Social Distance and the Virus

Against Kleinstadtidylle: Does it really need a virus to see how divided our cities are?

Small town Göttingen received its nation-wide fame of news coverage for having the highest increase of COVID-19 cases per capita in Germany during whitsun holidays. Not because people were gathering in huge crowds to enjoy the sunshine and take a first dip in the nearby Baggersee, no, instead the residents of the Iduna Complex in the city centre were brandmarked as culprits of making Göttingen a corona hotspot.

TV channels and news outlets poured in from all over the country, creating images of dire living conditions in a run-down building with such details that one got reminded of poverty voyeurism. But the narrative of this housing complex as a dubious and shady space was not initiated by the media from the outside, it was in fact built on local stereotypes. Growing up in Göttingen I got to hear often that it would be unsafe to be in that area and it therefore should be avoided.

Yet, even if the image of the housing complex is still at the centre of news coverage, the infrastructure of the building is hardly identified as a major factor shaping the unfolding health crisis. When residents reported about everyday constraints like narrow lifts, ventilation systems and tight corridors that make social distancing impossible, it found less coverage than the construction of a prejudiced image of their identity. It fitted better into the story when reporters were pelted with eggs and other food. Allegations circulated that families had violated distancing guidelines during the celebrations at the end of ramadan. There were many talks about “huge families” coming together in religious gatherings – clearly built on already existing suspicions that “those people” would anyway have too many children and focused to much on their religion anyway. Another symbol occurred, a locality that had just recently been marked as “foreign” by right wing terrorism creating a massacre in such a place in Hanau – the Shisha Bar. There were discussions whether people who had contracted the virus had met and smoked a shisha together.

These accusations were denied by the residents. All 600 of them had to undergo mandatory testing from June 6th onwards. 146 have already been identified as infected, but it took a long time for everyone to get access to those facilities. Whereas reports had claimed that residents had refused to undergo testing, it took a letter by the inhabitants of the Iduna Complex clarifying that it was instead the hospital which had denied free testing to them even when it became known that one elderly man living there had contracted the virus on May 25th.

When I returned to Göttingen in the middle of the pandemic, I did not expect any trouble to receive a test swab. Beng registered with a general practitioner in one of the very well-off residential areas in town (Ostviertel), it only took a phone call explaining I had caught a fever on an international flight in order to get an appointment for testing. It was was problably right to get me tested even if it turned out negative, the injustice is that it was much easier for me than for those who are not part of a travelling global elite.

Marginalisation means greater exposure to risks, be it in Göttingen or elsewhere. Different localised mechanisms are at play – such as the snot-nosed University town narrative in Göttingen that some people would be more aware of the consequences of the virus than others.

When mayor Rolf-Georg Köhler is urging people in town to stand together against the virus, it sardonically sounds as if whoever got infected in the Iduna Complex had done so as an act against the community in town and could not be part of this “together” anymore. In the last months we have seen many times how thin the line between “social” distancing out of respect for others and exclusion from fundamental rights has been. There can be no “together against the virus” without an active agenda towards social change.  

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