GP Insights # 339, 18 April 2020
The health minister of Germany, Jens Spahn, said on 17 April that the virus was under control in Germany. Along with several European countries - Denmark, Austria, and Sweden, Germany now prepares to take its first tentative steps out of lockdown next week.
Smaller shops in Germany are due to re-open from 20 April with some students set to return to school by 4 May. Restrictions will continue to remain on large public gatherings and events. The decision for a soft-opening has come after the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control released the data showing that Germany's person-to-person infection rate had dropped to 0.7, indicating that each person carrying the virus is now infecting less than one person on an average.
Germany would now increase its production of face masks to over 50 million face masks a week by August and a contact-tracing app would be available for download within three to four weeks that would keep tracing any new positive cases.
What is the background?
Three primary factors have contributed to Germany's success in managing both its mortality and contagion rates as against the other European countries like Italy, Spain, and France.
First, Germany was an early bird in its response to the virus. The German laboratories and hospitals took an early lead in preparing for the onslaught and social-distancing measures were in place comparatively early. This has helped Germany to adopt more aggressive testing of 1,00,000 asymptomatic and symptomatic patients per day.
Second, Germany had used its decentralized health structure to its fullest in tracing the contagion. Germany may not have done mass testing at the highest rates — as was seen in South Korea, but its testing was meticulous and orderly.
Third, the leadership of Merkel and the coordination between the 16 federal states/Länder was optimum. Germany benefited from its federal structures as against the centralized structures in France or ill-coordinated federalism in the US. Besides, Germany's pre-existing labour policy (Kurzarbeit) to prevent abrupt layoffs ensured that companies kept paying staff up to 67 per cent of their salaries even when there is nothing to do, and in turn, the government reimbursed the companies. More than 6,50,000 firms have signed up under the policy representing millions of employees, from small scale enterprises making the middle-class financially resilient.
What does it mean?
First, it is a big success story on how a federal democracy can fight an emergency. The soft re-opening commemorates the success story of the German federalism. With the re-opening, the federal states will again have to work in unison and avoid competing to see who relaxes restrictions first, thereby declaring their state as virus-free too early.
Second, the easing of the lockdown indicates respect towards the country's difficult economic situation. The government has started by picking the small shop owners over larger business houses, thereby easing the likely shocks while kickstarting the economy.
Third, the gradual relaxation of the lockdown appears to be a balancing act to ensure that the gain in popularity by the Christian Democratic Union throughout the pandemic remains. As the curve flattens and before the citizens become impatient with the strict measures, the gradual re-opening of the small economies will help in strengthening Merkel's popularity. In a matter of weeks until the surge in the coronavirus cases, CDU's popularity index transitioned from being low to high.
The challenges to Merkel's leadership with the debates about AfD's direct and indirect political influence in Thuringia state elections, the resignation of her chosen successor in the CDU and shootings in Hanau have been systematically overturned with a swift and efficient leadership in containing the pandemic.
The biggest lesson from Germany is how a federal democracy can fight and win, without politicizing issues.