nowhere near her house if it wasn’t for the fact that she called them there. On top of that, the doctor that greeted her at the hospital made the decision that she did need to be admitted. The hospital requested a longer stay for Ms Bahner when she was released two days later, but were refused by a district court judge.
The strange set of circumstances around Ms Bahner’s arrest and admission has provided the perfect platform for those already in opposition to the stringent social distancing / lockdown measures introduced in Germany. Hanz UP Tolzin, prominent German vaccination critic, claimed that ‘from now on, any German citizen who is somehow critical of the lockdown measures can expect to be arbitrarily arrested and locked away in psychiatry at any time’. 200 supporters came out to greet Ms Bahner as she came out of the police headquarters in Heidelberg, where she was being questioned for calling for illegal protesting. The support she received was linked to Germany’s far right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). One of their members Stefan Räpple was present and their slogan ‘we are the people’ was heard to be chanted.
This revolt against current measures in Germany isn’t localised to Heidelberg, though. Protests have been happening all over Germany, including hundreds taking to the streets of Berlin. A quick search on YouTube will bring up many videos of German protests. One entitled ‘wir sind das Volk’ (we are the people) sees hundreds on the street in Berlin. The video, with half a million views and a 20 to 1 like to dislike ratio, might make for worrying viewing for those who trust in the government’s measures to maintain social distance.
It’s not just Germany voicing dissatisfaction about how governments are handling the current pandemic. Protestors in the US made the headlines this week. There have been protests in North Carolina, Ohio and Minnesota, yet seems to have gained most support in Michigan. 15,000 cars descended on the capital of Michigan to protest the lockdown measures introduced by their Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who’s been simultaneously been labelled a Nazi and a communist by her detractors for the measures she’s introduced.
The protests themselves are organised via the use of private Facebook groups, and the size of these isn’t negligible either. Facebook group ‘Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine’ currently has over 350,0000 members and has grown over 100,000 members in a week. Simply opening up Facebook and typing in ReOpen in the search bar, will bring you up a private group for almost every state in the US, demanding the end to what they see as tyrannical intrusions into their civil rights. Again, these protests weren’t without political undertones as protestors donned many of the emblems of America’s far or ‘alt’ right. Donald trump paraphernalia, confederate flags and banners condemning communism were all present. America’s president didn’t denounce the protesters either, when asked about them this week Trump remarked that they were ‘very responsible’. He has also seemed to encourage the demonstrations, tweeting support for protesting against restrictions, writing in separate tweets: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”; “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”; and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Ireland is not exempt from this wave of dissidence either. This week journalists Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters, took a similar tact as Bahner, challenging lockdown laws. O’Doherty, oft given the title of conspiracy theorist, and Waters are famous for their contrarian stances. Anti-Abortion, anti-immigration and pro-religion, the pair’s views fit quite well with those protesting on the streets of Michigan and Berlin.
Last week, Tuesday 19th of April, 100 supporters of O’Doherty and Waters donned in tri-colours gathered outside the four courts for approximately three hours in protest while the pair were in court. This week, officers received a tirade of threats in a since viral video from O’Doherty while conducting a checkpoint in the city centre. The trending discontent has definitely reached Ireland, too.
So why is the right peddling an anti-lockdown sentiment?
Is it simply an act of political posturing? A rally against the establishment from those inclined towards conspiracy theories against big government? Or do they raise legitimate questions?
Intrusion into people’s inalienable rights was central to Beate Bahner’s argument. These overarching measures would indeed be antithetical to traditional right wing theory, with their predilection for small government. Comparisons were drawn with communism at many rally’s in the US and Meshawn Maddock, organiser of the protest in Michigan called it ‘tyranny’. These messages were echoed by Waters and O’Doherty in Ireland who expressed concern about the increased powers of the Gardaí. Is there truth to the noise though? On the face of it, yes, many of the rights traditionally protected by the constitution have been taken away. Our governments have taken away our ability to work, socialise and even going outside is a luxury afforded to us only for a minimum number of specified, essential purposes. It is undeniable that our society currently bears resemblance to the harsh regimes the protestors are comparing it to.
Is this ‘tyranny’ though? Considering the measures have been introduced for a designated period of time and with a clear goal? The goal, protection of life, an inalienable constitutional right in and of itself. The ‘inalienable’ rights of freedom that Bahner and others are championing would have to be juxtaposed with the right to life when governments are undertaking decisions on any emergency measures, from a purely constitutional perspective. With many indeed happy and willing to give up their freedoms for a number of weeks in order to save many lives.
Another cause of discontent is the potential effect lockdown could have on the economy. Bahner and the protesters in the US have called for the reopening of small businesses because of the negative effect this is having economically. Again, these are legitimate concerns. Conventional economic wisdom says there will be a significant downturn in the aftermath of the virus. Perhaps the most eloquent of the lockdown critics, Alex Berenson, a former New York times reporter who has been very vocal in his criticism on Twitter, has claimed that the measures have placed the economy into freefall. In an interview with VICE, Berenson posited the idea that the government’s projections about Coronavirus were false.
However no one, not even Berenson has proposed an alternative model. It also would seem that those concerned about the economy have not considered the state of the economy post-virus, without lockdown. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where people’s spending habits would be the same before we get a vaccination. We can expect restaurants, bars and airports to be fairly uninhabited for some time whether the public are mandated to stay at home or not. This too, is all before we factor in the economic effect of a collapsing healthcare system due to an unmanageable number of cases, were we to row back on social distancing measures.
A common claim is that governments over-reacted. ‘Yeah, the virus is an issue, but it’s danger is over-stated, not justifying such restrictive measures’- Berenson believes this. He baulks at claims that the healthcare system is overrun stating on his twitter that hospitals are currently at 43% capacity. What he fails to factor into his claim is that the social distancing / lockdown measures have a large part to play in healthcare systems not currently being overwhelmed, as they became in Italy and Spain. Paul Bloom, Canadian psychologist, stated on the Sam Harris ‘Waking Up’ podcast that those claiming ‘see, we told you you were overreacting’ after social distancing measures have flattened the curve, is like buying someone a fire extinguisher in case of a fire. If in the event of a fire, the extinguisher is used to put it out and mitigate the damage, the person says ‘I told you we didn’t need the fire extinguisher, there’s hardly any damage’.
Whatever the motivations for this mini revolution, it could provide worrying viewing for those concerned about another outbreak of the virus. Angela Merkel explained that the reverse out of lockdown needs to be ‘slow and controlled’ to avoid this, as the reproduction rate of the virus hasn’t changed. But there is a growing sector that believes we need to throw the measures out, go back to normal life and see what happens.
Photo from Michael Swan
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