A year ago, my family and I were fortunate to be living in the safest, happiest, best-governed place you could imagine spending a pandemic.
Berlin had COVID-19 cases, but we knew the precise location of each one – they were published in the newspapers every day. And though we spent that April mostly stuck in our neighbourhood, which pretty much became an open-air cocktail bar, the carefully calibrated planning behind Germany’s highly organized health and political systems – led by a scientist-chancellor whose advice was respected and followed by most citizens – made us feel secure. The Germans had figured it out.
Or so it seemed.
Last weekend, Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on TV, distraught and apologetic, admitting that the disease was out of control and that her efforts to cut a spiraling infection rate by negotiating an urgently needed Easter shutdown had failed.
Deaths are mounting, and airport-sized vaccination centres are nearly empty. Instead, Germans are watching the British end their mismanaged pandemic with millions of German-made vaccine doses. Half the country seems to be leaving for vacation this weekend, against Ms. Merkel’s desperate requests and without major restrictions – even though vacations twice brought the disease to Germany.
What caused the German pandemic machine to blow its head gasket?
Germany is not the only place where the pandemic has shattered national self-conceptions. Swedes believed their equality and social cohesion alone would get them through it, but they forgot that some Swedes still had to take the bus to their crowded essential-work jobs. Italians thought face-kissing Mediterranean lassitude would be their ruin; they ended up being masters of discipline in beating back the first wave. The Brits abandoned stiff upper lips for a quivering grimace of panicked incompetence.
But it’s Germans who were in for the nastiest surprise.
Their medical system is one of the world’s best, with more ICU beds and ventilators per capita than almost anyone; they had detailed tracing and testing systems and vaccination centres organized months ahead. Last April, I visited the town hall in Berlin’s Pankow district and found hundreds of young people in cubicles, spending hours on the phone with each infected person, and then with each person who was, say, on their Tuesday-morning tram – a huge contact-tracing bureaucracy that appeared overnight. It was the most German thing I’d seen.
In May, as our kid returned to in-person school and I held lectures in (distanced) halls and planned a safe train vacation to Cologne, I was reassured by what some called Germany’s “ratchet system”: as infection rates fell, freedoms became possible – but if those monitored cases rose, restrictions would be returned.
But as early as the second week of May, I had noticed that the “ratchet down” half of this system was falling afoul of two other well-known German characteristics. One is a constitution that places most power in the hands of 16 state premiers, whose political ambitions often challenge those of the chancellor. The other is a fetishization of vacations to sunspots during religious holidays – a middle-class ritual that is treated as an inviolable sacrament by those 16 premiers, especially during an election year.
On Sept. 26, Germans will go to the polls in the first election since 2002 without Angela Merkel on the ballot. Her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has still not chosen a candidate to replace her on the ticket; the party hopes to do so by the end of May. As the pandemic runs rampant, however, they are collapsing in the polls.
The leading candidate is Armin Laschet, the current leader of the CDU and the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the largest and one of the wealthiest states. He faces a challenge from Markus Söder, the more conservative premier of the even wealthier state of Bavaria.
While the two men have struggled to portray themselves as crowd-pleasing alternatives, they have scorned the advice of their lame-duck Chancellor. Her efforts to negotiate 17-way compromises, which had been successful twice last year, collapsed tragically and chaotically this spring.
It’s been clear for more than a year that by far the most significant spreader of COVID-19 is vacation travel. It could be argued that neither Germany nor Canada would have any infections but for their citizens’ vacation habits.
But that was the one thing that the premiers refused to touch – not last summer, when it brought a second wave home, and not this spring, either. This week, there have been 60 to 70 full German vacation flights a day to the Spanish island of Mallorca alone, which will host an estimated 40,000 Germans over Easter.
This combination of feuding, slow-responding premiers and a lack of will to put an end to deadly southbound vacation travel ought to sound familiar to Canadians. In Germany, everyone expected better.
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