Meticulous and Orderly, Germany Can Handle a Pandemic

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s still early days in this pandemic, but not too early to venture a prediction: Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, will come out of it looking quite good. What’s more, she may look even better as the outbreak enters its second phase, in which lockdowns gradually yield to uneasy resumptions of social and economic life.

That’s because this pandemic won’t end with a made-for-television big bang. It’ll be managed patiently into remission, for a long time and through many setbacks, with sobriety, incrementalism and nuance. And, at the risk of stereotyping, these just happen to be traits characteristic of modern Germany generally, and Merkel in particular.

For Germany, doing “well” — in this pandemic as in most things — doesn’t mean being a pioneer. It wasn’t the first to contain an initial outbreak of Covid-19 with snazzy technology; that honor goes to Taiwan or South Korea. Nor is it the first to relax the current lockdown; that role is being played by neighboring Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic, whereas Germany just extended its school closures to May 3. Germany did, for a while, have one of the world’s lowest fatality rates. But even that number, currently 2.6%, has been rising, apparently reverting to the global mean.

What seems like a deterioration, however, also helps explain why Germany is getting so much right in this crisis. The death rate was low at the start because the country was unusually fast in rolling out widespread testing. As a result, it captured the many infections in the asymptomatic and younger population, while other countries were still mainly testing the old and overtly sick. More confirmed cases expanded the denominator, and thus reduced the mortality rate.

Meticulous and Orderly, Germany Can Handle a Pandemic

Germany also benefited from its federal structure, and in particular the decentralized architecture of its health care system. In that sense, it’s the opposite of centralized France, and of federal but dysfunctional America. In January, a Berlin lab developed the first test kits, then promptly shared them with 84 other labs in Germany’s 16 federal states, which passed them on to local hospitals and clinics. Now everybody’s ramping up testing.

By reacting to the outbreak early, Germany also bought itself time to build on other “preexisting” strengths. Even before Covid-19 struck, it had far more beds in intensive care units than most other countries. It has been adding many more. So Germany still has spare capacity: About 10,000 of the more than 22,000 beds are free. This lets its hospitals save the lives of more of the patients coming in, and even take some from France and Italy.

Yet another preexisting advantage, on the socioeconomic side, is a century-old labor law that prevents abrupt layoffs and lets employees get paid even when their work temporarily dries up. Called Kurzarbeit (literally “short work”), the program gets companies to keep paying staff up to 67% of their salaries even when there’s nothing to do, and the government reimburses them. More than 650,000 firms have signed up already, representing millions of employees, from bakers and cleaners to engineers. They and their families can stay financially resilient during the lockdown, and employees will be able to quickly return to work when the virus fades.

While much of this medical and social infrastructure was in place before the crisis, a big question was how a federal republic led by a lame-duck chancellor would fare politically. The U.S. under President Donald Trump, Merkel’s opposite in temperament, seems consumed by an ego clash between the White House and several state governors. Something similar could have happened in Germany.

But there’s no clash worth speaking of. The German equivalents of virus-fighting U.S. governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom are Bavaria’s Markus Soeder and North Rhine-Westphalia’s Armin Laschet. Though politically allied with Merkel, they’re in the running to succeed her next year, and could therefore seek trouble. But their quibbles are trifling: Laschet wants to reopen somewhat more swiftly; Soeder to err on the side of caution. They’re also polite, both with each other and with Merkel.

In part that’s because all German politicians, and citizens, seem to have sworn a secret oath to defer to experts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a culture where an email between old acquaintances is likely to open “Dear Mr. Prof. Dr. Schmidt.” But it again contrasts with the U.S. and its president, who appears viscerally threatened by his own infectious-diseases expert, Anthony Fauci.

The German debate about when and how to ease up on lockdowns, or to retighten them again later, will proceed differently than in some other places. The country almost feels more like a technocracy than a democracy right now. Indeed, the nominating convention for the race to succeed Merkel has just been postponed from this month to December at the earliest.

This week’s video conferences between the chancellor and the state premiers, for instance, largely debated the relative merits of one paper, by the German National Academy of Scientists, which called for selectively reopening schools for some age groups, and another, which urged keeping everything closed for another three weeks.

One criticism leveled at Germany and Merkel in recent years — by me and others — is that the country no longer dares to have big ideas or enact sweeping reforms, instead muddling through in a pusillanimous incrementalism of small steps. That mindset will be a problem again once Covid-19 recedes, because Germany still faces big long-term problems, from its aging population to its economic exhaustion.

But that critique belongs to a normal time, which 2020 is decidedly not. The flip side of Germany’s “small-steps” politics is order, reliability and dispassionate competence. It’s not exactly a recipe for vibrancy in good times. But it keeps more people safe when things are bad.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg's editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.