Surveying Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey

Between June 8 and July 15, my research assistant İdil Deniz Şakar and I conducted an online survey on the “Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey,” which has now been completed by 212 respondents. We were overwhelmed by the many positive responses to our survey and would like to summarize some of our findings in the following.

Who completed the survey? More than half of our respondents (59 percent) resided in Turkey, 37 percent in Germany. Due to the fact that we reached many of our respondents from among our (former) students as well as university staff, university graduates were clearly overrepresented, with 63 percent of all respondents holding a university degree. Nevertheless, we succeeded in reaching persons of many different ages with half of our respondents being 40 years of age or older. 76 percent of our respondents described themselves as female, 22 percent as male and two percent as diverse.

Facial masks for sale in a mobile phone shop in Berlin-Neukölln (Photo: C. Liebelt)

Changes in bodily hygiene in Corona times

According to our respondents, everyday bodily practices and hygienic measures have changed dramatically since the global spread of COVID-19: 89,4 percent of all respondents said that their own hygienic everyday measures have increased; in Turkey, this rate was even higher, with 95.2 percent of all respondents saying that their hygienic measures increased. Respondents in both Germany and Turkey stated that they now washed their hand more often, 96 and 96.7 percent respectively. Some of those, who did not, explained that due to the risk of infection they observed physical distance and therefore did not see the need to wash their hands more often. Forms of greeting have likewise changed, with 90.4 percent of all respondents saying that they now refrained from touching other persons’ hands or faces upon greeting them (89.5% in Germany, 91.1% in Turkey).

69 percent of our respondents also used hand sanitizer on a regular basis, with an overwhelming majority of users (96 percent) saying that they now used it more frequently than before. Hand sanitizer was used more frequently in Turkey (by 79.2 percent of respondents) as compared to Germany (52.6 percent). Those who did not use hand sanitizer on a regular basis said they relied on other hygienic measures (72 percent) or avoided hand sanitizer out of concerns about skin damage (38 percent). Others claimed that during the lockdown they had rarely left the house and therefore did not require it. Most respondents in Turkey and Germany, 88.7 and 86.7 percent respectively, regarded washing hands as the more effective hygienic measure. A majority of respondents living in Turkey (56.6 %) also used sanitizing agents to disinfect objects as compared to just 17.5% in Germany.

The greatest differences between our respondents in Germany and Turkey concerned the use of Eau de Cologne. In Turkey, Eau de Cologne (kolonya in Turkish) is widely used as a hand sanitizer and became the quasi-official national cure for dealing with the Corona crisis following the public declaration of Turkey’s Minister of Health that citizens should use kolonya to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Whereas 90.4% of respondents in Turkey said that they used kolonya, only 9.2 percent of respondents in Germany did so. In contrast to Turkey, where the disinfectant effect of Eau de Cologne was the main reason given for its current use, in Germany, this effect was rarely quoted (if at all known). In Turkey, Eau de Cologne is traditionally offered to guests in a gesture of welcome and hospitality. In Germany, according to our survey, it is rather associated with “traditionalism” and regarded as something used by the elderly or previous generations.

Covid-19 in Turkey and Germany and hygienic measures more generally

As of today (August 4), the official number of COVID-19 cases stands at 233.851 confirmed cases and 5.747 deaths in Turkey and 212.328 confirmed cases and 9.161 deaths in Germany (see the COVID-19 map by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). Both countries were among the top ten of countries with the highest number of infections globally at the beginning of the pandemic but managed to eventually “flatten the curve,” starting so-called normalization processes in early May. State measures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic differed greatly, with the German government imposing lockdown measures that varied between its different federal states and the Turkish government imposing a total curfew for those 65 years of age or older and the chronically ill on March 21, which in early April extended to those under the age of 20. Whereas an overwhelming majority of 98.4 percent of respondents in Turkey agreed with the statement that “the current situation demands substantial hygienic measures, including the sanitization of public buildings and streets,” only 34.2 percent of respondents living in Germany did so. Whereas not a single respondent in Turkey opposed the statement, 42.1 percent of respondents in Germany did. More ethnographic research and data analysis is needed to further explain these and many other findings, including the reservations regarding some hygienic measures in Germany especially, which are most likely linked to the historical connotation of the notion of “hygiene” in Germany and political concerns.

In both Germany and Turkey, our survey finds, respondents’ worries about their own and relatives’ health, their economic, professional and financial situation have increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic has made visible and/or exacerbated political conflicts and social inequalities, it is perhaps of little surprise that the number of those, who reported “great worries” about the global-political situation in both countries has doubled. At the very end of our survey, we asked respondents how they evaluated the hygienic measures taken up by the state to fight the spread of COVID-19. Here again, there were clear differences between respondents living in Germany and Turkey: respondents in Germany tended to be rather or very satisfied (60.5 percent) with the hygienic measures taken up by the state, as opposed to just 9.2 percent who were unsatisfied. In Turkey, respondents were divided almost equally between those, who were satisfied (27.1 percent) and those who were unsatisfied (33.9 percent), with a relatively large number of respondents choosing not to respond to this question or opting for “neither/nor, I don’t know” (42.4 percent). The many open answers to our question about the reasons for satisfaction or dissatisfaction with state hygienic measures spoke of a great deal of concern and reflection among our respondents. Many expressed their sense of appreciation for often far-reaching hygienic measures, authorities’ lack of control (in Germany) or reluctance to impose lockdown measures (in Turkey) and were concerned about other persons’ irresponsible behaviour.

Trained as a social and cultural anthropologist who believes in qualitative rather than quantitative data and loves to engage in ethnographic research rather than online surveys, for me these outcomes are just the beginning for more thorough research. Nevertheless, they offer many interesting insights into the dealings with the current crisis, the transformation in everyday lives and bodily practices, as well as olfactorial, hygienic and political concerns in Germany and Turkey.

Stay tuned for more findings and research outcomes!

A great thank you to all of those, who participated in the survey!