If Western media are to be believed, Germany has dealt exceptionally well with the coronavirus crisis. In the context of U.S. President Donald Trump’s ineptitude and the higher death rates in other big Western democracies, Germany is held up as an example of how to do better. But with whom is Germany being compared?
If Western countries’ responses are compared with those of Asian democracies, the West has failed as a whole. South Korea and Taiwan were confronted with the coronavirus much earlier than the West, yet they managed to keep their infection numbers low while avoiding the extensive economic standstill that afflicts Europe.
Germany has been part of this failure as much as any other Western country. The German government’s lead disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, kept the risk level of the coronavirus at low to medium until late February. Two weeks later, the country closed down. The institute’s experts managed to test and systematically trace a small early outbreak, but they were surprised when carnival festivities triggered a major wave of infections in late February. After that, their approach of systematic tracing and tracking was overpowered within days.
Germany looks better when its numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths are compared with those of European countries with similar-sized populations, such as Italy and the UK. France has a similar infection rate but a higher death rate. But population size does not make for a relevant comparison: the relative infection and fatality numbers are what counts. Looking across the EU, the whole of Central and Eastern Europe has better numbers than Germany. Finland and Greece have done much better, while Austria has done somewhat better. Denmark’s numbers are similar to Germany’s.
The Robert Koch Institute is not the only institution that was slow to react. The German authorities also were not particularly fast at the beginning. Italy stopped all flights from China on January 31, but Germany waited another two weeks before doing the same. Overall, German timing has been average compared with other EU countries. The lockdown was not severe, nor were Germans particularly disciplined. Cell phone data show that Germans reduced their movement less than others.
The New York Times and the Financial Times praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership and deference to science. This may seem unique given Trump’s incomprehensible announcements, but it is not special in the EU. Almost all of the union’s political leaders have spoken about the science behind the pandemic and government measures and have regularly explained the situation.
What is more, the German government’s communication, while clear in the first two weeks of the crisis, lost its clarity around Easter, when Berlin tried to explain what it wanted to achieve next. The government successively presented different parameters—from the replication rate to the reproduction number and regional data—as essential, and no written explanation of the government’s aims was ever published. Key indicators, such as the number of tests administered, differed depending on who was asked.
Official reporting has lagged several days behind real time, and leading news media have used data released by Johns Hopkins University, which in turn derives its numbers from German media and local authorities. For a while, the government claimed—implausibly—that wearing face masks did not reduce the infection risk. Later, it turned out that this was an effort to keep public demand low until there were enough masks for the country’s healthcare workers.
Many things have gone wrong in Germany, as they have in most countries. But a number of things have gone well. Germany has had a significant excess capacity of intensive care beds since the beginning, and testing has been widespread. A lot more research will be needed to understand why the country’s infection and fatality rates have been better than those in France, Italy, or Spain. Is it due to Germany’s high level of testing? Or is it due to luck, because most of those infected early on were younger people coming back from skiing vacations? Or is it due to Germany’s smaller households? Nobody knows yet.
Democracy has disproved the cliché that only autocratic regimes can take decisive action. The city of Berlin built a 500-bed hospital in a few weeks—and did so without propaganda fanfare, in contrast to China. This crisis has shown that democracies can make tough decisions. Such accomplishments are not specific to Germany, however. They are shared across EU member states.
The response to the coronavirus has gone reasonably well in Germany, but singling out the country with exaggerated praise risks inflating a sense of exceptionalism that does not reflect the reality. The idea that Germany has done much better than others is now widespread in the country itself, too. Germany’s chief virologist claimed that Germany had “achieved something that no comparable country achieved.” This is not a position that invites learning and better preparation for future crises.
Germany has also seen some of the biggest demonstrations in Europe against coronavirus-related restrictions. This situation may fuel more of the extreme polarization that has emerged in the country in recent years. The far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is already trying to capitalize on fundamental opposition to the government measures, although the party’s credibility is low: in early March, it criticized the government for not closing down fast enough. Also, with Germany’s sixteen federal states now deciding on different levels of lifting restrictions, it is difficult to keep blaming the federal government.
In sum, despite a relatively competent government response to the crisis, there are political trends that need careful attention in Germany. Any sense of German exceptionalism is unlikely to help address these trends in ways helpful to democratic quality.
Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International in Berlin.