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Germany, it seems, barely noticed when it hit 50,000 deaths from Covid-19. To be fair, there has been a lot of news lately – had we arrived at this grim milestone earlier, when it didn’t have to compete with Donald Trump’s ignominious exit from the White House, the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency, and the election of Armin Laschet to the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union, there surely would have been an avalanche of opinion pieces and memorials.
Instead, it was buried. And while leaders in the UK have been scrambling and bickering, lest Britain become “a failed state”, as Gordon Brown has warned, German politicians seem more tired than anything else. The election of Laschet seems to indicate that the CDU leadership intends to try to carry Merkel’s legacy – and, with a 72% approval rating for the chancellor, the relative competence with which Germany has handled the pandemic seems to be recognised by the public.
In the spring, Germany seemed to have all the answers. Its test-and-trace regime was the envy of Europe. It had more hospital beds and more ventilators than anywhere else in the continent. Its Kurzarbeit (“short work”) scheme and generous social welfare programmes seemed to ensure that economic fallout from the lockdown would be kept to a minimum. The recipe, at the time, seemed simple. Avoid austerity, and run screaming away from rightwing populism. Accept that people need both to stay at home and have food to eat, and adjust social support programmes accordingly. Make policy decisions based on science, and communicate them clearly to a population whose intelligence you do not underestimate.
There have, in the meantime, been some blunders on the part of Merkel’s government. The most serious among them was certainly the “lockdown light” which began in November and was intended to clear the way for a safe festive season. It’s impossible to know, of course, what the situation might be like now, had the government not taken those measures. But it’s also clear that the pandemic worsened substantially despite these directives to minimise social contact, and the government-mandated closure of bars, restaurants, night clubs, gyms, pools and museums, while leaving shops, schools and daycare open.
But even as they failed to contain the virus, these measures induced a certain pandemic weariness that spread to even the most avid supporters of the lockdown regulations. Plus, when it became clear that the “lockdown light” wasn’t going to succeed in reducing numbers enough for Germans to celebrate a normal Christmas, Merkel’s government introduced stricter regulations shortly before the holidays. Though, almost as if to make things more confusing, the “hard lockdown” included a number of exceptions designed to allow families to spend the Christmas holidays together.
The fact that confusion and frustration followed can hardly be surprising. To make matters worse, Germans continue to wait for a vaccination programme to begin in earnest – health minister Jens Spahn’s failure to secure enough doses of the vaccine counts as another major error in the governing coalition’s management of the crisis. In general, though, it isn’t at all clear what Germans think Merkel should have done instead. On the one hand, an initiative popular among parts of the left has argued for a “zero Covid” campaign, in which the economy and social life would be stopped nearly entirely in the hopes of reducing the number of new cases to nothing. The proposal is based on an article first published in the Lancet in which a number of leading epidemiologists, including Christian Drosten, the tsar of Germany’s coronavirus response, proposed a radical lockdown in hopes of reducing the number of new cases to 10 per million inhabitants per day.
But zero Covid has been met with strong criticism from nearly every side of the political spectrum – as well as from some public health experts. The economic effects would be catastrophic; the measures could be enacted only with “half-totalitarian” policies; the cost for children, for women, and for the arts would be enormous. On the other side of the debate, given the high economic, social and psychological costs of lockdown measures, an increasing number of commentators are beginning to claim that we must “learn to live” with the pandemic. “Returning to normal,” wrote Jakob Augstein, publisher of the left-leaning weekly Der Freitag last week, “means returning to the virus.”
But both of these calls for radically different approaches to the pandemic feel half-hearted. We’ve all seen the problems that come with a harder lockdown by now, while the example of Sweden has shown that relying on voluntary measures alone will likely lead to an alarming increase in the mortality rate. With the most recent reports showing a slight but steady improvement in the infection rate, discussions about loosening Germany’s hard lockdown are certain to intensify – as is exhaustion with the continued efforts to slow the spread of the disease.
All in all, however, most Germans seem to feel that Merkel’s government has responded to the pandemic passably well. Distressingly enough, it turns out that 50,000 Covid dead might indeed be the picture of a successful response to the pandemic in a major European country.
• Peter Kuras is a writer and translator based in Berlin
Source: The Guardian
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