INTRO: I am not thinking I am a good fiction author. So, this being my first piece of fiction may even be my last one… Or not, I don’t know. But I wrote this little story after I had begun to think about what would happen if way more lethal strains of the Covid-19 virus would occur. I tried to keep the story local, simple, and without a cautionary tale or any intent to make a statement. I just felt that, currently, and in case we are successful in protecting ourselves and our economies, we may increasingly remember these times depending on what we personally experienced. And many, especially amongst those who deny the existence of the virus, or who refuse vaccination, or who decry the current erosion of principles of data-protection, individual rights, and proportionality of measures, or who make a case against over-regulation by the State, they may not have witnessed what others have. Nurses traumatized by what they see in hospitals. Or people living in areas which are heavily infected. There is incredibly much suffering going on already right now. But still, people may be able to close their eyes, or to bury their heads in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich.
This little story is an overstatement. In keeping it local, I also managed not to think about the gargantuan complexity of what would happen to the world and economical order. What would it mean for peace and security? I don’t know anything else than that these news would constitute a string of nightmares.
So I thought about what it would mean in a local context, not too far in the future. In keeping it simple, I hope I have also not made too many mistakes in anticipating it. There is so much in this. May be it is tons of material for other fiction stories. Who knows. But I would want to use this story in supporting that we stay vigilant, and that we do this, voluntarily, right now. Too much is at stake.
Albert is waiting in a long queue of cars, slowly moving forward to Checkpoint “Hellweg #17”. On his way home he had to exit highway A44 at Dortmund Airport, approaching the Eastern outskirts of the city of Dortmund. Leaving the fenced highway with its camera systems and drones behind, he routinely checks all preparations keeping him out of trouble before reaching the floodlighted checkpoint area. Close to midnight, the bright illumination of the exit area ahead is announced by warning signs: “You are entering the city of Dortmund. Check entry requirements NOW. Non-compliance may constitute a criminal offense.” The drill has become his second skin. Ticking off boxes on his Covid-App: The car’s air-filter set on rapid-desinfection, done. Heavy duty face-mask, done. Electronic immigration file sent, done. Virus-test-results uploaded, done. His app requests permission to deduct the checkpoint fee from his bank account. Done.
Pre-check. The Covid-app on his phone sending a flickering signal, Albert acknowledges. The screen lighting up with the face of a checkpoint-officer. “Face” being an overstatement. Some eyes behind a heavy-duty mask with autonomous air supply, the mask carrying the insignia of the local Police. “Please state the reason of entry”, the officer’s voice is blaring from the cell-phone. Albert responds “I am returning home from work with permission.” Routinely he responds with a “negative” to questions whether he has been in contact with any person after entering the highway. Yes, he had one stop-over at a rest area after entering the highway. No, he is alone in his car.
Slowly moving forward, Albert remembers how easy it was to use these traffic arteries, just a few years ago. A44 – A1 – A2 eastbound, a few hours to Berlin. A little further, Poland. Spending the evening in Duesseldorf, enjoying a walk at the Rhine? Just a few highways, a bit more than 60 minutes, having a beer at the shores of the river. Westbound, passing through the connected cities of the “Ruhr Area”, heading to Aachen, crossing a border with just a few signs, he would be in The Netherlands, or Belgium. Northbound heading towards Hamburg, no problem. Beyond, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, all open territory for travel. Southbound, endless connections to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France. None of this was possible any longer. In 2023, the highways now were a fortified main part of the Federal transportation system without which no economic connection and delivery of supplies and goods was possible. Individual travel had been reduced to the bare minimum, and most of that required work permissions. The highways themselves had become one gigantic electronic surveillance system.
So were the railways, and so was the development in air traffic. Individual traffic was almost impossible, except for work related or any official reason, with permission, surveillance, and a lot of fees. Economics stayed regional, international, global. Life was local, except for the Internet. It was organized around the local medical capacity to deal with emergency pandemic cases.
When the pandemic ripped through societies for the second year in 2021, infection cases in countries such as Brazil and India went through the roof and the situation turned into gigantic breeding spaces for new mutations of the Covid-19 virus. Vaccination efforts were part of a protracted whack-a-mole game dealing with ever more infection waves. When the first indications popped up mid 2022 that there might be new strains of highly infectuous variants with a much higher lethality rate than seen ever before, against which current vaccines did not protect, it was already too late. These new strains showed up everywhere, and the casualties exploded as fast as the panic and the speculation about how lethal the new forms were. Noone could tell for sure, but conservative data would indicate more than 10 % fatality, perhaps even more. No age groups were exempt. The medical system collapsed first, and in a horrific way.
It was pure survival of the fittest. People like Albert did not even pay attention to violence, wars, and the suffering of people in countries far away. People went into survival mode within a few days when they realised that neighbors and family around them got sick, were hospitalised, and were dying in troves. Albert would never forget the sight of cooling containers in front of hospitals even in small towns for the dead. They were still there. When this happened in New York in spring 2020, he did not notice. Now he had to.
The emergency measures amounted to a lockdown against which all previous versions felt like holidays. Existential fear gripped everyone. Policing the lockdown, and containing the aggressive forms of self-protection, greed, and panic leading to violence amongst neighbors, and against the more wealthy, chaos and ransacking shops for supplies, it overwhelmed security agencies within days and weeks. A national emergency led to the deployment of the military in support of the police.
Albert reached the checkpoint. Checking the data contained in his iPhone app was a contactless procedure including a test for data-integrity. Meanwhile the officer at the checkpoint did his verification work by asking “Please state the reason for your travel.” Dutifully, Albert explained his work as an IT-specialist coming back from a week-long stint in an Amazon warehouse. The IT-system there had been subjected to a malware attack and he had to contain, to protect data integrity, and to investigate the attack vectors. In this rapidly changing economy, warehouses were on their way to replace anything resembling shopping malls or shops, whether in Inner Cities or in small neighborhoods. So, their protection had primacy.
Leaving the floodlights behind, Albert embarks on a journey on smaller roads. He had left the highway system early because of congestions ahead, which forces him to pass several neighborhoods and the Inner City of Dortmund before reaching his neighborhood in the north-easterns stretches of Dortmund. Passing areas with empty shopping malls, local neighborhoods, and a decrepit Inner City, his journey takes him through three more local police checkpoints before reaching home.
When the new mutations hit, one of the first casualties was the free system of travel, known as “Schengen System”, which had led to the abolishment of border checkpoints in the core of the European Union. State borders were re-erected within days, and by 2023 they had become fortified permanent control points. Likewise, Germany’s green border was subject to heavy and still progressing fortification. Once there was a border fence separating East and West of Germany from North to South. The system fell during the re-unification in 1989. Now, Germany, like it’s neighbors, built fences all over. All economic strength focused on mobilising resources for transformation, and in this first phase, the Federal State secured highways, railway tracks, and airports. Private traffic was subject to lockdowns.
Within months, the pandemic forced the big cities in Germany to take unprecedented steps: Cities shut down their borders in order to prevent traffic, and the virus, to pass through. Slowly, Germany reached a modern form of a medieval system of fortified cities. Counties followed suit. Main roads were now riddled with checkpoints, and small roads were cut off with fences or other forms of disruption. Yet, the casualties rose and rose.
Home. Two months into the catastrophic development, his two brothers had been killed by the virus within a matter of three weeks. In hindsight, Albert still had no idea why he had survived this. Their parents had died both in 2021 already, but now, his two brothers had left two families behind. Two widows, five children. For them, the situation quickly turned into a survival nightmare. In order to avoid seeing them homeless, all of them, Albert, Ines with her two kids, and Anna with three kids had banded together. By sheer luck they had found a house to rent which was large enough to provide eight persons with a cramped space for living, educating and raising children, and home office work. Together, they formed a group of traumatized people supporting each other in their survival, and protecting themselves and their children. From a virus, and from an increasingly dangerous world outside their home.
Another casualty was data protection. Buerocracy could not catch up. Lockdown rules had to be policed and required enormous resources already in public spaces. But policing the privacy of homes proved impossible, and people in their private spaces were responsible for what amounted to a chaotic accumulation of micro-spreader events. Shortly thereafter, many realised that they needed self-protection inside their homes. From the virus ripping through their microcosm. From intruders robbing them of supplies which they had stached. From homeless people begging and scouting out the property. From invisible enemies, and non-existing enemies made up from pure fear. Countries like China had an advantage in developing electronic systems ensuring compliance within the privacy of homes. Surveillance systems and apps with no data-protection thresholds spread like wildfire into societies like Germany, almost with the same speed like the virus had done.
Approaching home, Albert triggered “Arrival Home” on his iPhone app. It notified all family members, and it notfied the local police station. All family members acknowledged with a “Trust” button, the iPhone app ensuring verification checks about Albert’s identity, and conformity with virus protection measures. Each family member acknowledged his medical clearance, in return Albert acknowledged the medical clearance of all members of the household. The police station got all necessary notifications. Ines and Anna, as privileged adult family members, also received notification about each and any human contact Albert had during his travel. Recently, Ines teenage daughter Viola had run through a tantrum when she requested to get the same information from Albert like adults do. As so often, the little houselhold survived a nervous breakdown. Finally, the apps confirmed that all members had been compliant with social distancing rules in their respective areas of operation. This triggered the house alarm system to notify Albert he was clear for return.
Albert decided to fuel up the car before arrival. Entering the cashier area of the fuel station, his iPhone sounded alarm: Two persons were in the shop, he was strongly advised to pay electronically and not to enter the shop area. Albert confirmed, so to avoid any revocation of his permission to proceed home.
Home. The alarm clock beeping louder and louder. Albert waking up. The clock says “25 April 2021, 06:00h.” Albert gets up, sitting down, immediately jotting down what he remembers from this nightmare. A shower, a coffee, a Sunday morning walk through the forest nearby. Robert-Koch-Institute 7-days-incidence still high, but currently stable. “Another day”, Albert is thinking, deciding to begin his Sunday morning with gratitude.