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Germany’s coronavirus response: Separating fact from fiction

April 7, 2020

Germany’s low COVID-19 mortality rate has been marveled at by the foreign press. As with any news story constantly in flux, many things get lost in translation.

Bonn Altstadt Kirschblüten
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner

As of April 7, Germany had reported some 105,000 confirmed cases of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. However the country's death rate from the pandemic remains around 1.5%, according to both US and German disease control experts.*

This figure is considerably lower than fellow EU members Spain (9.5%) and Italy (12%). This deviation has garnered a great deal of attention from English-speaking media, with US and UK outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and several public broadcasters painting a rosy picture of Germany's handling of the crisis.

DW breaks down some of the most prominent narratives about the German response to the novel coronavirus and why the mortality rate appears so comparatively low — and whether they square with reality.

  • Claim: Germany is testing at one of the highest per capita rates in the world, and is also testing individuals with light or no symptoms

Reality: The German Health Ministry has said that it is testing 300,000 people per week in a country of 82 million people; it has already carried out far more tests than Italy, the European epicenter of the pandemic. While that is a massive effort, assuming that each German resident would be tested once, it would take 3 years to test the entire population.

Coronavirus tracing app

Comparing test rates per capita around the world is extremely difficult, as some countries, like the US, do not have a central registrar recording all the tests across the nation. Further complicating the matter are the conflicting numbers even within each country; the usage of different time measurements; and delays in reporting. These factors make it even harder to keep track and say with certainty which nation has the highest number of tests per capita.

Moreover, Germany's center for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute, has criticized Germany's methods of testing, complaining for example that too many asymptomatic individuals were being tested. The RKI called for an end to this practice on the grounds that Germany could risk running out of tests. Therefore, asymptomatic people are currently not being recommended for testing.

  • Claim: Germany is allegedly considering issuance of "immunity certificates" to allow individuals who have recovered from the virus to move about freely

Reality: The origin of this rumor appears to be a quote by a scientist interviewed by German news magazine Der Spiegel, and reported by Deutsche Welle, who suggested it in connection with a potential research project. It was then picked up by The Telegraph in the UK and Business Insider in the US and reported as German government policy.

German virologists are currently working on a test that would determine if a recovered person has antibodies that make them immune to the virus. However, the scientific consensus at the moment is that there is no way to measure the length or strength of such immunity, with estimates varying as widely as a few weeks to a year. Therefore, such certificates are not being seriously considered by the German government as a method to combat the spread of the disease.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: 'Clinical tests' in Germany soon

  • Claim: Germany's death rate is so low due to advanced planning and an excellent healthcare system

Reality: Germany does have a robust public healthcare system that for now appears to be weathering the storm. As in many countries, however, medical professionals in respiratory and intensive care report being massively overworked, and there is a risk of running out of protective equipment. While Germany has enough hospitals, they are chronically understaffed, and medical students are now helping out in the most overwhelmed units.

Statistics about the number of intensive care beds in the country are often cited as proof of Germany's superior preparedness to handle this crisis. However, German officials report disparate figures. The German Association of Hospitals says there are 40,000 beds, which is about 49 for every 100,000 of Germany's 82 million inhabitants. The Registrar for Intensive Care Beds says there are 24,000, which is only about 29 for every 100,000 people.

Curbing the coronavirus

Read more: Coronavirus: In Germany, medical students step up to fight COVID-19

As for advanced planning, Germany's lockdown and social distancing regulations were put in place more than a week after fellow EU members France, Austria, and Spain had imposed similar policies. Despite what was happening in Italy in early March, Germany was actually much slower to react than its neighbors.

However, behind Germany's as-yet low mortality rate is a confluence of many other factors. These include the country's federal system of government, which means there are hundreds of health officials overseeing the pandemic response across the 16 states, rather than one centralized response from the country's national Health Ministry.

  • Claim: The US government is trying to steal Germany's vaccines

Reality: One of the first coronavirus stories from Germany to be widely reported globally came from an article in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, which claimed that the administration of President Trump was trying to woo the Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac.

The paper quoted an anonymous source claiming that Washington was offering a substantial financial incentive to develop a vaccine "only for the US."

Read more: Search for coronavirus vaccine turns spotlight on German biotech firms

After the quote was translated, it was reported by The Guardian and other news outlets. Since then, however, it has been denied by US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, German Health Minister Jens Spahn, and CureVac itself.

Moreover, CureVac is just one of dozens of German firms racing to create a vaccine, and Germany is just one of the many countries whose scientific community is now focused on immunization for COVID-19.

  • Claim: One reason Germany's mortality rate is low is because Germans immediately stuck to the rules about social distancing

Reality: This is a misplaced belief circulated on social media, likely based on old stereotypes of the German national character rather than actual evidence. There are no hard statistics, but widespread anecdotal evidence would suggest otherwise.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel first suggested on March 18 that Germans stay at home as much as possible and refrain from meeting in groups, thousands of social media users complained that as it was beautiful weather, and the local ice cream dealers and cafes remained open. Nothing appeared to have changed about public life other than a lack of toilet paper.

Read more: Germany warns against easing coronavirus restrictions despite progress

Even after restaurants and non-essential shops were closed and fines were introduced for gathering in groups of more than two, the rules are still being flouted. Berlin police had to ask concerned citizens to stop clogging up the emergency line with reports of rule breakers, and the city's club scene is reportedly still going strong by means of underground raves. People are not supposed to stop and sit in parks or face a penalty, yet this is how Berlin parks looked this past weekend:

*In reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, unless otherwise specified, DW uses figures provided by the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Coronavirus Resource Center in the United States. JHU updates figures in real time, collating data from world health organizations, state and national governments and other public official sources, all of whom have their own systems for compiling information.

Germany's national statistics are compiled by its public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). These figures depend on data transmission from state and local levels and are updated around once a day, which can lead to deviation from JHU.Every evening, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.
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