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A very German way of handling the COVID-19 pandemic

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Jens Thurau
April 19, 2021

Who is to blame the German status quo? Angela Merkel? The federal system? Coronavirus deniers? Jens Thurau explores why Germans are so dissatisfied with the situation across the country.

A nurse putting on protective gear
Doctors are doing the best they can, but they, too, struggle with German bureaucracyImage: Reuters/W. Rattay

Working remotely from home, my days begin first by checking the latest coronavirus incidence figures, or how many people have been vaccinated so far. This has become my daily ritual for what feels like an eternity. Usually, these figures aren’t uplifting. After this, I go about my day, heeding the various coronavirus restrictions in place like keeping a safe distance from others, wearing a mask and avoiding social gatherings. I talk to my fellow DW colleagues via video link.

It’s tough keeping abreast of the latest coronavirus rules in my region of Germany. Like many of my neighbors, friends, colleagues and relatives, I’m sticking to my own, personal lockdown regime that is stricter, I’d say, than what German officials are calling for. We’ll be fine, all things considered.  

DW's Jens Thurau
DW's Jens Thurau

Meanwhile, Germany — ostensibly a nation of efficient, reliable and punctual people — is succumbing to chaos. How is this possible? Is Chancellor Merkel to blame? Virologists like Christian Drosten? Coronavirus deniers? Social Democratic epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach? Germany’s federal system? Individual federal states, or their leaders? None of the above. The explanation, I would argue, lies in our German mentality, if there is even such a thing.

Let me elaborate.

1) We’re sticklers for the rules

A man — three days short of his 60th birthday — shows up to a coronavirus vaccination center. It’s a Wednesday. He says he would like to get an AstraZeneca jab. The vaccine was originally earmarked only for the country’s younger demographic. But after a small number of individuals suffered from severe, even deadly, side effects, the jab is now only administered to those 60 and above. The medical details are complicated, like so much in this pandemic.

The man, just days away from making the cut off, is sent away. Authorities say he is ineligible because he is too young. Ironically, there is a sufficient number of vaccine doses available that day. The situation sparks a heated debate at the vaccination center over just how strictly the rules should be followed. Ultimately, the sticklers prevail.

Germans lack the courage to bend or break rules and apply common sense. We’re finding ourselves amid a third wave of infection and are seriously debating who should be vaccinated and in what order, when hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses are available and at risk of expiring. This can only happen in Germany.

Two people seated with their backs to the camera await a COVID-19 vaccination
Adhering to the country's strict order of vaccination with no exceptions is typically German, says DW's Jens ThurauImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe/dpa/picture alliance

2) We think we’re worse off than others

Many countries have been harder hit by the pandemic than Germany. Pandemic-related restrictions on daily life have been much less draconian here than abroad. People living in Portugal and Spain, for instance, were forced to stay indoors for weeks. Despite this stark contrast, many Germans have been fiercely critical of domestic safety measures — even though authorities lifted some in early March.

Germany wrought death and destruction on the rest of the world in the twentieth century. Yet, since World War II, West Germany and then East Germany, too, enjoyed considerable prosperity and political stability. It has been a crisis-free period. We have known wars, hunger and death to plague other parts of the world, but not our homeland. We have even been largely spared bloody Islamist terror attacks that beset other Western nations.

But despite all this, we feel as if we are suffering more than anyone else. This is typically German. It’s a symptom of German angst, as it’s known internationally.

3) We‘re not embracing modern technology

International studies show that countries are proving more effective in containing the pandemic if they handle bureaucratic matters digitally, shun strict hierarchies and clearly delegate responsibilities. We struggle on all these fronts. Why? Because we believe we don’t need to improve. Germany builds fancy, high-end cars, expensive machines, and has developed the best vaccine — or so we think. We’re still a major exporter of goods. Our welfare system is world class. And so, we mistakenly think further digitalizing our lives isn’t necessary.

We all own smartphones, but are obsessed with privacy rights. My kids, meanwhile, are digital natives, effortlessly navigating the online world — one which Chancellor Angela Merkel not too long ago referred to as "uncharted territory." Frustrated by my inability to get my head around the latest app, my kids will snatch my device and set up everything for me in mere seconds. It’s embarrassing.

Germans are not embracing modern technology as they should.

4) Micromanaging

We don’t mess around when making rules! Case in point: Much of the world’s specialist literature on tax questions is in German. Why? Because our tax laws have been designed to capture a plethora of different lifestyles and work lives. This, however, has led to an utterly bewildering range of tax regulations.

German authorities have similarly issued an abundance of overly detailed lockdown laws. In a piece for Spiegel Online, journalist Sascha Lobo cites Hamburg’s mask regulations and the provisions surrounding when and where they are mandatory: "On Alma Wartenberg square, including on Bahrenfelder street from house numbers 135 to 146." The rules are far more detailed than this.

A smart virologist recently said the coronavirus spreads throughout society like water, always finding ways to infect others. Sticking to this metaphor, Germans have been trying to manage the outbreak by building canals and pipes. It’s simply the wrong approach.

But enough of this self-criticism. One day, this pandemic will be history. And Germany will be one of the leading nations once more. 

So for now, what’s left for me to do is print off a carbon copy of this commentary and file it in my binder. That’s the German way.

This article was adapted from German by Benjamin Restle. 

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau