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Germany caught in COVID 'Groundhog Day'

Sabine Kinkartz
Sabine Kinkartz
November 6, 2021

In the classic film, a man trapped in a time loop is condemned to relive the same awful day. DW's Sabine Kinkartz knows how he feels as Germany enters its second pandemic autumn.

COVID-19 patients in a hospital in eastern Germany
The COVID case numbers are rising, and hospitals have raised the alarmImage: RONNY HARTMANN/AFP

Setting off for Turkey on vacation from Cologne-Bonn Airport recently, we were asked by an airline employee whether we were vaccinated. We answered yes, and proceeded to present our mobile phones to prove it by showing our certificates before she stopped us, saying simply: "No need, I believe you."

Sabine Kinkartz
Sabine KinkartzImage: DW/S. Eichberg

That isn't good — an it's not a one-off. Across Germany, there seems to be a lax understanding of the rules in place to make everybody safer during this pandemic.

Far too often, restaurants and bars fail to check whether patrons are vaccinated. The same is true at events. And when they do check, hardly anyone bothers to ask for IDs to make sure the QR codes aren't fake.

Many people no longer keep a safe distance in the subway, on buses, on escalators and countless other places. Some wear a face mask, but then don't cover their nose or mouth. "I'm vaccinated," they say, while still others refuse to acknowledge the risk or simply accept it.

Where are the politicians?

Where were lawmakers in the past few weeks? Those who should have been drawing up guidelines and road maps, and ensuring that rules and regulations were implemented? Germany in autumn 2021 is a country that has drifted into the fourth coronavirus wave without a plan, a country in which COVID cases are rising exponentially and are already higher than this time last year. It's a country where hospitals are raising the alarm, and where people in long-term care homes are falling ill and dying in droves.

The situation is reminiscent of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which a man played by Bill Murray wakes up and has to relive the same day over and over again because he fails to learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately, in Germany, the current situation isn't fictional at all.

It was foolish to believe that the vaccine would fix everything. It was clear early on from the example set by Israel that it's not enough to only have two-thirds of the population vaccinated. That message was heard in Germany but did not spur any action, partly because COVID-19 was not on the political agenda during the recent election campaign.

Who is in charge?

The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) were voted out on September 26. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Cabinet are currently in office on a caretaker basis only, and the parties of the next probable coalition are busy negotiating. Merkel has raised the alarm in view of the drastic rise in cases, but does anyone still listen to her?

For days, there has been an inconclusive debate about whether the chancellor should meet with the leaders of the states for a coronavirus summit. After a two-day meeting with the state health ministers late last week, Health Minister Jens Spahn did say that Germans must make more of an effort to follow the COVID rules and said there had to be more monitoring. He has also begun promoting booster shots, but all this comes far too late. Elderly people and those with underlying health issues should have started receiving booster shots in July. Instead, vaccine centers shut down in September.

Not that long ago, Spahn gave the impression that he did not expect the situation to worsen. He even set the ball rolling so that the "epidemic situation of national scope," a legal construct that gives the federal state more powers on pandemic-related policy, would elapse at the end of November.

That means that, from December onward, the 16 German states will make their own decisions on what to do about the pandemic. The country faces the same chaos as in autumn 2020. Nothing has been learned!

The disparities are already obvious. While in Saxony only vaccinated people and those who can prove that they have recovered from COVID-19 can go everywhere, in North Rhine-Westphalia, schoolchildren no longer have to wear masks.

Politicians are reluctant to impose any fresh restrictions on those who are vaccinated, because they promised that this would not happen. But they don't dare introduce compulsory inoculation — not even in care homes. At least visitors and those who work in these centers can now once again be tested for free. Otherwise, people are being forced to pay for tests from their own pockets, which means many are no longer getting tested at all.

Should we just shut our eyes and hope for the best? Spahn has said we should expect difficult weeks ahead, and that's quite likely. However, another — possibly more devastating — COVID-19 winter could have been prevented.