We are watchful and we are prepared but our reactions are appropriate — in a nutshell, that is the German government's position on the spread of coronavirus, even after the first cases were reported in the country.
German doctors and hospitals master challenges like those posed by the new virus every year during flu outbreaks, Health Minister Jens Spahn argued. But he also admitted there is a difference — the experts "do not know everything about the new virus, and a vaccine is not available."
Late Wednesday, Spahn admitted that Germany is facing "the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic."
The infection chains can no longer be tracked, he said. "The situation has changed in the last few hours. That has to be said, unfortunately."
"We must be realistic," said Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), a German government disease control and prevention agency. "The vaccine will not be available before the end of the year."
No lockdown in Germany
Nevertheless, Germany does not currently plan measures like those taken in Italy, where entire villages have been sealed off.
"We will continue to try to isolate infected persons in Germany as long as possible, treat them in a clinic and provide close care for possible contact persons," Spahn said. A meeting of EU health ministers in Rome on Tuesday hasn't changed Germany's level-headed approach. "We share the opinion that at this time, travel restrictions or even closing borders would not be an appropriate measure," the German health minister said.
Cordoning off cities, especially major cities, is not even possible, argued Lena Högemann. It is almost impossible to monitor intra-European travelers to Berlin effectively because of the many different avenues and means of transport to the city, the spokeswoman for Berlin's health administration told DW. She said Berlin is "well prepared for emergencies" but advised people traveling to the German capital from Italy should contact a doctor for safety reasons.
Schools and kindergartens were shut down on Wednesday as a precautionary measure in the town of Heinsberg in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia after a resident had contracted the virus. Spahn advised people to be scrupulous wherever possible, including washing their hands regularly with soap for about half a minute and avoiding shaking hands.
Also on Wednesday, Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, said Germany has so far managed to isolate and treat individual infected persons and prevent the spread of the virus. "That remains to be the goal," he said. "Thanks to the very good work on the ground, the new cases have also been treated very quickly."
General pandemic plan is three years old
Germany does not have a specific, comprehensive plan on how to react to the new coronavirus. The RKI, which is in charge, referred DW to the general pandemic plan — devised three years ago but, according to a RKI spokesperson, also applicable to the coronavirus.
The plan foresees a number of possible measures on how to handle a "enduring spread in the population," including the "exclusion of sick persons from community facilities, isolation of sick persons, isolation of sick persons in medical facilities." Germany has followed that plan so far, for instance when the government flew back German tourists from China and put them under quarantine for 14 days. The pandemic plan also stipulates the government should "stop admission to mass accommodation, close communal facilities, ban events." The authorities in Germany have not yet gone that far.
Experts consider the wearing of protective masks in public to be impractical. The masks are currently in short supply in Germany, however. "There are considerable, extensive shortages," according to Thomas Porstner, managing director of the Federal Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers. "Only small quantities are currently available," he added. Experts emphasize that masks are most likely to be important for doctors and nurses — not so much because they risk infecting themselves, but so as not to add to the strain on patients with weakened immune systems.
Economic experts expect negative impact
Economic experts worry about the negative consequences the virus could have for the global economy. "Economies are realizing how fragile the global economic system really is," said Gabriel Felbermayr. The president of the Kiel-based Institute for the World Economy told DW that the situation reminded him of the Lehmann Brothers collapse in 2008, when many people suddenly realized "how fragile the financial system is."
"We assume it can and will have a slight impact on the global economy," said Germany's Economics Minister Peter Altmaier. "The extent will depend on how quickly this virus is contained and how quickly the number of infections slows down again."