What’s gone so awry in Germany? After emerging relatively unscathed from the coronavirus first wave, Europe’s heavy-weight centrist democracy has been devastated by the crush of the second. Amid what some sections of the national media have dubbed a vaccination “debacle”, chancellor Angela Merkel says that the third wave of the virus has begun.
The sense of unease is palpable, the political class on tenterhooks in the midst of a regional electoral cycle before national polls in six months. Measures to slowly open the economy after more than three months of hard lockdown, were forestalled this week, because the figures have started to rise dramatically again.
For the second year running, Easter church services will be virtual. Holiday gatherings will be a maximum of two families and no more than five people in total. Plans to resume outdoor restaurant dining, theatres and sporting venues in regions with low infections rates have been shelved.
Schools are an anxiety-generating mish-mash of stop-start open and closed.
By certain measures Germany continues to fare better than its neighbours — placing 40th on a list of 46 countries by case numbers per 100,000 population, for example. But the base line reality, not to say public perception here, is that a significant early advantage in the fight against the pandemic has been squandered.
German start-up BioNTech devised the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, but Germany couldn’t use it while waiting, like a prisoner to solidarity, for European Union approval. Then there were doubts about the effectiveness of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca jab for recipients 65-years and older. Today, 55% of new coronavirus cases in Germany are the faster spreading British variant — the main reason behind Merkel’s alarming ‘third wave’ pronouncement.
Less than 7% of Germans have received a first Covid-19 vaccine shot (in the UK, the figure is 33%), with a strict, overly complex roll-out based on priority groupings getting the blame. People are reporting long telephone waiting times to make appointments at special vaccine centres. And General Practitioners, to their chagrin and rising anger, are not yet allowed to vaccinate against Covid-19.
“We are ready,” said German Medical Association president, Ulrich Weigeldt. “We vaccinate 25 million people against influenza every year. We have the expertise to administer all three licensed vaccines in our practices. And not … when the bureaucracy has finally faced up to reality, but immediately, on a large scale and across the country.”
Things began to unravel in Germany in late September. Deftly juggling statistics, Merkel warned that the daily case load would triple to 19,200 by Christmas, only to be howled down by the state premiers of Saxony and Thuringia, among other dissident voices, for causing unnecessary worry, “hysteria” even, in local populations.
‘Lockdown light’ was the result, until mid-December when, amid spiralling numbers, a hard lockdown was called. By then the system of track-and-trace, which worked so successfully through local authorities in the first wave, had been overwhelmed. “It was she who was right, and I who was wrong”, said far-left Thuringia premier, Bodo Ramelow. But by then it was too late. In December, a staggering 16,000 Germans died of coronavirus, more than for the whole period March to November.
There were other problems. In the “Summer of Carelessness”, to quote Georg Mascolo writing in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, “there was not enough support given to nursing and old people’s homes”; a coronavirus app “did not become the moon landing the chancellor’s office promised,” and the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, decrying Merkel’s “coronavirus dictatorship”, put a block (eventually lifted) on legislation designed to free her hand. The result? “In the biggest crisis of her career, Merkel could not do as she wanted”.
At the DIW think tank in Berlin, Holger Schäfer has said that German authorities “rested on their laurels a little” in the (northern) Summer. “We did not prepare for the second wave that came in the autumn. (We did not) develop a concept that would hold — on re-opening schools, on testing, on vaccination. We thought that we would do well again, and found ourselves rather powerless when the second wave struck”.
Beyond the shocking loss of life — as if that weren’t enough — it matters that Germany has faltered in the face of the crisis, despite or perhaps because of, its moderate federalist compromise culture. Democracy in Europe is under pressure.
Increasingly illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland have undermined the primacy of elections; compromised the system of justice and unleashed an exultant brand of nationalism.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, before gambling — thus far successfully, thankfully, on an all-out vaccine solution — underestimated the danger of Covid-19 and resolutely sponsored a policy of herd immunity, that may have cost lives. The UK’s vaccine record looks less impressive, however, when the percentages describe not just one but two doses, or “full vaccination”: Germany, 3.2%; UK 1.9% of the total population.
Germans still have higher levels of confidence in their government and institutions than the French, British and Italians, according to a recent survey by the OpinionWay pollster in Paris. But in the political, economic and psychological drama of the pandemic (and eventual aftermath), a total of six regional polls before 26 September national elections — without Merkel, stepping down after 16 years as chancellor — look decidedly risky.
If the ruling CDU-CSU can’t fix the vaccine “debacle”, as an editorial in leading newsweekly Der Spiegel described it, whoever her successor finally is may well be drawn and quartered at the ballot box.
The broader canvas was highlighted in a world democratic score card published by The Economist Intelligence Unit last month. There are just 23 bona fide democracies still standing on the planet, while authoritarian and pseudo-democratic hybrid regimes now govern more than half of humanity. Just over 8 percent of the world’s population still live in democracy, the EIU concluded, and democratic freedoms are being eroded, including in Europe.