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Germany mourns 100,000 COVID-19 deaths

  • November 26, 2021

A year ago, Kerstin lost her 83-year-old father to COVID-19.

“I’m sure he knew that we were there,” she said, telling DW of his final days in a hospital bed. “Even if I was only able to stroke his forehead with my gloved hand.”

Kerstin lives in Düsseldorf — 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) from her parents, who were based in Berlin. Despite the virus’ infectiousness and strict social distancing restrictions, the hospital called to say a final visit was possible. To Kerstin, the oldest daughter, the choice was clear.

“I at least wanted to say goodbye to my father,” she said. With her son, she got in her car and drove to Berlin to spend 10 minutes with him. “We were head-to-toe in plastic,” she remembered. Her father died the next day.

He had been taken into hospital with tuberculosis and only contracted the coronavirus later, probably from a doctor who was treating him. Now he is one of Germany’s 100,000 people — according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control — who has since officially died from the illness. Kerstin’s memories prompt laughter and tears, as she recalls her father’s life and the randomness of his death.

Caregivers have also suffered.

Nurses have been struggling in the pandemic, seeing people being put on ventilators with their health deteriorating.”We’re all afraid of dying,” caregiver Rita Kremers told DW.

One of her colleagues died from the virus in the ICU, she said, six weeks after infection. “It really hits you when it’s a person you knew who dies,” she said.

Commemorating the COVID dead

Germany has already held an official commemoration event to honor its COVID-19 dead, with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meeting with families of victims in April. At that point, the death toll was just over 70,000. Weeks later, he made remarks as the number climbed to 80,000.

“The burden of the pandemic is exhausting and we struggle with finding the right way forward. That’s why we need a moment to pause,” he said at the time.

Other communities have found their own ways to mark the personal and national tragedy, with some towns planting memorial trees in cemeteries for their dead.

“The sympathies of the entire city go out to all those left behind and especially those who couldn’t be with their loved ones in their final hours,” Stephan Keller, Düsseldorf’s mayor, wrote in a message at one such memorial event.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    A moment of solidarity

    Back in January, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked citizens to place a light or a candle in their windows in memory of Germany’s coronavirus victims. Steinmeier said the lights intended to “show compassion at a dark time.”

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    Speaking to those left behind

    In March Germany’s head of state, spoke to affected families. For many, one of the biggest problems has been not being able to visit relatives in hospital and, in the worst case, having to watch from a distance how they die alone.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    Helping those in need

    To help those who are critically ill in intensive care units, many hospitals have completely restructured the way they work. In view of the increasing number of infections, officials are warning that ICUs are filling fast and urgent action is needed.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    Illness and death

    The pandemic has particularly affected older people and those with preexisting conditions. According to Germany’s public health institute, 85 percent of those who died were older than 70. But there are indications COVID may have a lasting effect on the lungs and other organs of those who survive.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    The battle against COVID-19 variants

    Virologists are working hard to counter virus variants. According to health officials, the coronavirus variant that was first detected in Britain, known as B.1.1.7, now accounts for 90% of recorded cases in Germany.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    Gigantic testing effort

    Large testing stations, such as this one at Gütersloh Airport, are part of Germany’s strategy to deal with the pandemic. Another key element is speeding up the rate of vaccination. After a slow and problematic start, more and more Germans are now getting the vaccine. As of March 16, at least 18 per cent of Germans had received at least one jab.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    Isolation and loneliness

    “No medicine is as effective as having your family close,” say leading physicians and palliative care specialists. As Germany increases testing and vaccinations, restricting contact between Covid 19 patients and their relatives should remain the absolute exception.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    At their limits

    Germany fared comparatively well during the first wave of the pandemic, but the end of last year saw Germany’s death toll spike. Germany recorded more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths in December alone. Many crematoriums were at their limits, such as this one in the state of Saxony.

  • Remembering Germany’s coronavirus victims

    International commemoration

    According to the WHO, just under three million people worldwide have died from COVID-19. After the US, South America has been particularly affected, especially Brazil. Victims are being honored everywhere. In the pedestrian zone of San Salvador, for example, photos of coronavirus victims are a reminder of the pandemic.

    Author: Wolfgang Dick, Thomas Sparrow

Experts have been helping people to deal with death and dying.

“We shouldn’t just think about the 100,000 dead, but also those who died from loneliness in the first wave. Or those who died because a cancer treatment had to be postponed,” Dirk Pörschmann, director of the Museum for Sepulchral Culture in the central city of Kassel, told DW.

“It has to be dealt with very sensitively. It’s about upholding a person’s dignity after death,” said Dietmar Preissler, collection director at Bonn’s Haus der Geschichte, which has been gathering pandemic-related items for the museum.

A funeral director’s helplessness

Fabian Lenzen, a fifth-generation undertaker in Berlin, remembers the “huge sense of helplessness” in the early months of the pandemic. He had to work carefully with those who died of the virus, but “reasonable protective clothing” made the risk “manageable,” he said.

The pandemic has stretched his role running a funeral home.

“How do I deal with family members? What’s possible and what isn’t? How do I tell them that it isn’t possible to say goodbye,” Lenzen said. “We aren’t ministers. But we’ve filled that role all the more just by doing our normal secularization work.”

Individual tragedy, felt by everyone

Those who do have a pastoral role, such as Hanover’s evangelical bishop, Petra Bahr, confront these questions regularly.

Every death is “on one hand a history and on the other, a life cut short,” she said, describing the rising COVID death toll as “outrageous.”

“We’ve almost gotten used to just coolly noting it,” said Bahr. “Numbers don’t die. People die.”

Even as death touches more and more people — everyone from pregnant women to young fathers, she said — “it seems to interest us less and less, even as this death is connected to more and more consequences, and more and more misery, suffering and destroyed lives.”

Historians like Preissler think the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the country. Just like Black Death in the Middle Ages or the 1918 flu pandemic, COVID-19 “will also influence society,” he said.

For all the loss, the cold reality is that there is more death to come. As Germany mourns its 100,000 dead, it is also bracing for another long winter and a fourth wave of infections.

This article was originally written in German. 

Edited by: Richard Connor

Correction, November 25, 2021: A previous version of this article misspelled Dirk Pörschmann’s name. 

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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