In the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Germany was hailed around the world as an example for other countries to follow: the death rate was lower than in most comparable countries and there were no overcrowded intensive care units in Germany, as there were in New York, for example, and many other European countries, including Italy, the UK and France. Yet the situation started to deteriorate in late 2020 with the Covid-19 death rate rising to over 1,000 per day in January.
The only positive aspect of the crisis right now is that even in the last few months of 2020 and early 2021, Germany’s intensive care units (ICUs) have not been overwhelmed. In any case, Germany has more ICU beds per capita than most comparable countries. But safeguarding the health system has come at a high price. Germany has been in a comprehensive lockdown since the beginning of November, and the current restrictions are expected to remain in force until at least the end of March. This means, for example, that restaurants and stores will have been closed for five months. Some larger restaurant and retail businesses have already gone bankrupt – and many more are on the verge of insolvency. German businesses are becoming increasingly desperate and angry.
Businesses have expressed dismay at what they see as the German government’s failures and litany of amateurish mistakes. The greatest failure of all relates to vaccine procurement. Despite the fact that one of the leading vaccines was developed in Germany by BioNTech (with the help of several hundred million euros of German taxpayers’ money), Germany’s vaccination rate remains stubbornly very low. As of early March, only 5.3 per cent of the German population have received at least one vaccination and only 2.7 per cent have been fully vaccinated. In contrast, the US has administered at least a single vaccination dose to 15.5 per cent of the population. The UK has managed to vaccinate more than 30 per cent, while Israel leads the way and has given first doses to almost 56 per cent of its citizens (and fully vaccinated over 40 per cent).
The reason vaccination rates are so low is because Germany decided to delegate vaccine procurement and distribution to the EU. And this decision, in turn, is based on German political paranoia. Germany’s politicians are so scared of ever being accused of “nationalism” by other countries that they do not want to do anything that could create the appearance that Germany is prioritising the interests of its own population. Every day, German politicians are issuing new warnings against “Impfnationalismus” (vaccine nationalism).
On one of Germany’s leading political TV talk shows (Maischberger), the host asked the CDU politician and President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble: “As a citizen, you have a right to expect your government, at a very minimum, to refuse to accept unavoidable deaths and do everything it can to prevent them…When it comes to vaccinations, is it not fair to say that the German government has failed to properly fulfil its duty of care to its citizens? After all, every vaccination that comes too late, every vaccination that is not administered, could mean that someone dies and that is entirely unnecessary, as we can see if we look at the other countries around us.”
Schäuble replied: “It is of no use if we defeat the virus in Germany, or however you want to put it. That’s why the approach to procure the vaccines on a European level was the right way to go, even if it is a bit more complicated. You have to pay the price if you want to strengthen Europe. Europe is a bit more complicated, it has to be said.”
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The phrase, “You have to pay the price if you want to strengthen Europe” not only gets to the heart of Schäuble’s politics, it also perfectly encapsulates the attitude of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Even the former German politician and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted that the EU’s vaccine procurement programme would take longer than if a single member state made its own arrangements. But, in von der Leyen’s opinion, the EU’s procurement programme was the only option in order to defend the unity of Europe.
In particular, Germany is being prevented from effectively combating Covid by a symbiosis of ideology and bureaucracy. Take the Corona Warn App for instance. This piece of smartphone software was developed in Germany to tell people when they had spent time in close proximity to an infected person. Merkel’s Chancellery Minister Helge Braun praised it as the best Covid app in the world, but in the fight against the virus, it has proved to be completely useless. One of the reasons for the app’s total failure is that Germany prioritises data protection to such an extent that it takes precedence over protecting human life and the economic existence of tens of thousands of businesses and self-employed Germans.
The German government has failed equally miserably in many other areas. For instance, as a proportion of its population, neighboring Austria tests ten times as many people for Covid-19 as Germany. Self-administered Covid-19 tests were not approved in Germany until the beginning of March 2021. Prior to that, it was claimed that only someone who had completed a three-year training course was capable of carrying out a test properly.
And as far as masks are concerned, the German government’s initial assessment in the early days of the pandemic was that masks were useless. Later, masks became compulsory in certain situations, when shopping, for example. In a cumbersome operation, millions of forgery-proof vouchers for masks were printed. The vouchers were printed by the Federal Printing Office, which normally prints banknotes and identity cards. The government paid six euros for each mask and sent vouchers to “at-risk citizens” by mail. Anyone who received a voucher could then pick up their masks at a pharmacy, but still had to pay a copay. At that time, regular retailers were selling the same standard of mask for 99 cents – one-sixth of the price the government had paid.
There are several reasons why the economic impact of the lockdown has not been even worse. First, Germany has funneled more direct aid to private companies than any other country in the world. Germany could do so because it had not incurred any new debt for years and has a lower debt ratio than most Western countries.
Even so, there have been massive problems with the distribution of these coronavirus assistance payments, which has led to huge resentment among the self-employed and entrepreneurs. The government promised businesses fast and un-bureaucratic aid for the month of November. Unfortunately, as a result of problems with the payment software, many companies had not received a single cent of support even in February. In the earliest days of the crisis, the government decided to suspend insolvency filing obligations for over-indebted companies, but a wave of insolvencies is expected as soon as the suspension is lifted.
Germany’s federal elections take place on 26 September. The German Chancellor has promised that everyone will have been “offered a vaccination” by then, which is very different from promising that everyone who wants a vaccination will actually have been vaccinated by then. The ineffectiveness of Germany’s vaccination campaign is making it more difficult than anything else to get on top of this crisis. How this will affect the federal elections remains to be seen.
Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist. His latest book – The Rich in Public Opinion – was published in 2020.