Some of the last people in the world to find out about the rapid spread of Covid-19 are a group of 14 men and women sitting in a house in Cologne, western Germany, where they are competing in the country’s 13th season of the reality TV show Big Brother.
The majority of the housemates have been in isolation since 6 February, when news of the novel coronavirus was only just trickling out of Wuhan in China. Since then, they have been cut off from updates from the outside world, except once, when the show introduced four more housemates on 6 March, three days before Germany would report its first death from the virus.
The show’s producers, for the TV channel Sat.1, defended the decision not to update the housemates on the crisis going on in the outside world, telling the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that the information blackout would only be lifted in certain circumstances, such as a family member’s illness. They also pointed to “special hygiene measures” taken to protect residents themselves from infection, though did not explain what those measures entailed.
But after uproar on social media, Sat.1 changed its position – and announced a live special episode, due to air before the regular slot at 7pm on Tuesday evening, in which the housemates will be told of the growing crisis. They will be given the opportunity to ask questions about the state of the nation, as well as receive video messages from their relatives.
In 2001, the producers of the American edition of Big Brother had to interrupt the show’s second season to tell the final three contestants about 9/11. Even then, the decision to break the news was only prompted by the fact that one housemate had a relative missing in the aftermath of the attacks.
The German residents themselves are conducting an accidental experiment in social distancing: a twist to the format sees the contestants split between two different houses. One, a lavish modernist “glasshouse”, has a hot tub and luxury food; the other, the “blockhouse”, offers only the bare necessities.
Big Brother Germany, a 20th-anniversary revival of the show after a five-year hiatus, isn’t the only iteration of Big Brother currently conducting an accidental quarantine: contestants on Big Brother Brazil, who moved in in January, and Big Brother Canada, who entered their house on 4 March, have been left equally clueless.
One clip, from Canada, shows the contestants discussing the sudden absence of a live audience for evictions from the house: when the first member left, just five days in, the crowd was audible from within the house, but by 14 March, when the second was evicted, the silence was noticeable.
It isn’t only Big Brother housemates who are missing the speed with which the world is changing. One friend of Can Duruk, a writer and technologist, checked in to a monthlong silent retreat on 1 March. “That’s going to be an interesting time to come back,” said Duruk.
At the Little Paradise silent meditation centre in Hamburg, Germany, there is no strict no-news policy, staff told the Guardian, meaning that one resident who will shortly be leaving after a 120-day silent retreat is not heading into the outside world completely ignorant of the changes afoot.
“Of course, he knows,” said Maria, an employee at Little Paradise, “he has been following the news from inside”.
But for others, the prospect of checking out of the news cycle is actively appealing. “Just today, we had people asking, ‘Do you have a room available’,” said Maria. “We are in the countryside, we are small, and from our evaluation, there is a very slim chance that something might happen here.”