How German Media Blamed “Large Families” For the Spread of COVID-19, Stigmatizing An Entire Community

It wasn't even true.

By: Stefan Lauer

The German city of Göttingen has been struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak for several weeks. Many media outlets are blaming Muslim Roma communities, saying that the outbreak started from Eid al-Fitr celebrations and visits to mosques and hookah lounges. But is this true, or is it just racist?

This article was originally published in German at BellTower News

The “Iduna” Centre is a high-rise complex with 700 residents in the German city of Göttingen.  Built in the 1970s, the centre was initially considered a model housing project with living space for students and families. However, when those responsible lost interest in the building, it started to deteriorate, and become seen as undesirable.

Soon, it became known for accommodating migrants. During the 1990s, this was refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Today, it is migrants, refugees and other low income communities who live in the building—making it a target for anti-migrant sentiment.

So, when the first COVID-19 case was identified in the centre, the city’s crisis committee was quick to blame the “large families” celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr together. The media reinforced this—interviewing almost exclusively white people, expressing outrage at the irresponsibility and inconsiderateness of the communities that live in the high rise. Tabloid media even went so far as to say that “Arab clans” are to blame for the Göttingen outbreak. Now it turns out that everything is completely different

First, the numbers were reported incorrectly: there are only sixty infections. When the Roma Anti-Discrimination Network (RAN) investigated whether or not the outbreak could be connected to the accused “large family,” they found that patient zero was someone completely different; a man who had been identified as likely being infected, and had been instructed by the Health Department to quarantine. He didn’t follow these instructions, and instead was moving in and out of the building freely, using the elevator.

Finally, a police officer brought the man to the hospital at the end of May. When the man’s relatives asked to be tested, the clinic rejected their request. However, certain media outlets reported that the high rise residents refused to be tested—with one NDR piece featuring a spokesperson grumbling: “some could refuse or become rough” only to be followed by a quote from the fire department’s head of operations, who coordinated the tests, speak immediately afterwards: “Target achieved. Very large willingness to cooperate. There were virtually no language barriers. If there was one, we could clarify it among our colleagues.”

The allegations of the mosque being a sight of “super spreaders” doesn’t add up either—in fact, the local mosque was careful to ensure that social distancing was respected during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

“We said that those who don’t have a mask won’t come in. We make the hygiene regulations even stronger than they are set by the state,” said Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, the imam of the mosque in question in an interview with German broadcaster ARD’s magazine Panorama. In a separate interview with Deutsche Welle, another woman describes celebrating the holiday while private celebrations, using their own prayer mats.

 “They wrote in the newspaper about a big celebration,” describes Kelmend Saciri, who lives in the building. “There was nothing at all. There was no big celebration. How can we have a big party in a 71-square-metre apartment? Or with 50 square metres?”

The city of Göttingen is now backtracking somewhat. Crisis committee leader Petra Broistedt regrets the term “large family,” particularly how it has contributed to stigmatization. Only now the damage has been done, as these discriminatory headlines and prejudices are in the public, spreading as a virus of their own.

“The results is that the public picture can no longer be changed,” Claire Deery, chairperson of the Lower Saxony Refugee Council tells Panorama.

“What we need now is a clear commentary with the facts that are currently available. The facts change in favour of the residents because it is becoming increasingly clear: there were possibly no rule violations at all.”