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COVID: Get serious, Germany

Sabine Kinkartz
Sabine Kinkartz
January 6, 2021

Germany's shutdown is being extended and tightened. But will that be enough? The country has squandered many months with half-hearted strategies. We are all paying the price for that, DW's Sabine Kinkartz writes.

Coronavirus model in Schwerin
A model of the coronavirus with its spike protein hangs in the eastern city of Schwerin Image: Jens Büttner/dpa/picture alliance

In November, Germany introduced a partial shutdown. In December, the restrictions were expanded some, but there were exceptions. Now, in January, everyone is registering with consternation that infection rates remain too high and that more has to be done to combat the virus. It was insufficient to close restaurants for dining in, nonessential shops and a few other sectors but keep schools and kindergartens and most of the economy open — and merely appealing to people to curb their social contacts just doesn't work.

Too many people are still getting infected with COVID-19, and too many are still dying. It is a domestic disaster that has two primary causes. 

Kinkartz, Sabine
DW's Sabine Kinkartz

Germany's federal system is one of those. On the whole, it is a positive thing that the country is divided into 16 states and that power and responsibility are distributed among the tiers of government all the way down to the community level. These structures ensure regional diversity, strengthen democracy and hinder the abuse of power.

German federalism's limits 

The 16 state premiers have their own regional interests and political vanities. It is the states that bear the primary responsibility for implementing measures to prevent transmission. As a result, Germany's chancellor can only propose, appeal and warn. She cannot formally decide. 

Federalism has its limits. Decisions are exactly what is needed in nationwide crises.  Germany's federal government should be able to take over and implement unified measures when necessary. That does not mean that the states have to be completely excluded from the political decision-making. 

If citizens are to accept and follow rules, those rules need to be unified, consistent and comprehensible: Those rules need to make sense. Yet we have now gotten to a point where hardly anyone knows what applies where, when and why — why, for instance, people in Wiesbaden, in the central state of Hesse, have to follow different rules than those followed by people just a few kilometers away in Mainz, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Germans are becoming increasingly irascible, and the slow start to the vaccination program is not helping matters. Politicians must take action to improve the situation. 

It is not enough to try to lead people by appealing to their better judgment. No one acts sensibly at all times and in all places. People operate within the limits of what is possible and feasible, seldom giving things up freely. What we need are clear directives and a will to enforce restrictions. What we need is tough love!

Souring German mood

At first, the fear of the virus was great. People stayed home and hardly gathered. During the spring shutdown, streets and interstate highways were often deserted. 

But it is human nature to become accustomed to threats and to repress, to some extent, the real dangers that we are facing; it is human nature to be reckless at times. Though most people stayed home at Easter, things were very different at Christmas and the New Year. People were driven by a desire for more human contact. Many have also simply had enough of the pandemic and want to return to normal. 

Many parents are at their wit's end — especially the ones who live in small apartments and whose children do not have as much opportunity to run around and let off steam during the colder winter months. Of course they seize every chance to go outside. Appeals to people's better judgment are simply not enough.

Make telecommuting compulsory

Too many workers are left with no choice but to go in to their jobs. Many sectors of the economy continue to operate, and that means that people  cannot avoid having contact with one another — either in their workplaces or in the buses and trains on their way there. Politicians, however, could at least order employers to allow their employees to work at home whenever this is possible. 

The shutdown is, of course, hitting restaurants hard, but many people would not have chosen to dine out anyway during the new few weeks. Schools and kindergartens are not scheduled to open until February at the earliest and then only on a gradual basis and depending on infection statistics. 

For far too long, the myth has been perpetuated that schools are safe havens during the pandemic. Scientific findings that children and teenagers can also get infected and transmit the virus are slowly seeping into the political consciousness.

By the end of January, we will see whether Germany's latest tougher coronavirus shutdown has had more effect than the previous one — or whether more will need to be done to get the virus under control.

That would be disastrous for Germany, the people who live here and the economy.

This article has been adapted from German.