In its management of the coronavirus, Germany has been a role model that has caused the same admiration as envy around the world.
With good reason: The curve flattened out. The number of people who are infected daily is stable. The absolute number of deaths and the case fatality rate remain low compared to other countries. In addition, the reproductive factor — a key metric for measuring the spread of the virus — is around one, which means that, on average, an infected person only infects another person.. The first wave of the virus has passed. Germany is cautiously reopening its business.
However, as its measures become more flexible, with the opening of stores, schools and even museums, the country is learning a hard lesson: leaving is much more difficult than entering. Relaxing containment measures, even in relatively successful conditions, involves a great deal of difficulty.
Instead, the path to confinement was relatively straightforward. When the number of infections started to accelerate in early March, German politicians hit the brakes. By mid-March, public life had completely stopped. Schools, kindergartens, and most stores closed, as did the country's borders. Social distancing measures were introduced and meetings of more than two people were prohibited. People were encouraged to stay home, although they could still go for a walk, buy food and exercise. At the same time, Germany increased the number of intensive care beds and quadrupled its ability to administer tests.
On March 18, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a message to the nation in a televised address in which she spoke with an unusual emotion and shock in her. "This is serious," he said. "Take it seriously. Since the day of German reunification, no, since the Second World War, our country had not faced a challenge that depended so punctually on all of us acting in solidarity. ”
It was a moment of national unity and solidarity, something that seemed to be valuable in a political era still marked by the aftermath of the 2015 migration crisis. Lawmakers from all political camps almost unanimously emphasized the seriousness of the situation and agreed to the cure. The German people understood and obeyed.
By early May, the measures appeared to have worked. Even the wisest virus watchers allowed themselves expressions of cautious relief. "It is our duty to protect the citizens of Germany as best we can," Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, known for his sobriety, said at a press conference on May 5. "We have done very well so far, as the figures show," he added.
Other epidemiologists were also optimistic, but cautious. "You can say that infections are under control," said Stefan Willich, director of the Institute of Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin. "Until now, the German health system has been far from being saturated at all times with this crisis"
Experts agree that Germany was lucky that the virus came a little later. The suffering in Italy, and before that in China, was sobering: German citizens knew the risks and adapted accordingly. And, most importantly, both the politicians and the country's health system proved to be up to the task. "I was surprised to see how flexible the German healthcare system reacted to the crisis”Wolfgang Greiner, professor of health care economics at the University of Bielefeld, told me. Both the market - most laboratories are private, like most hospitals - and the political leadership worked.
On May 6, the country's sixteen states agreed to relax confinement. The guiding principle is regional autonomy, according to which in general terms each state is in charge of its reopening and only has to follow some common guidelines. There is a condition: if the number of new cases rises above 50 per 100,000 inhabitants over the course of seven days in any area, local authorities must re-implement the restrictions.
Experts disagree with the logic of the strategy. "Instead of knocking the whole country out of action with a national shutdown, we now have a better oversight system in place and can react regionally," said Greiner, who is in favor of the strategy. However, Karl Lauterbach, a Social Democratic Party legislator and epidemiologist, disagrees. "The way we are getting out of quarantine is not systematic", he told me. He fears that each state will try to outdo the others as they all try to kick-start regional economies and satisfy voters' hunger for a living.
However, the real problem is much deeper. The economy is in disarray: 10.1 million Germans have applied for wage subsidies; many have become unemployed, especially those with precarious jobs or in the service sector. Projections suggest that the economy, which has officially entered a recession, will shrink between six and twenty percent. The loss in tax revenue will be considerable: almost 100,000 million euros, or 108,000 million dollars, according to a calculation. And the country's debt burden will skyrocket.
The question is who will pay. This dilemma is likely to define the coming months and years, and spark a dirty lobbying war (as companies compete for concessions, support and contracts) and political turmoil. The Social Democratic Party wants to "tax the wealthy," while Christian Democrats are expected to re-introduce their old idea of cutting corporate taxes. Your government coalition could fracture. More difficulties lie ahead.
Likewise, right now, old and new demons are loose on the streets. Just a few weeks ago, the Germans looked down on the Americans protesting at gunpoint against the emergency shutdown. However, that "schadenfreude" (the German word for gloating over the suffering of others) was short-lived. On May 8, thousands of protesters - a wide mix of extremists, conspiracy theorists and ordinary citizens, mostly supported by the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party - took to the streets of major German cities, such as Berlin. , Munich and Stuttgart, to claim that their rights were threatened and proclaim conspiracy theories. On Saturday, they took to the streets again: 5,000 gathered in Stuttgart and minor demonstrations were seen across the country.
The protesters spoke for very few: an evident majority of the population supports the restrictions. However, it is a bitter irony that, in the country's brief moment of vindication, all the old conflicts are re-emerging. That makes the initial union seem superficial, a product of our survival instincts rather than compassionate reflection.
So instead of solidarity, we have a fight. Instead of unity, division. It seems that this is also the new normal for Germany.
* c. 2020 The New York Times Company