Ausnahmezustand anxiety in St Andrews

Ausnahmezustand anxiety in St Andrews

by Linda Holt
article from Monday 6, April, 2020

AT LAST MONDAY’S Coronavirus briefing Housing Minister Robert Jendrick announced the UK was now on “an emergency footing” in a way “unprecedented” in peacetime.

Even “unprecedented” is rapidly becoming old hat. “It is in so many ways an unprecedented response to what is an unprecedented situation”, said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her Tuesday Coronavirus briefing, upping the rhetorical ante as she introduced Scottish emergency legislation.

Would my parents, were they alive, find the current situation unprecedented? I doubt it. My mother, born in 1929, lived in Germany until 1953; my father, born in 1911, was essentially employed in Britain running an armaments factory during the Second World War. They might have found its cause – a virus – novel, but its psychological, social and political ramifications far from strange. We are in an Ausnahmezustand.

Literally, the German term Ausnahmezustand means “state of exception”, although it is often translated as a state of emergency or martial law. German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) coined the term in reference to the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good, and later used it to defend Hitler’s suspension of the Weimar constitution.

To be sure, we are not (yet) under martial law or in a state of emergency akin to Hitler’s. In strict legal terms, a state of emergency occurs when the British Sovereign, on the advice of the Privy Council or a Minister in exceptional circumstances, introduces emergency regulations under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004. The Act is only supposed to be used in the event of a sudden catastrophe of the highest order, such as a major natural disaster or Chernobyl-scale industrial accident, and it is significant that the government did not use it to make emergency changes in the law.

Instead, it introduced the Coronavirus Bill, which although rushed into law within two days, did allow for parliamentary scrutiny for a specified set of powers, and will require further parliamentary approval for the use of some of these. Nevertheless, there was disquiet that while legislation passed under the Civil Contingencies Act has to be renewed by parliament every 28 days, the Coronavirus Act runs for up to two years, with parliamentary renewal required only every six months.

The Ausnahmezustand hits me most when I go out. It’s there at home, of course, but since my household is anti-social at the best of times, the atmosphere is quite pleasant. In fact, I find myself happy that my children are all in neighbouring rooms and not going anywhere (they are too old to require or even want much of my attention). It’s rather like Christmas, with all the home-cooked food, drinking and occasional family game, but without the deadlines, performance anxiety or emotional freight.

A few days ago we had to drive across Fife to drop off my step-daughter at her mother’s house. The sky was clearer, the air sharper than usual. The roads were so empty it felt like 3am in daylight, surreal as a Magritte painting. Such ideal conditions for driving – how great for an airport run! – soon vanished. It would be normal not to encounter a single police vehicle en route from the East Neuk to Lochgelly, but suddenly we saw them everywhere; cars, vans, and motorcycles crowded the A roads, and cruised slowly round towns. I always worry I am doing something wrong when I spy a police car (I’ve had my fair share of driving convictions), but the anxiety and guilt are now of a completely different order. Were we allowed to be out driving at all? Why together? Would the police find our step-daughter’s access visit an acceptable reason? After we dropped her off, my husband wanted to stop by some fields in a quiet lane, drink a coffee in the car and stretch our legs. I worried that we would be caught, conscious of the embargo on driving somewhere to take exercise.

We’d bought the coffees and a paper (non-essential items!) at a convenience store in Lochgelly. Chatting to the cashier, my husband learnt that earlier that morning someone had coughed while being served. He had then joked: “Don’t worry hen, I’ve no got Coronavirus”. The customer behind reacted with fury.  A little later, the police arrived, wanting to know the name of the man who had coughed. The cashier refused to clype, so the police demanded the CCTV footage. The cashier said she’d received abuse for drawing a smile on her face mask. She wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.

A couple of days later, I went to the supermarket in St Andrews. A security guard was stationed at the door, stopping couples or family groups from entering, enforcing a one-in, one-out procedure, and ensuring social distancing was being observed by those waiting outside. That didn’t stop one very angry shopper berating him for not enforcing social distancing inside  the store.

The shelves were full, but the atmosphere was quiet and poisonous. There were no children. Solitary shoppers were tight-lipped, their eyes averted. With exaggerated, guilty movements, they tried to maintain the mandatory two-metre distance from each other and employees, despite the narrow aisles. Many wore masks or scarves across their faces, and vinyl or leather gloves. As one of the unmasked and ungloved, I interpreted their glances in my direction as fearful and reproachful. I squeezed melons to check if they were ripe, and immediately felt guilty that I could be infecting them. Facebook do-gooders have wasted no time declaring that there should be a general prescription that anything you touch in a shop, you must buy; I felt like a child who had forgotten the exhortation to look, not touch. The tension was so palpable that I had a headache for hours after I got home.

The vast majority of us are still in the phoney war phase of the pandemic. Despite the obsessive, daily tallying of deaths from Covid-19, overall death rates are still not unusual for this time of year. Nor are hospitals overflowing with Coronavirus patients, at least in Scotland. Yet the Ausnahmezustand is raging in our heads. What most struck me when I went out was how fearful and demanding my own superego was - no policeman, or security guard or even fellow shopper stopped or scolded me. I was reminded of the observation made so often by writers in totalitarian regimes: that the slyest censorship doesn’t come from the state but from citizens’ anticipation of it.

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