Where are the excess deaths?

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Jörg & Axel

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We’re taking a closer look at the powers given to German spies to eavesdrop on politicians. A declaration by The Federal Agency for Protection of the Constitution that the AfD are a “Verdachstfall” is reportedly imminent. But it’s not just the far-right who have found themselves into the crosshairs of the secret services. Politicians from Die Linke and even the Greens have been spied upon. These are capabilities unheard of in other democracies. Arguably, Germany’s history makes such controls necessary. But is the system open to abuse?

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From zero to hero

How quickly a country can go from zero to hero in the pandemic has been illustrated by the reputation of the UK. Just weeks ago Angela Merkel was muttering about “the British virus” as she brought in tougher new lockdown measures. Now though the UK is the envy of the Bundesrepublik, as it has managed to vaccinate 14 percent of its population while Germany is still lagging behind on 2.5 percent.

Economists have lamented “a disastrous failure” in the EU’s purchase strategy, while even conservative politicians are contemplating something akin to a war-time economy - essentially forcing pharma companies to give up the recipes to their marvellous medicines so that the Swabian Hausfrau can start cooking them up at home.

Is Britain's new golden boy reputation really deserved? Who knows? They rushed through emergency approvals for the first three vaccines (meaning they waive the pharma firm’s liability) and have been pumping the Aldi-priced AstraZeneca jab into oldies’ arms. Given that German vaccine commission isn’t sure that that vaccine is actually effective for the over 65s, should we be so jealous of the rapid progress being made over on yon isle?

But the press and the political class have decided: the EU has bolloxed up the vaccine strategy. Heads must roll!

Ms Merkel has responded by organizing a “vaccine summit” that ran late into the evening on Monday. In attendance are representatives of the German states, the EU Commission and the evil pharma firms. But the fact that the summit is more a publicity stunt than anything was given away beforehand when Merkel’s spokesman said that “no one should expect any concrete results.”

The case that is being made against the EU by German economists, journalists and politicians alike is that the Commission cut too lax a deal in its negotiations with the pharma firms. At least two of the contracts commit the companies to only making “best efforts” to deliver the vaccines on time. That phrasing has since been used by AstraZeneca as a get-out-of-jail card for the fact that it will only deliver half the doses it promised for the first quarter.

At the same time, “best effort” clauses are apparently standard in contracts for products still in development. Why would a company make itself liable for delivery of a product it is not even sure will make it onto the market? Until we see the details of the UK and US contracts, I’m inclined to believe this “failing” in the purchase strategy is media hype.

The vaccine providers can’t provide enough doses because they simply don’t have enough facilities. Neither the EU ordering twice the quantity of doses, nor it threatening the companies with huge fines, is going to change that. And neither is a hastily organized summit at the Chancellery...

(N.B. Germany has been fairly quiet on the Commission’s real blunder - trying to erect a hard border in Ireland to stop vaccine exports to the UK, something even the most pro-Brussels papers in Britain were furious about. But, as we were taught in school history lessons, sometimes you learn more about your source from what it doesn’t say than from what it does.)


Where are the excess deaths?

Another interesting discussion that has been going on in the past few days is over so-called “excess deaths” in 2020. The Federal Statistics Agency released its raw mortality figures for 2020 last week and it made for interesting reading.

On the face of it, the 982,489 deaths represented an increase of 48,000 on the average for the previous four years. That would tie in pretty neatly with the 39,200 that were recorded as Covid deaths by the Robert Koch Institute.

But it’s not that simple. Calculating excess deaths actually requires some modelling, which leaves a bit of room for interpretation. Important variables are changes in the total population, changes in the county’s demographic make-up (an older population can expect more deaths), and increasing life expectancy.

Based on these factors, various experts have come up with numbers for the actual excess deaths. The Federal Statistics Agency puts them at about 20,000, Der Spiegel’s in-house boffins arrived at a number of 37,000.

The calculation that caught the eye though came from Göran Kauermann, a statistician at Munich University, who found that there had been “no clear excess deaths” in 2020.

He had this to say in an interview with Die Welt:

“Almost 41,000 more deaths were expected anyway in 2020 compared to the average from 2016 to 2019. The 7,000 still missing to reach 48,000 are not excess mortality, but are in fact completely within the range of random fluctuation. 

But there is also another effect. In 2020, the flu was practically absent because of hygiene measures that were recommended from mid-February. Therefore, when adjusted for the age effect, 2020 is not a conspicuous year.”

Of course, the numbers can be bent in two ways.

The government could well use them to argue that the lockdowns paid off - and that Germany’s response in general stopped the death toll from exploding, as it has done in some other European countries. Critics though will say that the rather unspectacular figures show that the government has gone way overboard in closing down schools for months.

I found this historical perspective (also in Die Welt) interesting. It points out that deaths in comparison to population size were higher in every year between 1960 and 1985 than in the pandemic year of 2020. The reasons are multiple, but it draws out a couple of examples.

In 1970 some 21,000 west German died in traffic accidents, that number has fallen to 3,000 today. Add to that less smoking, better air quality, and the almost complete absence of flu in 2020 (which picks off 25,000 Germans every third winter) and one can see that, even with the emergence of a new lung disease, we still live in the safest time and the safest place in history.

Sometimes it’s good to be able to keep things in perspective.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011