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.
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.