Covid is back... and so is the finger wagging
Discussion of the pandemic in the German media is too moralistic.
The coronavirus numbers are once again shooting into the stratosphere and the word “lockdown” has reared its ugly head in political circles.
This Friday I’m taking a closer look at the numbers; I’m reviewing the German media to give you a roundup of the most influential analysis; finally, I’m giving my own take on what the news means.
Never on a single day since the start of the pandemic have as many cases of infection with Sars-Cov-2 been reported in Germany as this morning. Just over 37,000 cases in one day came on the heels of 34,000 new cases yesterday. Both those figures beat a previous record set in late December 2020.
The situation on hospital wards isn’t as serious as it was at the height of last winter. But there are a similar number of intensive care beds occupied by Covid patients as there were at this point last year - 2,400 now in comparison with 2,600 then.
Meanwhile, the news in terms of fatalities isn’t any better. A total of 154 more deaths in connection with the virus were registered on November 5th, 2021. A year ago on the same day 118 deaths were registered.
The word lockdown, which politicians have been avoiding for weeks, has been uttered once again. Michael Kretschmer, state leader in Saxony, has appealed for a new corona summit so that the mistakes of last year can be avoided. “We need to protect this country from a lockdown,” he said.
Given that the country has spent the past 10 months engaged in an expensive and time-intensive campaign to vaccinate as much of the population as possible, how has it come to this?
What the German press are saying
Christian Endt, a data journalist at Die Zeit, says that the recent rise in cases and hospitalizations is just the latest example that Germany’s “bungling” politicians aren’t up to the task.
“For over 20 months, their handling of the virus has been based on hope: wait as long as possible, act reassuringly, ignore any warnings from experts, hope that maybe it won’t be so bad after all. Unfortunately, it has been bad every time.”
According to Endt, the government, could have done much more to raise Germany’s vaccination rate, which lags behind some European neighbours.
“There has been no lack of ideas: a multilingual advertising campaign, a letter to all those with health insurance, a TV address by the Chancellor, vaccinations and advice outside supermarkets, home visits by social workers, and much more.”
But instead of implement these ideas, politicians have been content to hope that the situation will sort itself out, Endt says.
His colleague at Die Zeit, Jakob Simmank, sees things differently. He says that too much pressure put on sceptics to get vaccinated can end up being counterproductive.
“It has been more difficult in Germany than in other countries such as Denmark, Spain or Great Britain because a substantial part of the population doesn’t want to be vaccinated.”
Simmank suggests that the government should not “randomly spray around” its vaccine campaign but evaluate which demographics can be won over and focus resources on them. He also urges the government to offer everyone a booster jab because “everyone who gets sick and ends up in hospital is a burden on the system.”
Another issue that is often raised is the slow roll out of booster vaccinations for the elderly. The German vaccine commission recommends a third jab for everyone over the age of 70 due to the fact that the immune response weakens a few months after the second jab.
At the moment just 2.4 percent of the population have had their third jab.
Especially relevant is the situation in care homes where close to a third of all Covid deaths have taken place. In the past few days, mass outbreaks have been reported at care homes in Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg, each of which led to scores of deaths.
This week, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung attempted to find out how many residents of care homes have received their booster vaccine. The results varied between 50 percent in Berlin and 90 percent in North-Rhine Westphalia. Often though, the local health authorities simply didn’t know the answer.
In light of the rising numbers of cases in care homes, Die Welt has called for vaccine mandates for carers. The conservative newspaper has previously been critical of aggressive state intervention during the pandemic. But a change in tone was notable this week.
“In Germany, there are many wolves currently prowling through our cities and villages: the wolves are those who refuse to be vaccinated,” wrote lead opinion writer Jacques Schuster.
Schuster goes on to say that: ”It’s a scandal that in nursing homes old people are dying because some of the staff won’t get vaccinated. One could almost speak of manslaughter, in any case of negligent homicide.”
The Süddeutsche Zeitung, meanwhile, is concerned that too little is being done to protect children from an infection.
“If the virus continues to spread as rapidly in the younger age groups as it has in recent weeks, up to 30,000 children may have to be hospitalized with Covid-19 by spring - the healthcare system could barely cope with even half that number. Instead of finally getting serious about protecting children, many regions have ended compulsory masks in schools,” writes the Munich-based newspaper’s science correspondent Hanno Charisius.
Barely a month into the autumn and the German media have already switched back into their most comfortable mode of moralistic finger wagging (favourite targets: complacent politicians and free-loading anti-vaxxers). The thread that ties all of their analyses together is the assumption that if we were all a bit better behaved we could beat this together.
This is disingenuous.
Are booster jabs really the Wunderheilmittel that is claimed? A study from Israel has shown that they are effective at reducing the risk of serious illness in comparison with double vaccination. But using those doses here means they are not being used in parts of the world with lower vaccine rates. That makes it more likely that a new variant will emerge elsewhere that will render vaccines less effective - thus potentially prolonging the pandemic. This is the reason why the WHO has been calling for a fair distribution of vaccines across the globe.
It is far from clear that vaccinated people are significantly less infectious than unvaccinated people. Recent research in the UK concluded that whether someone is vaccinated or not makes little to no difference to whether they spread the virus in their household. In light of this, comparing unvaccinated people to wolves is needlessly inflammatory.
Similarly, the emphasis on introducing vaccine mandates for carers disregards the fact that a vaccinated carer can still bring the virus into a care home. It might not stir the passions to the same extent, but a call for comprehensive testing of all carers, every day would be more compatible with the actual state of the evidence.
The blinkered focus on one issue in the German media is egregious. The high rate of hospitalisation among children in recent weeks is down to other respiratory illnesses, particularly the RSV virus, which are benefiting from a lack of natural immunity among children caused by mask wearing. Spreading fear about the dangers of Covid for children (kids under ten are more likely to drown or die in a car accident) ignores all the negative consequences for this age group (both for their health and social development) that come through continued distancing rules.
Opinion makers have now started to say that getting vaccinated is primarily an act of solidarity because you won’t end up taking up a hospital bed and putting the healthcare system under strain. This disregards what we have known from the very beginning - this is a pandemic of the old and the sick. Instigating witch hunts against healthy young people (like footballer star Joshua Kimmich), who choose not to get vaccinated, ignores the fact healthy young people have at no point in the past 20 months put a strain on the health care system.
Any realistic analysis of the current situation has to consider the uncertainties we are dealing with. We don’t know how the virus is going to mutate in the future. We don’t know how long the current vaccines will be effective against mutations. We don’t know whether more people will be prepared to get vaccinated in coming years, or whether the huge effort that has been put into the campaigns this time around marks a high point.
Given this uncertainty we need to accept that, whatever we do, the virus may keep putting a strain on the health system (and keep costing lives) for the foreseeable future.
Politicians, by ruling out further lockdowns have responded to a very natural need to normalcy among the public, who have grown distrustful of promises that this will all be over by a certain date.
Too many German journalists still seem to stuck in simple narratives of identifying culprits and ending the pandemic. “If just a few more twenty somethings would show a bit more solidarity and get vaccinated…”. That is not what is going to solve this.