The Meaning of Freedom in the Times of COVID-19

It appears that this pandemic poses a fundamental challenge to our notion of freedom.
Hans-Georg Betz, Germany COVID-19 infections, Germany fourth wave, Germany vaccine hesitancy, Germany anti-vaccine movement, Germany COVID-19 hospitalizations, personal freedoms and COVID-19, COVID-19 and human rights, Germany unvaccinated, COVID-19 social divisions

Vaccination center in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, 3/9/2021 © Bihlmayer Fotografie / Shutterstock

November 23, 2021 05:54 EDT

Joshua Kimmich is among Germany’s most talented footballers. A key player with Bayern Munich as well as the German national team, he is an outspoken and vocal leader both on and off the pitch. Together with teammate Leon Goretzka, he founded WeKickCorona, a foundation that raises money to support charitable and social institutions engaged in the fight against COVID-19. Kimmich himself donated a substantial sum to kickstart the initiative.

In Switzerland, the COVID-19 Certificate Divides Opinions


As a result, Joshua Kimmich has become one of Germany’s most admired football players — quite a feat, given that he plays for one of Germany’s most disliked clubs — a model and icon for many youngsters. Yet these days, his image has become somewhat tarnished. The reason: A few weeks ago, it was made public that Kimmich refused to get vaccinated. Put on the spot, he explained that he wanted to wait for the results of “long-term studies.” Long-term studies, by definition, take a long time. In other words, it’s going to take a while for Kimmich to get the jabs.

We Are What We Are

Two weeks ago, the German national team played the last two World Cup qualifiers, the first against Liechtenstein, the second against Armenia. Germany won both, without Kimmich — not because he didn’t want to play or because the coach had decided that the two matches were unimportant enough to allow Kimmich to take a well-deserved time out. The reason was much simpler: A defender from Bayern Munich had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to go into quarantine, as did his contacts, among them Kimmich.

Last Friday, the German Bundesliga resumed play, with Bayern confronting Augsburg, again without Kimmich. His quarantine had ended, but in the days before the match, another Bayern player had tested positive and, once again, Kimmich was sent into quarantine. Bayern lost the match.

Needless to say, Bayern’s management is not amused. But until now, the club has maintained that it was up to its players to get vaccinated — or not. This is likely to change. Patience is running out, and not only in Germany. Bayern Munich is Bavaria’s source of pride, the poster child of regional identity and lifestyle, reflected in the club’s unofficial slogan, “Mia san mia” — “We Are What We Are.”

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Its connotation is that we won’t allow others to tell us what we should do, that we are our own masters. This has a long tradition in Bavaria. Bavaria’s official name is Freistaat Bayern — the Free State of Bavaria, whose people have always valued their freedom, particularly against Prussia and Berlin.

Then the fourth wave of infections hit the Freistaat. Bavarians love their freedom, including the freedom to refuse to get vaccinated. As a result, vaccination rates here are significantly below the average for the former Federal Republic. They are even lower in the eastern part of the country, where the radical right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been particularly successful in mobilizing the population against anti-COVID-19 measures. A recent study has shown that infection rates are particularly high in areas where the AfD has done well in recent elections, and this not only in the east but also in the western part of the country.

Nowhere, however, is the situation as critical as in Bavaria. Over the past several weeks, infection rates in the region have exploded. I was born in Mühldorf, a small town between Munich and Salzburg, in Austria. A few weeks ago, Mühldorf boasted a sad record of having second-most new infections in Germany. At the time, the rate of new infections per 100,000 habitants stood at more than 600 per week. As of November 22, it stood at more than 1,130 — and rising.

Zero Tolerance

In the face of these rates, which threaten to overwhelm the German health care system, patience is running out. A recent commentary in Der Spiegel, Germany’s premier news magazine, sets the tone: “Zero tolerance for the unvaccinated.” Enough is enough, the author maintains. Germany has been far too indulgent with those who refuse to get vaccinated and, in the process, not only “play the lottery with their own health” but “endanger everybody else.” It cannot be that a minority “dictates” to the rest of society how to live.

An opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a major left-of-center daily paper from Munich, takes the same line. Dismissing the charge that forcing the unvaccinated to take the shot would lead to societal polarization, the author declares that “the unreasonable rob the reasonable of their freedom — and the governments have let themselves be intimidated by them.”

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Such commentary reflects a dramatic change of mood in German society. It finds its confirmation in a recent survey commissioned by Germany’s major commercial TV station, RTL, that found a two-thirds majority of respondents coming out in support of general mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. Commenting on the results, the deputy head of the station’s politics department admitted that this would mean a restriction of basic rights. At the same time, it would avert further harm to society and the state. That’s what ultimately counts more.

Until recently, in the context of COVID-19, freedom was to a large extent defined as the liberty to choose whether to be vaccinated or not. Any attempt on the part of the government to introduce restrictive measures was seen as an assault on fundamental rights and freedoms. In Switzerland, for instance, like Bavaria a bastion of freedom, those opposed to the country’s COVID-19 certificate have equated restrictive measures as the beginning of the road to authoritarianism à la China, if not outright tyranny.

Good Advice

It appears that this pandemic poses a fundamental challenge to our notion of freedom, which is now being pushed to its limits. One’s freedom stops there, Immanuel Kant has said, where the freedom of the other begins. This sounds perfectly reasonable, as does the notion, advanced by Matthias Claudius, an 18th-century journalist and poet, that freedom consists in being allowed to do whatever does not harm others. The fact is that today, the vast majority of those who end up in intensive care units have not been vaccinated. When ICUs fill up to capacity with COVID-19 patients, the beds are no longer available for emergency cases.

According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the likelihood “that a fully vaccinated person will end up in ICU due to COVID-19 is 33 times lower than for a non-vaccinated person.” With the dramatic upsurge in infections, the number of patients ending up in hospital is bound to increase significantly, with serious consequences for personnel and care facilities. Already in late August, in Switzerland, COVID-19 patients accounted for around 30% of those in intensive care. As a result, some hospitals began to delay non-urgent operations. 

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The same was true for other countries. In the UK, late last year, cancer patients had scheduled operations postponed or even canceled because of the upsurge of patients needing intensive care during the second wave of the pandemic. It stands to reason that this is going to happen once again with the most recent fourth wave. In countries like Austria and Germany, the situation is already critical, as Bavaria’s health minister warned a few days ago: “The numbers are rising drastically. The intensive care units are filling up. Our health system is about to collapse.”

Under the circumstances, there can be no doubt that those who insist on their freedom not to get vaccinated put those who don’t get the medical attention they would otherwise receive unnecessarily in harm’s way.

In the meantime, Bayern Munich’s management talked to Kimmich and his four unvaccinated teammates — without success. In response, the club announced it would stop paying players who refuse to get vaccinated, including Kimmich, while they are in quarantine. 

For many of Kimmich’s critics this does not go far enough. They have suggested that unvaccinated players should be excluded from practice and matches altogether, if only to send out a strong signal at a time when Germany is heading into a health crisis. The situation is serious, in some regions dramatic — with dramatic consequences: RB Leipzig will have to play its next home matches in front of an empty stadium, a result of Saxony’s low vaccination and high infection rates.

Under the circumstances, it might be time to rethink what we mean by freedom. One point of departure might be a point made by Reverend Peter Marshall in 1947 during a prayer in the US Senate. Freedom, he said, is “not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity … to do what is right.” This jibes with a quote from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, later adopted by Friedrich Engels and still later by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in his famous essay on the “tragedy of the commons,” which states that freedom “is the recognition of necessity.”

In an age characterized by hyper-individualism, where, as Margaret Thatcher famously quipped, society does not exist, these quotes might sound hollow. Given the urgency of the current situation, and not as populist sirens would like us to believe, they might be the best advice we can give ourselves in order to find the way out of this crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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