Credit where credit is due
Western media has heaped endless praise on Germany’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Sometimes with very good reason.
German politicians and policymakers can safely pat themselves on the back for at least three sets of achievements in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. On the human dimension, Germany’s fatality rate has been low thus far; economically, its people have been better protected from the chaos that the virus is unleashing in many other countries; politically, its democratic institutions are still intact.
Observers across the world are marvelling at the relatively low fatality rate in the country. Compare the number of 8,027 deaths in Germany, to 27,650 in Spain, 31,763 in Italy, 34,466 in the United Kingdom, or 90,142 in the United States, and one can begin to see why many are so impressed. Take the fatalities in relation to the population size, and Germany’s performance looks even stronger: deaths per million population in Germany come to 96, in comparison to 273 for the US, 508 for the UK, 525 for Italy, and 591 for Spain. The main explanation for this “German exception” lies in the country’s medical preparedness. As early as mid-January, German virologists had developed a test for the virus; by February, German laboratories had built up the necessary stocks of test kits; the government committed early to testing and tracing; the country already had high ICU capacity in comparison to its European neighbours, which was further strengthened through new incentives.
Necessary lockdown-type measures to limit the spread of the pandemic undoubtedly generate immediate economic costs for workers and families in all countries (to say nothing of the deep global recession that will follow after the pandemic). The German government’s policy response on this front was swift and generous. On 23 March, it announced a comprehensive economic package of 750 billion euros. This included subsidies for small companies and freelancers, stabilisation measures for large companies, and welfare measures for families. The package was laudable not only in terms of its content but also its signalling effect: the government understood the economic pain that its people would have to endure in the fight against the virus, and it was willing – as a high exception – to even go into debt to help. Since then, further such measures have been introduced and effectively implemented.
Additionally, German democracy is intact as are people’s civil liberties. This government has wisely resisted the temptation to turn to surveillance mechanisms, which are increasingly becoming the norm in many parts of both the global north and the global south.
All of the above are no mean achievements. But has Germany really gone far enough in what it could have done, and could still do, to avert the human cost and economic damage?
When the Report Card says, “Could do better”
Germany never had a full-blown lockdown. It opted for a “contact ban” (meaning that gatherings of more than two people, except for families and households, were forbidden) and the closure of schools and non-essential shops. People were allowed to be outside as long as social distancing was observed. On 16 April, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a significant loosening of even the limited restrictions. This loosening was the result of a difficult political compromise that was put in place despite the advice of leading medical experts. Melanie Brinkmann, a leading German virologist, had the following to say:
“The government has sent the wrong signal with the relaxation, and I am afraid that many people are now no longer taking the virus so seriously and are having more contact with other people again. If that happens, we will soon be back to where we started… From a virological point of view, there is no basis for easing the lockdown right now. Intelligent adaptation, yes, but all in all we cannot afford a resurgence of infection rates. After all, we still don’t have any tools (vaccine or treatment) with which we can counter the virus if it picks up again.”
Brinkmann was not alone in expressing such a critique. In an interview with The Guardian, Christian Drosten, Germany’s most prominent expert on the coronavirus spoke of the “prevention paradox”:
“At the moment, we are seeing half-empty ICUs in Germany. This is because we started diagnostics early and on a broad scale, and we stopped the epidemic – that is, we brought the reproduction number[a] below 1. Now, what I call the “prevention paradox” has set in. People are claiming we over-reacted, there is political and economic pressure to return to normal. The federal plan is to lift lockdown slightly, but because the German states, or Länder, set their own rules, I fear we’re going to see a lot of creativity in the interpretation of that plan. I worry that the reproduction number will start to climb again, and we will have a second wave.”
The virologists may yet be proved right. As restaurants, shops, and schools open – admittedly with social distancing rules – it is not difficult to see that many people are beginning to believe that the crisis is over. Masks are worn in supermarkets and on public transport (as per the rules), but rarely outdoors on the (once again) busy streets. Diverse social and business groups demand further and faster reopening. And even the weak measures that remain in place have attracted anger and – especially ironically, in days of supposed social-distancing – motley crowds of protestors claiming to act in the name of democracy.
It is commonplace to attribute what may have been a premature reopening to the pressures of federalism, along with an argument of “It’s the economy, stupid!”. But second, third… nth waves (until a vaccine is developed and distributed) will not help the economy, to say nothing of the loss of human life. Moreover, the argument of federalism begs the question why heads of some German states have been willing to jeopardise the hard-won gains of the country in the fight against the virus. The answer may lie in a simple issue, which could have been better handled: the political narrative on the pandemic.
Although the German government and medical personnel seem to have been well-prepared, the urgency of social-distancing, border closures, and lockdown-type of measures was visible neither in public debate nor in public behaviour. On 18 March, Merkel addressed the nation in an unprecedented speech, which was enthusiastically received, nationally and internationally. The speech was balanced and empathetic; it highlighted the seriousness of the situation while also emphasising the possibility of agency by all people:
“Every individual counts. We are not condemned to accept the spread of this virus as an inevitable fact of life. We have the means to fight it.”
But the speech also underlined, and re-underlined, that the elderly were the group particularly at risk:
“Ideally, we should avoid all contact with the elderly, because they are particularly at risk.”
In this aspect, Merkel’s narrative differed from that of another head of state – Jacinda Ardern – the Prime Minister of New Zealand, who was also commended for her effective handling of the crisis. Like Merkel, Ardern identified the threat as an extremely serious one, but she did not limit it to any sub-groups:
“If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die.”
Ardern’s language was empathetic, but also strong, and did not discriminate between groups based on their respective susceptibilities to the disease:
“The Government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect us all. None of us can do this alone.
Your actions will be critical to our collective ability to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Failure to play your part in the coming days will put the lives of others at risk. There will be no tolerance for that and we will not hesitate in using enforcement powers if needed.”
New Zealand went on to impose tough lockdown measures, and was successful in its collective efforts to stamp out the virus. As of 17 May, it had recorded four deaths per 1 million population.
In contrast, the German leadership’s focus on sub-groups of society as potential casualties of COVID-19 may have inadvertently contributed to some misperceptions amongst the public. For example, it is possible that people may have taken away the message that the disease affects “only” the elderly and vulnerable (as if that were not bad enough); somehow then, self-restraint of any kind to prevent the spread of the disease became framed as an act of altruism, rather than self-interest. In the immediate aftermath of Merkel’s address, even before the limited lockdown measures were put into place (and thus well before impatience and dissatisfaction with such measures could set in), there were signs that a significant proportion of the electorate did not see the virus as an urgent and collective threat.
A narrative that the virus posed a real threat “only” to certain sub-groups is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the patience of the public to put up with even a few restrictions on their economic and social activities would have been low from the start, even with the most generous economic packages. Add to this the “prevention paradox”, plus the signal that the early loosening of the partial lockdown sends, and it is perhaps not surprising that a vocal minority is demanding an end to all restrictions. If people just do not believe that the virus could get as serious and encompassing in Germany as it has done elsewhere, one can reasonably expect that they would be disinclined to endure hardships to curtail it. The clamour for the full reopening of schools, childcare centres, offices, and more is hence unsurprising.
Second, a narrative that identifies sub-groups as being affected may turn out to be dangerous in the case of the novel coronavirus. Contra early reports, it has become increasingly evident – across countries – in the past weeks that COVID-19 is not a disease that spares the young and healthy. Its virulence has affected also patients who were believed to be in low-risk groups; those who survive it seem to be afflicted by its debilitating after-effects. In any case, not enough is yet known about the virus; narratives that patronise some groups and lull the rest of society into a premature sense of complacency could end up costing everyone even more dearly. For this reason, it might also be important to pay greater attention to infection rates within countries, rather than fixate on death rates alone. And in Germany, with 176,450 reported infections – admittedly also with commendably high rates of testing – this is not an insignificant number.
The Downright Ugly
While the previous two sections have examined the areas where Germany has done well and where it could potentially have done better, the pandemic has also brought out a deeply unsavoury side to German politics.
A stark example of this can be found in the remarks made by Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen, who argued, “Let me say it quite brutally: In Germany, we are possibly saving people who will die in half a year anyway – because of their age and previous illnesses.” He then called for a swift re-opening of the economy, arguing that the “poverty shock” caused by the disruption to the global economy was killing millions of children. The politician’s remarks attracted a great deal of criticism from multiple sides, and he subsequently apologised, if he had expressed himself “in a misleading or brash way,” he was sorry. The remarks nonetheless are significant for two reasons. First, this politician comes not from the extreme Right (as one might perhaps presume), but the Green party, suggesting that the boundaries of acceptable discourse have expanded dramatically. Second, arguments reminiscent of eugenics and social Darwinism have a particularly brutal ring to them in the context of German history.
Lower-level versions of this polarisation resonate across social media in Germany. For example, some voices claim that children are the real victims of the pandemic, although this is the one group that is the least threatened by the disease itself. The argument goes: Since children are unlikely to be fatally or critically affected by Covid-19, they should not have to “suffer” home-schooling, online classes, and restrictions in playtime activities. It is often ignored that this “sacrifice” could help save the lives of others. Some further voices state the obvious and point to the economic costs and the severity of the impending downturn, to then argue for a swift reopening.
If this were a poor country where the government was having to face a tough and immediate choice between life and livelihood, perhaps this debate could be just about understandable (though still not excusable). But this is not a poor country. The welfare state is strong here. In this context, the rush to return to normal life (especially by people in secure jobs with wonderful flexibilities of home office – in contrast for instance to the plight of migrant workers in India) sometimes reeks more of a choice between not life and livelihood, but life and lifestyle. This hurry may well prove to be counter-productive, as others too have suggested elsewhere.
Building on its Successes: Next Steps
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