At first, I was unsure if lockdowns are a good idea. But now I'm convinced we'll come through for the better.

Dr Mathias Doepfner

  • The coronavirus pandemic can be confusing and concerns about the impact on the economy are valid.
  • But the lockdown measures currently in force are the right call to control the coronavirus.
  • Mathias Döpfner is CEO of Axel Springer SE, the parent company of Insider Inc.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Shutdown. Pause. Mute. The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed our everyday lives. A necessity. However, this state of emergency must come to an end. Soon.

I have wanted to write for days but have hesitated. Because I have doubts. And because I'm not sure what's right. Because, as a person with asthma, I would be regarded as a so-called 'risk patient'. And because I carry the responsibility for 16,500 employees. And for whatever reactions this text elicits.

I have been listening keenly to what the virologists and epidemiologists have to say. Governments are following their recommendations. I find this unrestricted power too void of alternatives, because the experts do not have the mandate of the electorate.

And despite this, they indirectly decide what measures the government orders. Anyone who can count to three knows that the world economy and our society could not survive a standstill like this for even a few months.

In the past weeks, my opinion has been wavering. Sometimes I fall asleep, angry. Angry at my fear of the virus, because I can't tell how dangerous it really is

The coronavirus mainly affects older people and people with an existing condition. Does that not mean measures should apply to people in those risk groups in particular? While everyone else goes about their life and their business as usual?

If we take a closer look, we actually know very little about the virus. Evidence suggests that a large number of cases are going undetected. How high is this figure in Europe, where far fewer tests are being carried out than in other parts of the world? And what does a statistic say about mortality?

I get annoyed when politicians try to outdo one another in their competition to see who can pass the strictest measures. Who is the fastest to pass emergency legislation. Behind closed doors, some of them speak in a different tone, feeling they can't speak openly in the current atmosphere. This worries me, as people don't seem to think about the consequences. I am worried that our open and liberal society could be damaged by good intentions.

I am angry that respected people see China as a role model in this crisis.

Despite the fact that China is a dictatorship, a country that persecutes people simply for having a different opinion. That controls its population using a social scoring system. But it managed the coronavirus situation really well, more and more people are saying. All the while forgetting that journalists who researched the truth were thrown out of the country. Forgetting that we cannot trust China's information policies. Refusing to accept that the Chinese government might well be lying to us.

Is this what our future will look like? Should China become our role model, just because it mastered this crisis using totalitarian means? My fear is that we are committing democratic suicide because we are afraid of death.

That's how I fall asleep at night.

And then I wake up. More than 450,00 cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide. 20% of the patients checked into US hospitals are between 20 and 44 years of age. And then there are the pictures from Bergamo. Trucks carrying corpses. Mass graves. Weeping doctors and nurses who are no longer able to provide the right care to the dying. The 70-year-old doctor refusing treatment, because he has had to turn away so many patients who are the same age as he. That's what I wake up to.

And after all these thoughts and although I worry that the consequences of the virus could be worse than the virus itself (recession, mass unemployment, people losing their property, perhaps worse), I ultimately believe that the measures are right. The more determined we are, the better.

Shutdown. Pause. Mute. Minimal contact. Peace and quiet. Nothing. For a short time, a few weeks. We can manage that. But we need an end in sight.

It is a radical approach for a short period. We slow down the spread of the virus in order to gain time. Time to prepare. A standstill like this cannot be withstood by society, economically or politically for too long. The notion that we can just press the pause button until the virus goes away is naïve and dangerous.

The day will come when politicians change course again. And that's when we will need to take special care of those who are at risk. We must protect them. Hopefully we will soon have a vaccine and improved intensive care facilities to help us do so.

The rest of us, however, have to wake up from economic hibernation. Let us get back to our everyday lives. To the goals and ambitions that are vital to our civilization. As fast as possible. Otherwise, we might lose something even greater: our social order, our freedom. I am seriously worried that we might relinquish our core societal values for a little more security.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We can come out of this situation stronger than when we went into it.

Crises are often catalysts of change. That is nothing new to us. Some of civilization's greatest achievements came in the wake of wars or epidemics.

According to the medical historian Klaus Bergdolt, the plague was a vital prerequisite for the Renaissance, one of the most culturally inspiring and rich eras in human history. The plague was followed by a period of great wealth and, above all, by a hitherto unknown individualism. In Egon Friedell's words: "The year of the conception of modern man was 1348, the year of the Black Death."

World War II was followed by Germany's "Wirtschaftswunder." And after the second oil crisis from 1978 to 1980, investments in renewable energies grew enormously.

Crises force us to do things differently, to rethink the world. It promotes solidarity. A common enemy connects us, in this case thankfully not another country or people, but a virus. Crises act like a magnifying glass, revealing the weaknesses, but also the strengths of individuals and systems. People might fail in a crisis - through resignation. Or surpass themselves by demonstrating courage and a sense of community. Crises can also make us more aware of what is worth preserving and of what needs to be changed.

We often talk about no longer needing offices, a workplace. Work, we say, can be done in many different places. A smartphone and a laptop are all we need. Now, sitting in our home offices, we realize it's not that simple after all. We notice how vital direct dialog is. And we see how many trips and meetings in the past we could have done without. The coronavirus crisis might make our work simpler, more efficient and better.

The role of the media is also being tested. Taking personal risks, journalists are once again what they have not been for a long time. Our window to the world. Our filter to the truth. They have a huge responsibility. And I find that, all in all, they are living up to this responsibility impressively.

I often get letters saying the media must now provide for solidarity and unity. However, the journalist's remit must not change, just because we are in a state of crisis. Journalists must continue to doubt and to ask questions. We need more than just solidarity and a sense of togetherness. We also need criticism. And more than anything else, we need diversity in the information we receive and the opinions we hear.

We do not need central-state propaganda, but rather a healthy rivalry between critically intelligent positions. We now hopefully all see how important independent journalism is.

When the crisis has been overcome, life will no longer be the way it was before. The economic damage will be enormous. Entire industries might disappear or change completely. New booming sectors will emerge. We will work differently. Travel less. Perhaps be more caring to the environment. Show more respect to politicians who act responsibly and do not pander to populism. Our encounters with one another will be different. Perhaps we will be more grateful. We will have wild parties. We will celebrate togetherness. And our freedom.

Perhaps we will change our greeting rituals. Cheek kissing might disappear. Is that a loss, or perhaps a blessing?

Maybe we will greet one another as they do in Thailand - hands pressed together, a slight bow, a smile.

The smile is something I would really like to see. Especially in Germany. Nobody laughs as little as the Germans do. Perhaps the coronavirus will leave us with a smile. When it's all over. A smile of gratitude.

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