There is an age-old image of the German: precise, rule-following, clean, somewhat distant. Whatever we may have thought of those qualities before, in the age of COVID-19 they happen to be exactly what we want to see in our neighbours.
So everyone is looking to the Germans – especially since Germany, which was hit hard by the new coronavirus in February and March – has done a better job than most Western countries in flattening, and then sending downward, its infection curve.
Recent envious headlines include “How Germany successfully managed coronavirus” and “Why the world is looking to Angela Merkel" and “Germany’s exemplary COVID-19 response.”
It is an irresistible image, especially for people in countries such as the United States and Britain, where incompetent leadership has sent infection rates spiralling. By comparison, Germany, as The Los Angeles Times put it, has "a trained scientist at the helm, a generally rule-following public and an enviable health-care system.”
Which is half true – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scientific background has indeed made her a great public health communicator. Germans are probably more prone to washing their hands than other Europeans, and their hospitals are good, despite (or perhaps because of) being a complex mishmash of private and public systems. Germany does have more intensive-care beds and ventilators than most countries and it contact-traced cases from the beginning.
But the image of the rule-following, careful German is an obsolete cliché far removed from reality. Most of Germany’s chaotic, messy pandemic-policy debates have been attempts to get around the fact that a lot of German citizens will not obey strong restrictions on behaviour.
That’s apparent in two new studies, one from the University of Mannheim and the other led by the University of Erfurt. They found that about three-quarters of Germans follow rules such as keeping a 1.5-metre distance from others or covering your face at the supermarket. Only about half believe the virus is scary or threatening. And a majority of German adults continue to greet people by shaking their hands.
Ominously, only two-thirds of Germans said they’d agree to be inoculated against COVID-19 if a vaccine were found. That reflects another truth about Germany: It has long had one of the highest rates of belief in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories in Europe, along with a lot of other pseudo-scientific woo.
This should not be entirely surprising. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the defeat of one brutal German dictatorship, and the 30th of the end of another in the country’s east. There are any number of reasons why groups of Germans might be instinctively distrustful of higher authority.
And Ms. Merkel has not been able to deliver scientifically informed policy from on high. That would be impossible, under a postwar constitution specifically crafted to prevent centralization of power. Every policy decision has involved lengthy, multiday debates between her and the 16 states, all of them with complex multiparty coalition governments, many skeptical of any restriction on activity.
So there has been no attempt to have lockdowns (except in the hard-hit state of Bavaria), just work-from-home requests that have been followed sporadically. I know Berliners whose employers never closed their offices, despite employee requests to work remotely.
Germany has not, contrary to reports, excelled at testing. Its testing rates are only slightly ahead of the average for industrialized countries. Only people strongly suspected of needing hospitalization generally get tested. Even if you have a bad cough and a fever, or were exposed to someone with the disease, you will often be refused. Only this week did the federal parliament pass a bill that will permit the testing of asymptomatic people.
The biggest contrast is in quarantine. If you fly to New Zealand (with 21 COVID deaths so far), or to Taiwan (seven deaths), you’ll be required to enter a forced, guarded two-week quarantine. If you fly to Hong Kong (four deaths), you will be given a COVID-19 test and required to wait in an airport holding room for eight hours to get results.
If you fly to Germany today, you are given a slip of paper asking if you have been to the Chinese province of Hubei or in contact with a known infected person. You are then asked, but not ordered, to stay home for two weeks.
So far, 7,861 Germans have died of the coronavirus – more than in Iran – and there are about 100 new deaths every day. Germany’s success in getting that rate down, and its ability to monitor the spread, have been reassuring. But it’s not the country we all want to imitate.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
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