Why Germany’s coronavirus strategy might come back to haunt it

Health, Fitness & Food

German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes her face protection mask off as she arrives for the National Integration Summit at the Chancellery in Berlin, on October 19, 2020.

FABRIZIO BENSCH | AFP | Getty Images

Germany’s coronavirus epidemic, and strategy to deal with the virus, has not been the same as its European counterparts.

This might be a good thing, given that Germany has recorded 397,922 cases of the virus, far lower than Spain, which now has over one million cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, along with France.

It has also recorded far fewer deaths related to the coronavirus, with the tally at 9,905 and rising very slowly despite a second wave of infections as seen in the rest of the continent.

Germany has put its relatively milder experience of the pandemic down to its modern healthcare system and robust testing and contact tracing regime. The country has also differed from its European peers at a political level in that it has taken largely a decentralized approach to managing the virus response.

That approach could prove to be a double-edged sword when it comes to clear public guidance and messaging on the virus, however, according to Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence.

“The question is whether Germany’s strength since the beginning of the pandemic – the not just local imposition but in fact locally-driven design of restrictive as well as support measures – will turn into an obstacle,” Nickel said. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel “emphatically called for compliance over the weekend, but only clear-cut nationwide messaging might still prevent the need for more stringent lockdowns in winter,” he warned.

As other national governments around Europe imposed restrictions, varying from national lockdowns to localized measures (albeit with the agreement, and sometimes reluctant acceptance of local leaders) Germany has devolved the management of the virus and restrictions to regional leaders within its 16 states.

This has meant that, as well as national messaging such as Merkel last weekend imploring all Germans to avoid non-essential travel and gatherings and general rules on social distancing and mask-wearing, there are also restrictions that differ from state to state.

The move is based on the respective infection rates seen in different German states, some of which have large populations; North Rhine-Westphalia has 17.9 million inhabitants, for example, and has seen the largest number of recorded cases per state, with 97,507 cases.

On Tuesday, Germany recorded a 7-day incidence of 48.6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Robert Koch Institute, whereas the 7-day incidence in Berlin, Bremen, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland is “considerably” higher than the national mean 7-day incidence, the public health body said, and “slightly higher” in Bavaria.

“Politically, Germany has so far fared well with its traditionally decentralized approach, with local and regional authorities agreeing on joint pandemic management rather than Berlin imposing rules for lower-level authorities to follow through on,” Teneo Intelligence’s Nickel said.

“But the question now is how citizens across the country can be brought to comply with an ideally simple and transparent set of rules while, at the same time, enough room is left for differentiation between more and less affected regions,” he said.

Negotiations on regional rules between regional leaders and the national government can be a fractious process too. Nickel cited drawn-out talks last week between Merkel and regional leaders to agree on new restrictions, such as thresholds for private gatherings and restrictions on leisure travel from areas with higher infection rates.

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