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Germany's inadequate leadership on coronavirus

Kommentatorenfoto Cristina Burack
Cristina Burack
March 18, 2020

In comparison with other European countries, Germany has been late to the coronavirus-bashing party. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been slow to show much-needed direction as the crisis grows, says DW's Cristina Burack.

Two hands holding a globe
Image: picture-alliance/Fotostand/Schmitt

When the coronavirus pandemic finally ends, because at some point it will, I wonder whether countries will look back and calculate how many deaths could have been avoided. How could they have acted more efficiently and effectively? How many grandparents could have been saved? Mothers and fathers? Loved ones with heart conditions or asthma?

I particularly wonder what Germany will think. This is natural, because I live here. But I also wonder, because it has let a window of opportunity slip shut. Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown too little leadership in responding to the viral outbreak. The country has been able to see the virus' terrifying progression in neighboring European states, to assess its own possible future. Yet it has squandered a precious chance to avoid ending up in the same situation. 

No exception to the virus' rule

Germany has thus far experienced far fewer coronavirus fatalities than its neighbors. But researchers have cautioned there may be many more active infections than the roughly 9,300 currently confirmed cases, thanks to the 14-day delay in showing symptoms — and the numbers are only expected to rise.

DW's Cristina Burack
Image: DW/P. Böll

While Germany has a robust health care system, it runs the same risk that Italy has faced: having its medical services overwhelmed by a crushing case load unleashed by inadequately slowed transmission. The scramble to prepare and be organized already experienced at German hospitals and testing centers, when numbers were still relatively low, doesn't bode well.

Germany recorded its first case on January 27, yet Merkel's first press conference on the virus came only on March 11; Italy was already in its second day of lock-down. She warned that up to 70% of the population could be infected and rightly underlined the need to socially distance. This past Monday, with numbers rising, she announced a series of restrictive measures agreed upon with German state leaders to try and slow the viral spread.

But these pale in comparison to those in neighboring countries, many of which are now on lock-down, with Belgium joining this Wednesday. Merkel called on Germans to stay home, but it seems there will be no enforcement, even though appeals to individuals' sense of responsibility have so far fallen on deaf ears — witness the usual bustle in many cafes, or people organizing private parties.

Read more: Opinion: Europe's steep coronavirus learning curve

Let me make it clear — I do not celebrate the introduction of martial-like law. Perhaps an incremental progression of restrictive measures is necessary to avoid political backlash, especially in a country with a strong libertarian streak.

Germany's federal structure is also an obstacle to coordinated crisis management. Many powers fall to the 16 states, which limits the ability to implement nationwide restrictions. But even if Merkel lacks the political power to act as easily as the leader of a more centralized state, like France, acting and leading are not the same.

Infografik Coronavirus exponentielles Wachstum verhindern EN

Germany needs a proactive leader

Merkel has been praised for keeping her trademark calm and reacting with reason to scientific fact. This is to be applauded. But right now, Germany needs more than a rational reactor; it needs a proactive leader. It would have been braver of Merkel to break her "wait until there is no other option and announce the inevitable" pattern and announce more far-reaching measures, such as a two-week lock down. More aggressive measures, introduced earlier on, would lower Germany's risk of a nightmare scenario. If the country waits until such measures are clearly needed, it will clearly be too late.

Read moreWhat you need to know about the coronavirus

The one thing Merkel acted on — closing the borders with various European countries — contradicts her calls for EU solidarity. Some health experts also question the effectiveness of such measures. Coronavirus transmission is happening between colleagues, neighbors, friends. It's the one-meter distance that needs to be enforced, not the national border. 

Right now, I feel Germany is missing a sense of national unity in the face of an unprecedented crisis. The general mood is somewhere between paranoia, willful ignorance and wish-for-the-best fatalism. A little uncharacteristic emotion from Merkel could have awakened national purpose — the extraordinary times certainly merit such an extraordinary new tone from stoic-as-stone chancellor. Instead, Merkel has shied away from being proactive — and missed a crucial opportunity.

Could we run out of medicine?