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Why can't Germany deal with its new COVID crisis?

November 11, 2021

Germany is deep into its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but yet again its authorities and politicians seem ill-prepared. Has no one learned from the mistakes?

People stand in front of a vaccination bus of a mobile corona vaccination team
Just over 67% of Germans are fully vaccinatedImage: AFP

Wayne Gretzky, still considered the best ice hockey player of all time, famously said that the secret of his success was simple: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."

By the standards of the Canadian Great One, German leaders would make a pretty mediocre hockey team. In the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the country is still chasing the puck: Booster vaccinations for the over-70s were rolled out too late; mandatory testing in long term care homes is only now being discussed; and the stagnating vaccination rate has more or less been accepted, at least according to critics.

'We want to please everyone'

"To stay with the metaphor, like a pandemic, the uncertain conditions of a hockey rink do not suit the strengths of Germans," said Frank Roselieb, director of the Kiel Institute for Crisis Research. "The puck does not behave predictably enough. Spontaneity is not a strength of the Germans, but in times of crisis it is often the way to success."

"We want to take everyone along and please everyone — those worried about data protection with the Corona-Warn-App just as much as the vaccine skeptic hesitant about imposing 2G rules in high-incidence areas," he said, referring to the stricter regulations which require people to be either vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 to enter public places like bars and cinemas. "This can't work. That's not how you become a world champion ice hockey player." 

Roselieb has become a much sought-after expert in these times, as the Kiel Institute specializes in communication during a crisis. On Thursday, health authorities recorded a seven-day incidence rate of 249, and over 50,000 new infections — more than at any time since the pandemic began. Over the last 24 hours, 235 coronavirus-related deaths were reported.

All this has come despite numerous warnings from scientists over the summer that this would happen, and despite the fact that there is enough supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to protect everyone.

"Germany is not necessarily making the same mistakes again," said Roselieb. "It merely shows itself to be quite stubborn in not learning quickly enough and in not enforcing tough, unpopular decisions once in a while when necessary."

"Germany, after acting boldly in March 2020, has often been too hesitant and pedantic in the later stages of the pandemic," he added. "But a bit of controlled dictatorship is part of any good democracy in times of crisis. Other countries can do that much better."

DW Infographic of vaccine rates in various EU countries and the bloc as a whole

In France, for example, President Emmanuel Macron has imposed mandatory vaccination for caregivers, enforced a uniform coronavirus passport and initiated a massive vaccination campaign for children between the ages of 12 and 17. Spain, which has achieved close to herd immunity, had people call their fellow citizens and urge them to get vaccinated. And in Italy, people face heavy fines if they enter their workplace without proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative COVID test.

In Germany, meanwhile, the map of local COVID cases is getting redder by the day. And with just over 67% fully vaccinated across the country and too few who have recovered from COVID, there isn't enough of a barrier to stop the spread of new infections.

"In the almost 25 years I've been doing this, I've never seen a case where a politician has been punished for acting too much or too quickly," said Roselieb, who suspects that many leaders are doing nothing over the fear that the stigma of the pandemic will stick to them if they bring bad news. "Punishment has come to those who have thrown up their hands and said, 'It'll be fine.' Therefore, every politician is actually quite well-advised to do too much rather than too little in times of crisis and disaster."

COVID-19 Special: Booster jabs

Distracted by floods, Afghanistan, election

It didn't help that Germany's mind was elsewhere during the summer: on the flood disaster in the western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, on the debacle over the Afghanistan withdrawal and then the federal election in September. Tackling several crises at the same time appeared to be too much for politicians to handle.

Meanwhile, Germany's caretaker government under Chancellor Angela Merkel is limited in what it can do, and the next government is in the middle of coalition talks.

"This is an inopportune time for Germany to be able to make decisions on the coronavirus pandemic," said Karl-Rudolf Korte, professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "The old government no longer feels properly in charge and the new one is not yet able to function and act. And the virus, of course, is not bothered by this interregnum."

Korte has been looking into the question of what part politics has played in the fourth wave in Germany. Often interviewed on TV as an election analyst, he has published a book titled "Coronacracy — Democratic Governance in Exceptional Times." The guiding question: What is the pandemic doing to our political system?

"In Germany, we are in love with roundtables; everyone involved is to be taken along in an inclusive democracy," said Korte. "This takes longer, but ensures a high degree of societal peace. Politics is concerned with maintaining this and therefore shies away from cracking down."

DW Infographic of COVID-19 incidence rates in the week preceding November 8, 2021

This means Germany is one of the countries most reluctant to take a tougher line against vaccination skeptics and those who refuse to get vaccinated. Health Minister Jens Spahn fears that introducing compulsory vaccination for nurses, for example, would result in even greater staff shortages in care homes and hospitals that are already hopelessly understaffed.

The Leopoldina Academy of Sciences also recently called for compulsory vaccination for teaching and nursing staff, but the notion was immediately rejected by government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

"The government must accept the criticism of not having increased the pressure on unvaccinated people months ago," said Korte. Since the government has always ruled out compulsory vaccination, it's now facing a real dilemma: The current pandemic situation actually makes it unavoidable for certain occupations, but then politicians would have to break their word. "This statement was wrong, because they burnt bridges at an early stage," said Korte.

Other political statements from recent weeks and months no longer make much sense in Germany's current situation: The debate about the "Freedom Day" fueled by some politicians and tabloid media, the discussion about ending the legal "epidemic situation," the decisions to close vaccination centers and abolish free testing.

For critics, that's quite a lot of miscalculation. Apart from the pandemic, the government has also made several other recent missteps, often by doing nothing: not taking enough precautions or heeding warnings during the flood disaster, or in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another famous Gretzky saying comes to mind: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.