The world may fall apart out there, but in the parks and streets of Germany the new normal is gaining ground. Families queue up to buy ice cream and young and old lie on the grass to sunbathe that they did not have this winter. Stores have reopened this week, as half the world looks at Berlin wondering what Germany has done well in this crisis. The number of coronavirus infections continues to grow – 152,438 – but the damn curve has flattened and the health system endures and even welcomes patients from other European countries. The death toll, 5,500, remains much lower than in other large countries without the population having been totally confined at any time. From Berlin, they call for prudence and to avoid complacency in the face of the risk of a possible relapse.
“The government has done very well. From the beginning they told the truth. (Angela) Merkel explained that this would affect 60% or 70% of the population and we understood that this was serious and that a safe distance had to be maintained ”, explains Tamer Osman, a designer from a small Berlin boutique where now they piece-sew patterned cloth masks. This small businessman is not alone. The Germans have rallied around a government that until recently threatened snap elections and a chancellor considered little more than a lame duck.
Angela Merkel during a press conference on April 20. On video, Merkel's statements on April 24 at a joint press conference with the WHO.
Admiration for German management has skyrocketed on both sides of the Atlantic. The German Health Minister is interviewed on televisions around the world, while global Merkelmania is resurrected again by the hand of the coronavirus. The Berlin government shuns possible triumphalism because, as the Chancellor warned this week in the Bundestag: "We are not in the final phase of this crisis, we are still at the beginning." Merkel has described the German experience as a "fragile and partial success" and repeats that the country walks on "a thin layer of ice" capable of breaking at any moment. As prominent German virologists, Merkel fears that the rush to revive economic life will lead to a relapse, a second wave of COVID-19, which would be more dangerous.
Merkel, a PhD in Quantum Chemistry, is receiving praise both inside and outside Germany for her management. True to form, he was slow to react. When it was already clear that the coronavirus was much more than just any flu, soccer matches were still being scheduled in Berlin. But when he finally addressed the citizens, he won their trust with a direct message, without embellishment or excessive consideration and supported at all times by science. She herself voluntarily self-quarantined at home after being in contact with a doctor who had tested positive, leading by example. In mid-March, he addressed the nation on television for the first time in 14 years (apart from the traditional Christmas message) to explain that Covid-19 was the biggest challenge for the country since World War II.
"Merkel is specially prepared for these crises because of her rational temperament and her ability to build consensus," says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings think tank. This researcher also recalls that the German federal parliamentary system limits, especially in the case of a pandemic, the margin of maneuver of the head of the federal government and “forces any chancellor to reach consensus with the Länder (regions), but also with the partners of coalition, and this is where leadership skills come into play. " Those who know her emphasize that Merkel is rational and listens a lot, gives herself advice and then weighs the arguments and makes step-by-step decisions. The chancellor is advised these days by panels of multidisciplinary teams, where in addition to virologists there are psychologists, jurists and experts in education.
Citizens look around and see Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson and appreciate even more a policy that has not resorted to warmongering rhetoric or decreed exceptional status. Limiting the restriction of freedoms as much as possible has been one of the premises of Merkel, a chancellor who grew up in the German Democratic Republic. “The polls show for weeks that there is a feeling that the government is doing well. There is no panic or generalized fear, "says Peter Matuschek, a researcher at the Forsa polling house, who explains that in part it has to do with the political decisions of these days being based on science, in a country that trusts its universities and scientific institutions.
90% of those surveyed think that the government has done well in this crisis, according to the survey of the ZDF chain published on Friday. 83% value Merkel's management positively. "There is almost unanimity, the Government could approve the law it wanted," says Matuschek. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with 39% voting intention, now has its strongest support since 2017.
But not everything is lights. This pandemic has also exerted a darkroom in Germany, capable of revealing institutional strengths and weaknesses. It has shown, for example, the deficiencies of the educational system and, above all, the delay in the digitization process in a country with surprising deficiencies in Internet coverage. It has also highlighted the dependence on China and other countries for sourcing masks and protective suits for health workers.
Jan Techau, director of the German Marshall Fund's program for Europe, emphasizes, however, the importance of institutional cooperation, oiled by improvisation in the 2015 crisis, when more than a million refugees landed in Germany. Those months of national emergency served as a dress rehearsal for a country that was forced to strengthen municipal, regional and national cooperation. "Now there is again a mentality of cooperation in the face of the crisis, in a country with a well-developed organizational capacity."
This cooperation is transferred to politics, where until now an implicit non-aggression pact and support for the Government has prevailed. “This type of crisis encourages the long-held German desire to live in harmony. Germans like large coalitions, agreement between employees and employers … A crisis like this is experienced in Germany as an opportunity to put aside the political fight. Although of course, it will not last forever, ”thinks Techau.
The number of beds
Analysts agree that, in addition, the relative German success also has to do with the fact that the virus has landed at a time with a strong economy and health system. Since the start of the epidemic, Germany has increased the number of ICU beds from 28,000 to 40,000 and there are still about 12,000 empty. The German strategy is to break the chain of infections by carrying out massive tests and in the future with the mobile application.
The Robert Koch Institute indicates that two million diagnostic tests have been performed in 161 laboratories across the country. Now, between 300,000 and 400,000 tests are performed each week. Since mid-January, researchers from the Charité university hospital started the production of these tests and shared them with the rest of the laboratories.
German research capacity has run into a powerful industry that allowed laboratories to be close to manufacturers and access materials, explains Ricarda Milstein of the Hamburg Center for Health Economics. At the beginning of February the bureaucratic mechanism was already greased, essential so that the laboratories could bill the cost of the tests to the mutuals, adds Milstein.
The idea now, as the press published this week, is to reach four and a half million tests per week. Merkel repeated the objective again on Thursday before the Bundestag: "The experts tell us: test, test, test." Virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, from the Bernhard-Nocht Institute in Hamburg, introduces a nuance: “Germany has spent a lot of money on tests, but the vast majority are negative. The key is to use these tests strategically, it's not just about the quantity. " Of the tests carried out so far in Germany, only 7.5% have tested positive.
The Government never tires of repeating that precision is a key element in this crisis. Thoroughness is especially important in breaking the chain of infections. When someone is diagnosed positive, the people with whom the infected person had contact in the last two weeks are alerted to quarantine and thus break the fateful chain. This methodology was implemented at the local level from day one. It was on January 27 when the first outbreak was detected near Munich thanks to a Chinese worker alerting her, after giving a seminar at the headquarters of the German company, that she was infected. Employees and people around them were tested and isolated to nip the outbreak in the bud without allowing the virus to spread silently. “It was detected right away. If not, we would still be like Italy or Spain ”, assures Schmidt-Chanasit.
This virologist also highlights the crucial role that local authorities have played. Specifically, the large network of public health institutes throughout the country, which sometimes have their own laboratory and have been visiting houses and taking isolation measures adapted to different needs.
The virologist believes that there is an underestimated factor in the face of the supposed German success: luck. Remember that many of the first infected cases were young people who returned from ski trips and this has meant that the virus has taken longer to spread among older people and that for weeks the mortality rate has remained very low. Since then it has not stopped rising and now stands at 3.6%. “80% has been luck and the rest good management. Especially since radical containment measures have not been necessary. Specific measures have been taken to avoid social contact and the transmission of the virus, because the negative health effects of confinement must also be taken into account ”, he estimates.
Schmidt-Chanasit repeats what is already almost a mantra in Germany. “We are only at the beginning of an epidemic that we do not know about. Nobody has the correct formula and each country must find its own path hand in hand with multidisciplinary teams ”.
That in the sanitary plane. On the economic front, the largest European economy has the great advantage of having reached this crisis after almost a decade of uninterrupted growth, despite the cooling in recent months. Ignoring external pressure, for years Berlin repeated that after massive borrowing the day would come when there would be a major crisis. That day has come. The fiscal slack now allows them to have a rain of millions – a package of 750,000 million euros, the bazooka, in the words of the Minister of Finance, Olaf Scholz – that entrepreneurs, workers and the self-employed receive as the manna capable of appeasing their existential anguish in times of global uncertainty.
Small businesses, freelancers, young people from start-ups or artists enjoy immediate input from their region and the government. In her record store, reopened this Wednesday, Tinko Rohst explains that they have already collected the 5,000 euros from the regional authorities and 9,000 from the federal government, processed in a couple of days and with almost no bureaucracy. It should last you three months. The problem, he explains, is that his record store lives off DJs and tourists, two sectors that it is not clear if they will exist as before.
As the confinement continues, the calls to not indulge in complacency ring louder. “There are many phases of the virus ahead. This reminds me of the 2015 crisis, which showed that initial enthusiasm can very quickly lead to dissatisfaction when things start to not go so well, ”says Stelzenmüller. Then, the Germans ran to the platforms to welcome the refugees with flowers and stuffed animals, but months later, the extreme right became strong with a xenophobic discourse. In Germany there are already protests, some violent, against the isolation measures dictated by the Government, while economists predict a deep recession. "The situation in Germany is temporary," warns Stelzenmüller.
Criticism in the EU
Support for the Executive for managing the crisis within Germany's borders contrasts with criticism, from the outside. In the EU they ask Germany to put aside national reluctance and assume a more determined role at this historic moment, but the reluctant power has not quite taken the step. "For France this crisis may be an opportunity to change Europe, but the Germans have less strategic ambition and do not feel comfortable in their leadership role," interprets Techau.
Criticism of Germany soared in Europe in early March, following the German ban on the export of medical supplies. The avalanche of criticism and diplomatic tension forced Berlin to back down and acknowledge that it was a mistake. But the great rift between the north and the south of Europe has been reborn during the negotiations to illuminate a mechanism of solidarity and economic reconstruction for the Union. Berlin, true to its historical aversion to debt, continues to oppose Eurobonds; that is to say, a mutualisation of the debt, as an instrument to respond to the commitments of other community partners.
“There is still mistrust. The Germans don't just trust what other countries are going to do with our money ”, explain parliamentary sources. But above all, it is a question of historical identity. Germans are proud of the culture of no indebtedness and fear that it will be diluted in the hands of other countries that they believe are not taking it so seriously, ”Techau thinks. Furthermore, if the southern countries fear that the lack of financing for economic reconstruction will feed the populists, in Germany the effect is the opposite. Conservative politicians fear that in times of crisis, opening new financing channels with southern countries will give wings to the German extreme right.