Europe

Germany’s second wave shows why it is no coronavirus utopia

BY Niclas Knecht   /  16 October 2020

With empty hospital beds and comparatively light economic losses, Germany appears to be working fairly well during the state of emergency created by Covid-19. So much so that a London-based think tank, Deep Knowledge Group, ranked Germany as the second safest country in the world, behind Israel and ahead of South Korea.

However, recently the number of infections has risen dramatically. On the 14 October, health departments reported 6,638 new cases nationwide. This is a sad and new record in Germany. Despite doing well compared to others, this does not meant that the German people are not also suffering in these times, whether from health problems, social isolation, or indeed economic hardship.

So, I’m sometimes slightly bemused when my English friends ask me about how wonderful it must be to live in Germany rather than in Britain at the moment. Germany should be recognised for its successful damage limitation, but it should not be held up as some kind of Covid utopia. There are no utopias in the great coronavirus plague.

Testing facilities in general have continued to process a high number of PCR swab tests since they ramped up their operations earlier in the year. Any major transportation hub has several available, and the German government says there is a spare capacity of 400,000 tests per week at the moment. On a per capita level, this ranks below the UK (27 tests per 1,000 inhabitants), with 13 tests per 1,000 inhabitants in the week ending 20 September.

Testing is run by the 16 federal states, so the system varies slightly from state to state. However, they all follow the recommendations from The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s public health institute. Decentralised power brings with it a number of strengths, but these differences in the responses across states have also increased uncertainty in several respects.

Another factor that has caused a lot of confusion is that, in reacting to the recently rising cases, most federal states agreed not to take in German tourists coming from high-risk areas, unless they have recorded a negative test in the last 48 hours. High-risk areas are defined as places that record more than 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants. So far, only Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, the financial capital of Germany, have crossed that threshold. Yet Federal state courts have now also repealed these rules in two states, citing the justifications made by state governments for restricting freedom of movement to be insufficient.

In some ways, too, the divergent initiatives of individual state-premiers could be perceived as an attempt to sharpen their political profile in anticipation of next year’s federal election rather than as entirely rational policy decisions. Yes, it’s a shock, I know, but local leaders also play politics in Germany too. Merkel’s CDU still does not have an official candidate, so Bavaria’s minister president Markus Söder and his North-Rhine Westphalian counterpart, Armin Laschet, have been trying to gain political capital through policies designed to show how severe they can be in clamping down on the virus.

The amount of new cases has also rekindled discussions about closing down social life, mainly night life and sports. It appears that you can only be so careful when it comes to Covid. Even Germany has not been able to escape some of the terrible costs of this pandemic.

Social life has only recently enjoyed a liberation of sorts after the end of the first wave earlier in the year. Bars and restaurants were once again being treated with increasingly lax rules. In Baden-Württemberg for example, bars and restaurants are only limited to maintain a 1.5m distance between groups. (As elsewhere, customers all around the country are still required to put down contact details to understand the infection chain in the worst case.)

Now, however, due to a strong resurgence in Berlin, most shops, restaurants and bars are under curfew – they have to close between 23.00 and 06.00 starting on the 10 October. With Neukölln, one of the twelve boroughs of Berlin, recording over 250 cases within the last days, these measures are understandable. In these areas, known for their active nightlife, it is not surprising that distance rules have not been taken as seriously as elsewhere and cases have accordingly risen.

The party district of  Schanzenviertel in Hamburg was similar: multiple bars have reported cases of staff getting infected. On trying to reach out to people frequenting these bars, police found that many left fake names. Such frictions between the plans of the administrations and how civilians react are inevitable, if regrettable. And they are as common in Germany as they are elsewhere.

However, the perception that many Germans simply do not care about the rules, and that they are continuing to party and not socially distancing, fills many with anger. This is particularly the case for people who are dependent on jobs involving a lot of social contact, who have voiced their discontent with the apparent disregard of some partygoers. While it is understandable to want to continue having a social life, many have begun to fear that parts of the population are doing so at the cost of other people who are struggling to get by.

This relapse may also have even more dire consequences for people employed in “non-essential” jobs too. Just recently, economic research institutes have adjusted forecasts for the German economy downwards. They now expect that GDP will decrease by 5.4% in 2020, while in the spring a smaller fall of 4.2% was predicted.

Hence, while Germany has done well controlling the impact of the crisis, it is far from perfect. While frictions in the implementation of restrictions played a role initially, smooth execution of the ideas does not seem to be a problem anymore.

Yet this comes with its own problems and it is possible that it has fuelled complacency as we enter the second wave of the epidemic. The sense that Germany had “conquered” the virus earlier in the year has made people less careful, and maybe even more selfish, about what is needed to keep it under control as we head into the winter. We will have to wait and see how this dynamic unfolds.

With record numbers of cases alarming state governments, a nationwide curfew is now being discussed and a second lockdown is also on the cards. While the Merkel-led government managed to act well in spring, this resurgence of the epidemic will once again pose a challenge.

Perhaps Germany is not always so different from the rest of Europe after all.

Niclas Knecht is a post-graduate student in Economics at the University of Mannheim.


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