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Germany has lost its pandemic role model status

Rosalia Romaniec
Rosalia Romaniec
January 27, 2021

The coronavirus has raged for a year now and there seems to be no end in sight. Germany is no longer considered as an example of good pandemic management. But the worst could still be to come, says Rosalia Romaniec.

Coffins in a crematorium in Döbeln
Some crematoriums in Germany are running out of room for coffins amid the pandemicImage: Christina Küfner/DW

In most reviews of the current situation in Germany, there is one question that tops the list: Were the 50,000 deaths in the pandemic so far really unavoidable? Most people don't seem to think so. But one is always wiser after the event.

Increasingly, we are hearing Chancellor Angela Merkel and other officials saying that they should have acted earlier and should have done more. In view of the latest figures, there is no doubt that something went wrong. For almost nine months, the number of COVID-19-related deaths remained below 10,000, but it has multiplied by five in just two months.

Lulled into complacency

In the fall, Germany underestimated the new coronavirus. After Germany managed the pandemic well at the beginning and was rightly held up internationally as a model, some people in the country started thinking, "We're better at it than the rest." That was overconfident, not to say arrogant.

Rosalia Romaniec
DW's Rosalia RomaniecImage: DW/B. Geilert

This is because there was one factor primarily responsible for Germany's "better" performance — the science-based approach taken by the German chancellor. Because Angela Merkel listened to her scientific advisers more than to her political advisers, Germany went into lockdown early enough in March, thus preventing a many infections and deaths. Despite mistakes and a shortage of masks, Germany's initial response to the pandemic was prudent and pragmatic. Prevention was the key word — the "better safe than sorry" strategy worked. 

Unforgivable situation in care homes

At least, it did to a great extent. However, there has also been unforgivable damage done. The ruthless implementation of the regulations in care homes, for example, caused terrible human distress. For months, people were left to die alone because visits were banned. Loved ones were unable to say goodbye and will live for the rest of their loves with the pain and grief. This mistake caused a great deal of harm to people's confidence in the government — and also did little to fight the virus.

The situation in Germany's care homes remains a scandal in other ways, too. Most  of those who have died of COVID-19 — up to 86% in some cities and regions — were elderly people who lived in care facilities. It is not clear why the number is so high and why so few of them are brought to hospital after being infected by the virus. This is untenable.

Angela Merkel with mask
Chancellor Angela Merkel has always wanted to follow scientific advice in the pandemicImage: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Spotlight on ongoing failures

The crisis has put the spotlight on everything that politicians have ignored in recent years. Now, these things are is coming back to roost — things like digitalization, for example. If the government had been more serious about digital infrastructure earlier, many more people could now be productive working from home and would not risk getting infected on their way to or in the office. This holds true for much of the business sector, but also for the huge apparatus that is Germany's public administration. The situation of schoolchildren and teachers would have been much less chaotic if they had more bandwidth and better internet connectivity at home, as well as digital lesson plans. Germany is far from being able to provide structured schooling for all pupils at the moment.

It is too early to draw overall conclusions: We are still in the middle of the crisis. It does not make sense to criticize those in charge and play the blame game either. Bu those in power, and society, will be forced to learn lessons from the pandemic and its consequences. Among other things, they will have to take it to heart that half-baked solutions do not work in a crisis. A "light lockdown"  is as useless as strict regulations that don't stand up in court.

Nobody can say how long the pandemic will last, and we do not know what havoc the new mutations will wreak. But one thing is already certain: Just hoping is not enough to manage such a situation. To resolve a crisis, the worst has to be assumed from the start. Otherwise, the worst will be precisely what happens.

This article was translated from German.

COVID-19 - remembering lives lost