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Coronavirus 2.0: How Germany Could Lose Control

Coronavirus 2.0: How Germany Could Lose Control
 Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano
Senior Fellow - Germany

German Health Minister Jens Spahn was placed in solitary confinement, after testing positive for coronavirus on October 21, 2020. It was clear that the tide had turned for the health situation in Germany. The number of new contaminations, which had been growing moderately for several weeks, exploded between October 15-21, with a sudden rise from 8,523 to 12,331 new cases per day. Faced with this situation, Germany's strategy, which enabled the country to effectively manage the first wave of coronavirus, now appears weaker: in addition to the political turmoil that is shaking the country, a crisis of confidence in science is gradually gaining ground among the population. Could Germany lose control? Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano sheds light on the matter.

At the beginning of the 20th century, German philosopher Edmund Husserl observed a shift in attitude regarding science. In Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentake Phänomenologie(The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology), Husserl studied how European sciences are questioned, not so much in terms of their effectiveness, but rather in the general way science is recognized, considering what it implies for human existence: "In our vital need – so we are told – this science has nothing to say to us". 

By destroying the illusion that science is able to efficiently confront all phenomena, by calling into question the capacity of science to define a sustainable strategy to fight the virus, the coronavirus crisis could bring about a similar downturn in Europe. Can science still provide a basis for political decisions ?

Germany is the country that has relied the most on scientific rationality to fight the virus. 

The case of Germany is an interesting example in this regard. Indeed, Germany is the country that has relied the most on scientific rationality to fight the virus. Its strategy is based on early government intervention, targeted screening and isolation to break the chain of infection, as well as the use of a crisis communication procedure aimed at winning the population's support through rational explanations and calls for responsible behavior. 

Germany has thus managed to limit the number of virus-related deaths, without imposing too drastic confinement measures on its population – as was the case in other European states. By placing scientific rationality at the heart of its strategy, Germany has been able to opt for a middle way between the search for herd immunity and excessive control of its population. With a number of deaths per million inhabitants of 118.6 during the first wave of the epidemic - compared to 658.9 in the United Kingdom, 605.9 in Italy and 502 in France - Germany has a more favorable human toll than its main neighbors. But Germany's success during the first wave of Covid-19 does not shield it from a possible setback: on the contrary, this success could lead Germany to underestimate the urgency to act again.

An exponential growth

As explained by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a video gone viral due to its precision and pedagogy, the number of contaminations recorded in Germany is now increasing exponentially. On October 17, 2020, the Robert Koch National Institute of Public Health reported 7,830 new cases in 24 hours, a record since the beginning of the outbreak. While this result can be partly explained by the number of tests performed - Germany has been conducting an average of 1,160,000 tests per week since the middle of September, an average comparable to that of France - it also reflects a worrying health situation that could rapidly degenerate.

The epidemiological situation in Germany varies greatly from one region to another: while the rural region of Berchtesgaden, close to the Austrian border, was the first to reimpose total lockdown, Germany's urban centers currently represent the main sources of infection. With 100 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants as of October 20, Berlin holds the record for infections, far ahead the Länder of North Rhine (62.3), Baden-Württemberg (53.1), the city-state of Hamburg (52) and Bavaria (50.3). So far, the Eastern Länder, with their lower urbanization rate and population density, appear to be relatively unaffected.

Despite these disturbing new figures, the resources of the German healthcare system, especially its great number of intensive care beds, remain the main safeguard against an uncontrollable spread of the pandemic. As Reinhard Busse, Head of the Department of Health at the Technical University of Berlin explains: "We have to disrupt this current dynamic, not because it would overwhelm our hospitals’ capacity, but to avoid the pain of unnecessary infections and to minimize the long-term consequences of this crisis". As of October 15, Germany had a total of 655 patients in intensive care, while the number of intensive care beds at the federal level stood at 30,000.

While experts agree that the healthcare system is strong enough to cope with the second wave of coronavirus, they still want to warn people against a possible shortage of hospital staff, especially if the number of patients kept alive by artificial ventilation were to explode. They also argue that the conjunction of the flu epidemic with the coronavirus could be problematic, thus asking that the flu vaccine be made widely available.

A policy in search of public approval

The resources of the German healthcare system, especially its great number of intensive care beds, remain the main safeguard against an uncontrollable spread of the pandemic. 

On October 14, the Federal Government and the Länder decided to implement new progressive measures adapted to the reality of each given situation, in order to contain the spread of the virus. When on a given territory, the number of new cases exceeds 35 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last seven days, the number of people in private parties is limited to 15 and wearing masks shall become mandatory in heavily frequented public spaces. . From 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, public gatherings of more than 10 people shall be prohibited and a curfew from 11 P.M. shall be imposed on bars and restaurants. As of November 7, people having traveled to high-risk locations before entering German grounds shall be required to self-isolate for 5 days, before being tested.

The measures adopted on October 14, which are not easily remembered nor very restrictive, reflect the multiple difficulties currently faced by Germany in its management of the crisis:

  • The first difficulty is linked to the federal structure of the country. While, during the first phase of the pandemic, federalism emerged as an effective lever for adapting measures to local circumstances, Germany’s will to involve regional presidents in crisis management is now weakening its strategy. The controversy over the accommodation bans ("Beherbergungsverbote"), on which the Federal Government and the Länder were unable to agree, and the decisions taken by certain administrative courts to simply overturn curfew measures that they considered "disproportionate", illustrate the prevailing confusion at governmental level. The contrasting measures adopted from one Land to another, and their volatility in such uncertain circumstances, undoubtedly made the German public less willing to accept these very measures. According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Germans are in favour of unified measures across the country.
  • The second difficulty encountered by Germany is related to the return of parliamentary control, which had been put aside during the first phase of the pandemic. Last spring, Health Minister Jens Spahn passed the Infektionsschutzgesetz: new infection control laws granting extensive powers to the Ministry of Health, to implement rapid, centralized action during a pandemic. While Minister Spahn is seeking to use the rebound of the virus to maintain the powers granted by this law, the Bundestag, through its President Wolfgang Schäuble, has made it clear that the fight against the virus shall no longer be the sole responsibility of the Federal Government and the Länder, and that Parliament must now be involved in the development of Germany's strategy.
  • The third, more circumstantial difficulty, is linked to the weakening of the Chancellor's authority. At the conference with the Länder, while Marcus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria and Armin Laschet, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, stood as her would-be successors, Angela Merkel was unable to impose her views on the measures to be taken to overcome the pandemic. "My worry is still not gone" (Meine Unruhe ist nicht weg), she declared, in a video made public on October 14. Deeming the measures adopted by Germany to be insufficient, Angela Merkel called once again on Germans to take the situation seriously and, whenever possible, to "stay at home".

There is a growing indifference to the warnings of the medical community, and a willingness to lie with the virus, which is shown today by a large number of Germans.

Last spring, Germany's success in fighting the virus rested upon strong public support for the measures implemented by the government. What prompted this attitude was, on the one hand, the shock created by the outbreak of an unknown virus, and, on the other hand, the significant attention paid to the health recommendations that were given by the government and influential experts - such as Lothar Wieler, or Christian Drosten, who strived daily to explain the government's strategy through scientific arguments.

The Corona-Müdigkeit

Today, public support is undermined by the perceived loss of control exposed by the contradictory views rising at the governmental level, but also by acertain weariness towards anti-corona measures.This "Corona-Müdigkeit" (weariness) seems to be gradually winning over the entire population.

There is a growing indifference to the warnings of the medical community, and a willingness to lie with the virus, which is shown today by a large number of Germans. These two facts explain the success of the herd immunity theory in Germany, as defended in the Great Barrington Declaration. In a long interview given to Die Zeit, Klaus Stöhr, former SARS coordinator at the WHO, denounces Germany's lack of a long-term vision, and insists on the need to accept high levels of contamination, protecting only the most fragile people - a position also defended by epidemiologist Hendrick Streek, who has recently become a key reference in the German public debate.

In view of the expansion of this theory in Germany, Christian Drosten, member of the German Virology Society, published, on October 19, a warning against the positions defended by the Great Barrington Declaration, which could lead to a "loss of control" (Kontrollverlust) in the management of the epidemic.

Confidence in scientific rationality, which was key to Germany's strength during the first wave of the coronavirus, seems to be eroding. This is not only exposed by the influence of conspiracy theories or anti-vaccine movements within the "anti-mask" demonstrations, but also through public weariness towards confinement measures. While it may be too early to affirm that the second wave of the virus will have a greater impact on the country than the first one, Germany’s current situation reveals the pertinence of Husserl’s questioning: in this new reality wherein the virus will last a while, which scientific reasoning should we base our decisions on?


Copyright : Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

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