OPINION: Berlin needs more understanding for people who can’t wear face masks

It's easy to jump to conclusions when we see people breaking the mask-wearing rule. But with some medical conditions making wearing face-coverings almost unbearable, it's high time that Berlin took a more understanding approach, writes David Matthews.

BVG mask sign
A sign for the Berlin transport network BVG informs people of the 3G and mask-wearing rules on-board. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

Germany is breathing a cautious but audible sigh of relief. Omicron appears to have peaked without overwhelming hospitals with patients, and at the state and federal level, politicians are now discussing which restrictions should be lifted first. 

Of all the pandemic precautions we’ve gotten used to these past two years, masks are likely to be the last to go. That’s if we ever take them off – it’s possible parts of Europe might follow Japan and make them a social norm on public transport, even after the pandemic has long since faded away.  

During most of the pandemic, I thought of mask-wearing as a no-brainer. I could see why closing restaurants and bars or restricting travel was controversial, but masks? What’s the big deal? They seem to be such a simple, cost-free way of reducing infection, which is why occasional mask-refuseniks on the U-Bahn come across as bafflingly stubborn and anti-social to the rest of us.  

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day – it’s time to move on

But last December, my eyes were opened to the hidden costs of a masked society when a friend of mine, Hannah Bestley Burt, an artist from London, came to visit Berlin for a long weekend. 

Hannah is autistic, and for her at least, wearing a mask is far from simple – it’s practically impossible. She has problems with sensory processing, and so finds certain clothes, like jeans or items with high necklines, labels or seams, unbearably irritating to wear.

When coronavirus struck, she tried to find a comfortable kind of mask, but they triggered panic attacks. “It’s like having a bright and hot light shone directly in your face, or someone yelling numbers at you while you try to do maths,” says Hannah, whose art deals with her autism. “At best it’s distracting, at worst it is intolerable, it makes me angry, panicked, afraid, I can’t think about anything but its presence on my face.”  

A world of judgement

In London where she lives, this hasn’t been such a problem. There, mask compliance is pretty patchy, and there are regular reminders on public transport that some people are medically incapable of masking up.  

But arriving in Berlin unmasked, Hannah experienced a world of judgement and rejection as she tried to enjoy the city. This was despite bringing a letter from her therapist explaining her autism, and a digital exemption badge from the UK government. 

In one incident, a café initially tried to turn her away, despite having empty tables. In another, she was forced to wear a mask when getting a Covid test in a shopping centre. And when she tried to go to the spa Vabali she was flatly refused entry. I asked Vabali about this, and they simply referred me to their website FAQs, which bluntly says: “face coverings are required”. 

It wasn’t just being turned away that was painful for Hannah; it was the seeming lack of understanding or sympathy in Berlin about her condition. I don’t think the language barrier can be used as an excuse: she was either turned away from these places in English or was accompanied by a fluent German speaker.   

Things weren’t much better on public transport. Generally she tried to avoid it, but when she had to take the U-Bahn, people sometimes tutted, stared and spoke about her.

It don’t want to give the impression the trip was all bad: we managed to go to Christmas markets, bars, restaurants and a nightclub where staff were understanding. 

Public shaming 

But this doesn’t remove the anxiety that in the next café or U-Bahn, you’ll be publicly shamed for not wearing a mask. “I’m an artist and had been considering moving to Berlin, it could be a wonderful move for my practice,” Hannah told me afterwards. “But I realised that I couldn’t live there, I couldn’t have a full life there.”  

How many autistic people are there in Berlin like Hannah, excluded from public spaces through official rules or the glares of strangers? 

It’s impossible to know for sure, but Germany’s Federal Office for the Environment estimates that 0.6 – 1% of people globally have the condition. That would equate to tens of thousands in Berlin alone. 

Of course, many autistic people are able to wear masks without a problem, Bärbel Wohlleben, vice chair of Autism Germany, told me. But the organisation also knows of sufferers who like Hannah simply cannot mask up. “There is not a lot of tolerance,” she said. 

People sit on the Berlin U-Bahn wearing masks

People sit on the Berlin U-Bahn wearing masks. Local transport is often a hotspot for public shaming of perceived ‘mask avoiders’. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

How could Berlin become a little more tolerant? Transport for London regularly reminds passengers that it may not be obvious why someone cannot wear a mask, and sends free exemption badges to passengers who want them, no questions asked. 

I asked BVG if they had considered doing something similar. They told me that they make sure their staff know about Berlin’s mask exemption rules, which do allow you to go maskless if you have a medically certified health impairment, chronic illness or disability. 

Yet they decided not to broadcast public reminders “in order to minimise the risk of abuse” of the rules, a spokesman told me. Reminders would “not entirely solve” the problem of unmasked people getting dirty looks on the U-Bahn, he added. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules and compliance

A forgiving middle ground

The problem here, as BVG suggests, is that if we don’t tut and stare at unmasked people like Hannah, we also won’t challenge diehard mask refusers who are unmasked for political, not medical reasons. The whole system of social pressure risks collapsing. 

But surely there has to be a more forgiving middle ground where, if it bothers us, we politely ask someone on the U-Bahn why they aren’t wearing a mask, rather than assuming the worst of them. I’ve certainly done my bit of public shaming during the pandemic, staring at a maskless person on the train or tram without knowing their backstory. 

And every café, bar, and restaurant should make sure their staff know that mental health can be a perfectly valid reason not to wear a mask. 

For most of the last two years, I’ve counted my lucky stars that I live in near universally masked, rule-following Berlin, rather than what I thought of as selfish and maskless London. But as we edge back into normality, Hannah’s experience should remind us that for a small but significant minority, masks are far from a harmless measure – they amount to a semi-lockdown of the entire city.

Member comments

  1. “And every café, bar, and restaurant should make sure their staff know that mental health can be a perfectly valid reason not to wear a mask. ”

    I don’t disagree with your statement…but only after a diagnosis by a qualified mental health professional. Otherwise, this becomes a free ticket to not wearing a mask.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

For those of us living in Europe now, this is a scary and dangerous time, writes The Local's James Savage. The threat from Russia leaves European leaders with no easy choices, but peace and democracy in Europe depend on what they do next.

This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

The Russian army is invading Ukraine, putting an official stamp on a conflict that its President Vladimir Putin started when unmarked troops entered Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The consequences for Europe are potentially devastating.

In a bizarre and sinister speech televised this week, Putin denied Ukraine was ever a real country, falsely claiming it as “historically Russian land” that had been stolen from the Russian empire. Meanwhile, the enormous Russian military buildup in Belarus seems to have snuffed out any hope of real Belorussian independence for the foreseeable future. 

These are not faraway countries about which we know little. For Germans, Scandinavians and Austrians, these are our near-neighbours. Ukraine is part of the wider European community, many of us have friends there. Their previously comfortable, normal lives are now threatened by Putin’s self-indulgent fantasies about Russia’s position in the world.

From my vantage point in Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia can often feel like another world, but as the crow flies, the naval port of Karlskrona in southern Sweden is closer to Belarus than to Sundsvall in central Sweden. The highly-militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer still.

Manual widget for ML (class=”ml-manual-widget-container”)

Ukraine and Sweden have deep historic and cultural ties; there have even been small Swedish-speaking communities in Ukraine since the 18th century. For Germany, Poland, Austria and other central European countries, bonds across borders broken by the Cold War have become strong since the collapse of communism.

Nobody knows what Putin will do next if he successfully occupies Ukraine, but he has been opining constantly about the ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ of the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is bad news for three former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, once subjugated by Moscow but now part of the EU and Nato. They are modern, sophisticated countries, which identify far more with the Nordic countries than their former Russian occupiers.

Any attempt by Putin to invade the Baltic states should trigger Nato’s Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. Some military experts warn that if Putin decides to attack these countries, he might first occupy the strategically-placed Swedish island of Gotland, a claim that was illustrated by Russian military exercises in 2013, when according to Nato it simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden.

Russia’s aggression has led to calls for Sweden to join Nato, something that would give the country protection, but would also draw unwelcome attention from Moscow. A poll in January showed support for joining was at 35 percent, higher than support for staying out. But many Swedes, especially among the ruling Social Democrats, have long opposed Nato membership, partly out of a strategic calculation that it would put Sweden at greater risk, partly out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and partly because they have talked themselves into a belief that someone would always come to their aid if attacked. So far, Sweden’s government is affirming that it will stay out of Nato, but Ukraine’s experience might at least lead some Swedes to review their support for that stance.

Calls for joining Nato have also been growing louder in Finland, as alarm grew over Putin’s aggression. This is understandable, given that Putin has also lamented Russia’s pre-Soviet territorial losses, which could be read to include Finland, which became independent in 1917.

What is happening now has been predicted by some experts for years. Russia spent most of the past decade slicing off bits of neighbouring countries, in Moldova, in Georgia and in Ukraine. It was never inconceivable that he would go further. But the west, after imposing some mild sanctions, mostly turned away and hoped that Putin would stop there, despite continued hostile Russian military exercises and bellicose rhetoric from the president. 

Former politicians including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and disgraced former French Prime Minister François Fillon, took Putin’s rouble and became his mouthpieces in the west. Even today, Fillon was blaming Nato expansion for Russia’s aggression. Germany naïvely let itself become dependent on Russian gas. Britain let dirty Russian money pour into London, its political parties and its tax-haven colonies around the world, even as Russian agents murdered British citizens on British soil. We all let Russian propaganda channels pollute our airwaves. As recently as yesterday, Britain’s Guardian was embedding tweets, uncommented, from Russian propaganda outlet Ruptly. The tweet itself was innocuous, but the source was anything but.

Russia also got away with direct interference in democratic processes in elections in France, the US and many other places, and there are well-founded reasons to believe it also interfered with the Brexit referendum in the UK. People who raised the alarm were dismissed as paranoid or Russophobic. 

For those of us living in Europe now, these are scary times. We have no easy choices. But we have tried appeasement, we have let our politics be corrupted by Russian money, we have neglected our defences, and we have been slow to tackle Russian propaganda. We need to tackle all these issues now, as though peace and democracy in Europe depended on it. Because they do. 

James Savage is Publisher of The Local Europe