Welcome to our dystopian future

Gather round so that I may tell you a tale. But first, alas, I must provide a couple of caveats, namely that I am 100% in favor of vaccines and entirely in favor of a public health strategy that is based on solidarity and is protective of our vulnerable populations—the elderly, the chronically ill, the folks in various countries who still lack access to vaccines, et cetera. All clear? Okay, let’s go.

This weekend, I am looking forward to attending a musical festival. Having been fully vaccinated since June—incidentally, around the same time I finished treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and regained some of my immune system—I am ready to take some personal risk and hit the vast, grassy dance floor with a thousand or so European techno fans. Let’s go!

But, before I can enter the premises, there are a few steps I must take. Here in Germany, where I’ve lived for just about seven years, we’ve taken a much slower approach to opening society back up than the United States, with its ill-advised masklessness, or the United Kingdom, with its America-lite “freedom day.” We mask in shops, we mask on the trains, and not just any mask, but the FPP2 (KN95), which comes in a multitude of styles and colors. In fact, Berlin’s hottest summer accessory might very well be a mask, strapped halfway up the forearm or peeking out from a back pocket.

Berlin opened up in a manner that was somehow both fast and slow. After weeks of “heavy” lockdown (quotes because ours can’t possibly compare to what neighboring France or Italy experienced), complete with early curfew to keep the ruffians off the streets and—the horror!—a ban on buying alcohol past 11pm (a first in Germany’s recent history, if I recall correctly), the city cautiously opened up, first allowing us to sit down at outdoor bars and restaurants by proffering results from a rapid test, obtained by strolling up to whatever bike, van, or former pizza restaurant was offering them to us city-dwellers for free (occasionally with a free mask or popsicle as incentive), then waiting 10-15 minutes, then showing an e-mail or paper result to the barkeep, who may or may not have had any training in reading the results and may or may not have checked your ID.

Once seated, you could then enjoy your drinks or meal knowing that the patrons surrounding you had also been tested using the same questionable methods. Still, as the numbers kept dropping, Berlin opened up a little more: Shops stopped requiring tests, as did restaurants—at least for outdoor dining—and finally, the ban on dancing was lifted! We were free!

But of course, opening up the economy and the borders means opening up to new variants of the Covid-19 virus, so Germany has remained relatively cautious, and rightly so. This is a society that operates on the precautionary principle, and currents of solidarity run strong. Thus, in preparing for my weekend of fun, I had to ensure that I was Covid-free.

(Quick parenthetical side note: I’ve been working on a longer piece for nearly three years that I call “The Festival,” about the manner of structured fun that Germany so loves, but that’s a story for another day).

And so, to prove to this festival that I am a worthy participant, I was given the choice of either getting a PCR test or showing proof of my Impfstatus (vaccination status). The PCR test was probably the easier option, particularly as the cost was included in the ticket: The ticket issuer provides you with a QR code, which you take to an authorized center no more than 48 and no fewer than 30 hours prior to the festival, get your test, and have the results automatically uploaded to the site to get your ticket. In retrospect, I probably should have simply done this—as I said, it was the easier option—but I had been putting off dealing with the proof of vaccination situation, and so I chose the latter option.

Reader, let me tell you: It was a trial. Here, I shall lay out for you what my experience looked like, both in the hopes that you will get your ass in motion if so needed, and to express my…unease with the modes of our dystopian milieu.

First, you must get your jab. Done? Great! The next step, once you’ve met the two-week mark, is to take your precious yellow vaccine booklet to a participating pharmacy, where you hand it—and a form of identification—over to the pharmacist, who checks it over carefully and in turn issues you a set of papers with QR codes—two papers, one for each shot (unless you’re team Johnson&Johnson/Janssen, in which case, you just get one, you lucky duck).

I mention the two papers carefully, because you mustn’t be confused: These are two separate papers, one for each shot. One for each shot. Next, you must download an app—your choice of the open-source Corona Warn App or the government-made CovPass, neither of which works seamlessly. The latter seems to have some difficulties with screenshots on Android phones, which is important information for the next portion of the story. You open the app, fiddle with its interface, and scan your QR codes—both, one for each shot, this is imperative—into the app, thus generating a new QR code that serves as proof of your Impfstatus.

(Can you simply carry around your papers or recreate them in another form? Who the fuck knows.)

Once you have your new QR code, you’re normally good to go. If you intend to patronize an establishment that requires your vaccination to do so, you simply fire up the app and show the code at the door, bam. But—and here’s where my Wednesday went wrong—if you’re planning to attend a music festival for which your code must be checked in advance…ay, here’s where it gets tricky.

Step one: You must, I cannot emphasize enough, be sure to scan both QR codes. Should you fail to do so, the app won’t inform you that you’ve screwed up, but the newly generated QR code will not work. So scan both QR codes, for the love of all that is holy.

Step two: Take a screenshot of the correct QR code, which you then upload to the ticket issuer and hope it works. You then wait for them to check each one, manually, for that is what is they promised in the Hygienekonzept they submitted to the relevant government authority in order to get their festival approved.

Step three: Wait. Checking each QR code manually is a tough job that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Have a coffee. Have a cocktail. Don’t get angry at the festival or the ticket issuer, they’re doing everything they can to make sure that you’re going to have a blast!

Step four: Once you’ve waited a good 24 hours and all of your friends have received their final tickets but you’re still waiting, shoot off a polite query to the festival organizers. Wait again. Have a coffee or a cocktail. Scratch that, don’t have another coffee, you can feel your heart through your chest already.

Now this is where the particulars of the situation get personal. I first received an email from someone we will call Gentleperson 1. Gentleperson 1, gentle as they were, informed me that my code wasn’t properly scanning and that I must try again. They reset the upload function so that I could try again. I tried again. No luck.

While I was trying again, email two came in from Gentlperson 2, who informed me of the same thing. Welp.

I wait. Nothing happens. Finally, a third email from Gentleperson 1 again, giving me yet another chance. At this point, I realize the error must be on my end, so I delete my QR codes and restart the process in the app. This time I get it (you must scan both QR codes!) and generate the correct new QR code. Hallelujah. I email it to Gentleperson 1.

Gentleperson 3 emails me, telling me I should just get the PCR test. I inform them that I am in fact in touch with their colleague, thank you.

Gentleperson 4 emails me, this time from the festival, and also informs me that I might have better luck with the test.

Gentleperson 1 again. Since I’m from the UK, they’ve seen these problems, and they’ll check again. I write back: “Actually, I reside in Germany and was vaccinated here.”

Gentleperson 5 now, who informs me that I don’t need the PCR test and could I please just email them a scan of my yellow book and a copy of my ID. I do this, plus the new QR code.

I wait. More emails come in from Gentlepersons 2 and 4. I let them know I’m all set.

Finally, my ticket! Gentleperson 5, who is a freaking delight, lets me know that they understand the error, and that it was in fact, mine, and that the new QR code worked, and may I have a lovely time at the festival.

Now, here I must pause and say wow, thank you delightful German ticket issuer and festival employees for going out of your way to assist little ol’ me. A genuine thank you from the bottom of my heart for ensuring that I am not only able to attend your lovely event, but that I don’t have to rush around roughly 29 hours beforehand to get a PCR and hope I do so in time. I am genuinely grateful, and I know you didn’t choose this scenario.

But here’s where I have to ask: Couldn’t there be a better way of doing this? Not just in Germany, but everywhere? And by this I mean <gestures> all of this?

I get that we need to keep each other safe, and I do think that vaccines and masking in enclosed spaces, and consent-based interactions are the right way forward. But it’s almost as if we’ve learned nothing from two decades of post-9/11 security theatre, wherein restrictions based on real threats have enabled new predatory capitalism (want to avoid some of the restrictions? Pay $99 for our special pass! Or you can get it free with this credit card that has a $400 annual fee!).

I waited more than a month to fiddle with my digital Impfpass for, I suppose, a few reasons: I had to register a new, German Apple ID to download the app, which is ridiculously geo-fenced for reasons I don’t understand. It was a hassle. I’m lazy when it comes to administrivia.

But when it really comes down to it, I guess I’m wary of this digital way forward. I understand why we don’t want everyone to carry around a paper booklet—it can get lost, it can get wet, we’re trying not to touch other people’s stuff so much—but in the rush to digitize everything, I fear we’re falling into the same security theatre and technosolutionist pitfalls that we’ve been falling into for the past twenty years.

So what do we do? I know that we can’t just wave these things off, particularly at a time when vaccine skepticism isn’t just on the rise, it’s actively being pushed by political figures. But surely there are a few things we should be doing.

We need to advocate for the EU to support the TRIPS waiver to help get vaccines to other countries. We should push for open source alternatives to these questionably secure commercial apps, and push back against any entity that requires the use of a specific app. We should push for more funding of vaccine research, and particularly more research of the other existing vaccines that the United States refuses to approve for mostly political reasons. And states should reconsider the loosening of mask mandates indoors, require vaccines for those who work with vulnerable populaces (at minimum) and put funding behind efforts to promote vaccines and counter misinformation.

And while I think the best solutions are systemic ones that require state intervention, this is not an issue for which we can wave off personal responsibility. Each of us should learn more about risk assessment; if you’re vaccinated, it’s fine to take personal risks, but most of our choices right now don’t affect just us. Immune-compromised people should not be expected to bubble up at home so that you can party. Wear a mask—preferably an FFP2—to the supermarket, on public transit, and anywhere else that vulnerable people can’t avoid. I’d prefer that we continue to mask up in any indoor public spaces. If you have testing available to you, use it: When my friends gather for an intimate indoor gathering (or even a sloppy outdoor one), we all get tested first. It’s the responsible thing to do, it causes no harm, and it gives people whose health may not be 100% some much-needed peace of mind.

I’m excited to arrive at the festival, which I will be doing by car with friends, and where I will pass two more test sites and take two more rapid tests before I can enter and behave freely, knowing that everyone else around me has been through the same process. Structured fun, but fun nonetheless. Have a great weekend!