Germany and the pandemic: how did it go so wrong?

Image by Jonas Schmidt from Pixabay

Ten months ago, I published my first article for The Meridian about Germany’s right-wing opposition party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). As a reason for the party’s failure to gain political capital from the pandemic, I cited the German government’s successful, perhaps even remarkable, COVID-19 strategy. “It is now common knowledge that Germany has been disproportionately successful in its fight against coronavirus,” I wrote. “Merkel’s decisive and clear leadership has proven critical in ensuring that Germans follow social distancing measures.”

At the time of writing the article, Germany had only registered 8,792 deaths, a significantly lower number compared to what was then the UK’s devastating 40,597 deaths. Almost one year on and Germany must now bear responsibility for almost 80,000 deaths. Infection rates are increasing concerningly into the double digits every day, hospital capacity is filling up, and, with only 12.8% of the population having been vaccinated, Europe’s notorious third wave is showing no signs of slowing down. This is in part due to the European Union’s failure to authorise vaccines quickly enough and what Kate Connolly has called general ‘bureaucratic sluggishness’.

Germany’s COVID-19 story has unfolded before the world like a Greek tragedy, its peripeteia so pronounced that surely even Aristotle would be happy to attend the play. Such a staggering increase in deaths and such a stark reversal of fortune only beg the question: What went wrong for Germany and, most importantly, how could the government let everything spiral out of control?

A relatively simple answer to this question is: complacency. In the first wave of the pandemic, Germany was praised for its “pandemic role model status”. Chancellor Angela Merkel was commended by many for her scientific approach (unsurprising considering her previous occupation as a research scientist), explaining the pandemic in a way that was clear and understandable for the German population. The general understanding, especially among the country’s 16 regional leaders, that action needed to be taken against the pandemic early on helped shape Germany’s image as a model country in handling the crisis. The government adopted a “better safe than sorry” approach, closing schools on 13thMarch and locking down the country soon after. It is no wonder, then, that deaths were kept below 10,000 and some measures could be lifted as early as April.

It was after Germany’s more optimistic summer, with the number of deaths per day staying below 20 for the whole of July, that things began to plunge for the worse. The country’s reputable image left the government complacent. Instead of continuing with the pragmatic and decisive approach seen in the first wave, Merkel was forced to turn to a series of ‘half-baked solutions’ that merely stabilised cases and delayed a second peak, as opposed to preventing it altogether. By October, the number of cases was as high as it had been during the first lockdown, but politicians failed to recognise the urgency of the situation, with some dismissing the rise as a mere reflection of increased testing. There seems to have been an imprudent assumption that Germany’s success story would simply repeat itself.

Light Lockdown – precious time wasted

Fearing the political and economic consequence of another strict lockdown, a so-called “light lockdown” was introduced in November. Restaurants, bars and hospitality venues were closed, whilst schools remained open and gatherings of up to ten people were still permitted. Unsurprisingly, this lighter form of lockdown failed to change the situation significantly. By Christmas, cases had risen so sharply that a full lockdown had to be reintroduced, proving the lighter lockdown to have been both ineffective and a waste of time.

But it is important to remember that this was not Merkel’s fault entirely. Germany’s political system comprises a federal government and 16 federal states, each controlled by a regional leader. Federal legislative power ultimately lies in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament located in Berlin, whilst the Bundesrat represents the regional states. Merkel must typically guarantee the support of the regional states before taking significant political action, meaning that little can be done without the full support and cooperation of the Bundesrat.

This federal system is partly to blame for Germany’s failed response to the pandemic in recent months. Indeed, Merkel had hoped for a tighter lockdown in November, but her proposal was turned down by regional leaders, who wanted to minimise economic hardship within their own states. On 16th November, Merkel once again called for tighter restrictions on social gatherings and schools, and it was only on 25th November that she secured support for a further tightening of measures. By this point, Germany had already exceeded 19,000 deaths, which Merkel had initially predicted would happen closer to Christmas. The lighter lockdown was not only the result of German complacency, but also of the difficulties of governing within a federal state, especially where regional affiliations are just as strong as, if not stronger than, national ones.

The vaccination programme – a chance at redemption?

The European Union’s vaccination programme was very much needed to rescue Germany from the consequences of its own mistakes. This, too, has failed spectacularly. Germany is often associated with the slogan Vorsprung durch Technik(progress through technology), which led the world to believe that it would initiate and complete its vaccination programme with flying colours. Ed Cumming, a columnist for The Guardian, was, like many, shocked to see the slow pace with which the country had been rolling out its vaccines: “Wasn’t all that Technik meant to lead to a bit of a Vorsprung?”

Of course, this is not the fault of Germany alone. The EU’s vaccination saga has been tiring to follow, for journalists and ordinary citizens alike, but it essentially boils down to the organisation’s slow progress in agreeing contract deals with suppliersand the many problems it has since encountered with the AstraZeneca vaccine. The EU’s slow vaccination rollout has seriously hindered Germany’s chances of a quick recovery. The programme is now beginning to gain pace, with at least 21,332,342 doses having been administered so far, but this cannot bring back what precious time has been lost.

What does this mean for Germany’s political future?

Germany’s tragic reversal of fortune has not only instigated a public health crisis, but a political one too. The pandemic could not have come at a worse time for a country that finds itself in a “Superwahljahr”or super election year. The election is set to take place on 26thSeptember, and, for the first time in over a decade, Merkel will not be running. Everything is to play for this year, with Merkel’s once formidable conservative bloc having suffered considerably during the pandemic. It is possible that all may be forgotten by September. If progress is made with the vaccination programme and the country begins loosening restrictions, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may be able to hold onto its power. However, if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that everything is uncertain. The same may certainly be said for German politics.

Jeremy Cliffe wrote in December that “others have [previously] studied Germany’s response [to the pandemic] for lessons to learn.” It is now becoming clear that the country must instead be studied for mistakes to avoid. Germany has become an example of what can happen when even the most efficient and prepared of nations takes the foot off the gas. In a few months’ time, it may also become an example of the political consequences for a government that failed to keep everything under control. Only time will tell how detrimental these political consequences will be