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An apology - 60 years too late
I hoped you enjoyed the first Sunday of advent. Today: more bad news on inflation, an apology over thalidomide, and more. Please keep telling friends about the newsletter.
Steep rise in child murders
It is a shocking number: in the first year of the pandemic, 152 children in Germany were murdered before they reached their 18th birthdays.
Child protection groups have said the deaths were the result of children being locked up at home with violent family members during two lockdowns. A comparison with the danger posed to children by the virus reveals the imbalance: in the same timeframe just four children were confirmed as having died due to an infection with Sars-Cov-2.
This is one of the reasons why almost no one is talking about closing German schools again this winter. The Leopoldina - Germany’s national academy of science - called for a sweeping lockdown this weekend, but made clear that that any restrictions should exclude school closures.
While there are many good reasons to insist that school closures should never again be used as a tool against the coronavirus, the dramatic headline on murder statistics is actually misleading.
It is true that the 152 deaths represents a steep rise on 2019, when 112 children were murdered. But it is actually - tragically - nothing unusual. In 2017, a total of 143 minors died due to violence. Over the past 15 years, the number has swung between a low of 108 and a high of 186 deaths.
This is an astonishingly high number, and proof that Germany needs to invest more in child protection. At the same time, the figure for 2020 can’t be taken as evidence that lockdowns kill.
The same, of course, goes for the other mortality figures we are confronted with these days. The number of new Covid deaths published by the Robert Koch Institute every morning have a shock effect, but they can only be properly understood within the context of overall mortality. And the numbers there provide a murkier picture.
Contergan - an apology at last
Six decades after the sleeping pill Contergan was withdrawn from the shelves of pharmacies, the head of the German firm that developed the pill known in English as Thalidomide has finally apologized.
Michael Wirtz, head of the family-run pharmaceutical firm Grünenthal GmbH, apologized for “the entirety of the past 60 years.” He added that the apology was intended for “a large and also essentially unknown number of affected people in Germany, but also in Europe.”
Thousands of German children were born with severe deformities in the 1950s and early 1960s after pregnant women took the sleeping pill as a cure for morning sickness. It was considered so harmless that it didn’t even require a prescription.
Scientists at the time did not think that the drugs could be passed through the placental barrier, meaning that use by pregnant women was not strictly controlled.
It is hard to overstate just what a psychological impact the Contergan scandal had on Germany. A historian I interviewed recently for an article on homeopathy told me that the resultant crisis of confidence in modern medicine almost single handedly led to the revival of alternative medicines in the 1970s.
These days Contergan is once again on the tip of many people’s tongues. Anti-vaxxers regularly mention Contergan and the “human experiments” carried out on children in the 1950s as a parallel for vaccinating people with novel mRNA vaccines today.
That comparison is no doubt unjustified. Ethical standards have been tightened and studies are more rigorous. Furthermore, obsessing over one failure of modern science obscures the amazing advances in health care over the past century.
In my opinion though, the story of Contergan is still a cautionary tale against giving governments the power to mandate medical procedures. Even if we think we have excluded every possible risk, there is surely no such thing as 100 percent certainty with any new medicine.
The ultimate decision on whether to use a medicine must always lie with the individual.
Are the rich the real victims?
The Federal Statistics Agency released the inflation rate for November this afternoon - and once again it made for painful reading. Prices are on average 5.2 percent higher than 12 months ago - that’s the sharpest increase in three decades.
Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank insists that this is just a passing phase. Some German economists worry though that the ECB is deluding itself. The central bank knows that long-term inflation needs to be treated with a rise in interest rates. But such a move could lead to a serious headache after over a decade of super-loose monetary policy. Read my piece on that here.
Domestically, Germany’s most influential economic think tank, the Institute for Economic Research (Ifo), has come to the conclusion that the rich are suffering more under the price rises than the poor.
Soaring energy costs mean that inflation is being felt particularly acutely at petrol pumps, while a global chip shortage has pushed up the price of new cars.
“The high prices for fuel and cars account for a much larger share of monthly expenses for richer households [than the equivalent for low income households],” explained Ifo researcher Timo Wollmershäuser.
Price rises for households with an income of €5,000 have been 4.8 percent, while families earning €1,300 have only had to deal with increases of 4 percent, Wollmershäuser and his team calculated.
This conclusion didn’t go down well with Christoph Butterwegge, a political scientist at Cologne University. “I find it mean and paradoxical to claim that rich people are the victims of inflation,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung today.
Butterwegge pointed out a fairly glaring omission in the Ifo’s calculations.
While the poorest Germans live hand to mouth, wealthier ones can rely on assets, which have boomed in recent years. “Since the increase in the value of shares and real estate more than compensates for the higher cost of living, the rich can easily put inflationary developments behind them,” he argued.
Why does Prof Butterwegge believe that richer Germans have been able to avoid inflationary pressures, while the poor and middle classes suffer? He points the finger at the ECB, whose monetary policy has stoked a housing price boom, while eating into savings stowed away on a humble Sparbuch.
Surely he’s not accusing the German establishment of blindness to the burdens of EU policy making?
What else has been happening?
Suspected cases of infection with the Omikron variant of SARS-Cov-2 have been identified in Bavaria, Hessen and North-Rhine Westphalia. All the cases are people who have recently arrived from southern Africa.
Public employees at the state level are to get a salary increase of close to 3 percent plus a one-off bonus of €1,300 for their work during the pandemic. Among the beneficiaries are staff at state-run hospitals. Union boss Frank Werneke said the agreement “provides tangible improvements for a whole range of health care workers.” For more on how a lack of nurses has exacerbated the crisis on intensive care stations, read here.
The Constitutional Court will announce its ruling tomorrow on whether the Notbremse lockdown in April was enforced in compliance with the constitution. (Read my piece on the prologue to the decision here). Just hours after the ruling is announced, Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz and the state leaders will meet to discuss the next round of pandemic restrictions. The timing is no coincidence…