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Where do we go from here?
This newsletter is an 8-minute read
Today Angela Merkel and the state leaders will announce a new raft of lockdown measures. Likely to be included are mandatory FFP2 masks on public transport and night-time curfews. We take a closer look at the lockdown. Plus a news roundup.
Jörg & Axel
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Intrigue at the CDU party conference. After Armin Laschet won a narrow victory against Friedrich Merz to become CDU chairman on Saturday, the beaten man did a curious thing. Rather than accept Laschet’s offer of a place on the party’s steering committee, Mr Merz went all in: he said he wanted the job of Economy Minister in the government instead. The only hitch - that isn’t Mr Laschet’s job to give. It’s still Angel Merkel’s government - and she quickly announced that there was no place in her cabinet for a man whose loathing for her is legendary. Mr Merz must have known this would happen. Perhaps he wanted to show that in electing a Merkel fanboy, the CDU have allowed the Chancellor to still call the shots. Whatever his reasoning, it has led to a lot of bad press.
Another man who left the CDU conference a loser was Jens Spahn. The Health Minister was “running on the same ticket” as Mr Laschet. (What exactly that means is unclear as there is no running mate system in Germany.) Anyway, Mr Spahn used the time he was given to question the candidates as an advertising spot for his and Mr Laschet’s candidacy. That trick went down badly with party delegates, who duly took their revenge. later in the day, Mr Spahn was up for re-election as one of five deputy party leaders. He received the lowest vote share of the five candidates in an election that is a pure formality. Journalists with their ear to the ground say that Spahn might just have ruined his already slim chances of being picked as the CDU Chancellor candidate.
Last year we wrote about the editors of a satirical magazine who decided to set up a joke political party and had more success than they reckoned with. Die Partei now has some 50,000 members (more than the AfD) and two members of the European parliament. Or we should say had two members of the EU parliament. Junior MEP Nico Semsrott announced he was quitting last week after Die Partei leader Martin Sonneborn imitated a Chinese accent on Twitter and then refused to apologize. Die Partei’s main schtick was presenting Sonneborn as a wannabe dictator. If Semsrott’s account of their relationship is anything to go by, the line between joke and reality started to blur a while ago.
Germany stood down from a two-year role on the UN security council at the end of December. Berlin makes no secret of its ambition to gain a permanent seat at the most important table in international politics. Judging by the responses of the Russian and Chinese representatives, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. While we’ve written a couple of times on Germany’s trade-first approach to both countries, its representative at the UN seems to have been quite a bit more adversarial. The Russian ambassador said of the Germans: “we won’t miss them”; his Chinese counterpart commented that “Germany’s behaviour fulfilled neither the expectations of the world nor those of the Council.” Well, well.
Yesterday, Germany celebrated its 150th birthday. Although, “celebrated” is going a bit far. We found barely a mention of the anniversary of the proclamation of the German Empire on January 18th, 1871 on government websites, nor in newspapers. Tagesspiegel reported that the state had avoided official commemoration out of fear it would be exploited by the far-right. Indeed, it is a tricky anniversary to celebrate - calling it a “birthday” implies some kind of natural process. But this article by historian James Hawes argues that 1871 was in fact an annexation of the peaceable and wealthy Catholic south by a bellicose Prussian north. He allows himself to fantasize about a world without Otto von Bismark where a democratic Germany, with Frankfurt as its capital, emerged as an anchor of peace in the centre of Europe. That seems to be a view shared by President Steinmeier, who in the only public recognition of the date, said modern Germany had “no relationship’” to the Kaiserreich and should look instead to the brief Frankfurt democracy of the mid-19th century for inspiration. While we agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, modern Germany is the child of the Kaiserreich, whether it likes it or not. A bit more public discussion would be appreciated.
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Where do we go from here?
Later today Angela Merkel will chair a conference call with the sixteen heads of German states in which they will decide on yet more measures intended to bring the rate of coronavirus infection back below 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. After so many of these meetings, will this be the one in which the magical missing ingredient is finally found?
When you wake up in the morning and feel like every day is exactly the same, don’t worry, sometimes a Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz comes along to brake up the monotony. (Just trying to say the word will fill up at least five minutes).
While it is true, Ministerpräsidentenkonferenzen are the heralds of yet more mundanity, they are more or less the only TV events worth watching these days.
The first one came in late October, when a four-week “lockdown light” was agreed upon - state leaders promised it would allow us to celebrate Christmas as normal.
Instead, the measures were extended into December. After flattening off for a while, cases began to rise again.
Then the National Academy of Sciences published a plan. A hard lockdown over the last weeks of December, including school closures and the shuttering of the retail sector, would lead to a radical drop in cases by early January, they predicted. At the next Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz Merkel and her motley crew took on the recommendations (even closing shops ten days earlier). But the promise of a swift improvement never materialized.
Again, in early January the Ministerpräsidenten met. More measures were agreed upon. Ten days later, they have decided that those rules didn’t work either…
You get the idea…
So what is going wrong here? Why do the state leaders feel the need to keep tinkering with and extending rules they said would allow us to return to normality weeks ago?
Here are a few theories.
‘Too many loopholes’
The most popular theory is that the lockdown should have been much harder right from the beginning.
In late October there was still a lot of spare intensive care capacity and mortality was still at normal levels for that time of year. This led many state leaders to drag their feet on the tough lockdown that Merkel wanted. A couple of them have since issued mea culpas, saying that they should have listened to the Chancellor all along.
Even now, after several rounds of new measures, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Dr. Lothar Wieler insists that “the measures we've got just now - to me, it's not a complete lockdown.”
“There are still too many exceptions, and it's not being implemented stringently,” Dr. Wieler said last week. “There is a possibility that the situation will get worse.”
He has an ally in the SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach, who's turned into a celebrity over the course of the pandemic due to his regular TV appearances. He advocates night-time curfews for a period of three weeks.
Indeed, there is a key loophole in the rules on personal contacts, which aren’t as strict as in other countries. Whereas in the UK “support bubbles” have been created that limit a household to just one contact person, Germans are allowed to meet as many friends as they want, as long as they do so individually.
Of course, one of the big mysteries of the lockdown is that we simply have no idea how everyone else is behaving in private. Movement data collected through mobile phone companies suggests that the German public aren’t taking this one quite as seriously as in March.
But would new rules on personal contact really make the key difference? By now everyone knows to avoid human contact as much as possible. At the same time, everyone has their own little exceptions.
One criticism that we would level at out politicians is the simple fact that you should only pass laws that you are actually capable of enforcing. Rules on private contacts are not enforceable. And a weary public have clearly become rather Catholic about adhering to them.
That’s why one of the country’s top virologists, Dr. Hendrick Streeck, has repeatedly appealed to the government to do more to convince the public by offering evidence-based recommendations rather than issuing bans with questionable scientific legitimacy.
‘Stumbling in the dark’
A year into the crisis, it is remarkable how little government policy is evidence based.
Whether it be the closure of restaurants and hotels at the start of the lockdown or the recent call for compulsory FFP2 masks, as soon as a new rule is created a health expert pops up on television to bemoan the fact that there is too little evidence behind the proposal.
The fundamental problem is that no one really knows where the virus is spreading. The Robert Koch Institute says only that the spread is “diffuse” and “chains of infection are not clearly traceable.”
As an article by broadcaster ARD put it last week, any attempts to find out where the virus is spreading is like “flailing around in the dark.” Ultimately, the government is issuing Verbote here and Verbote there, hoping that some will stick.
A statement published by North Rhine-Westphalia’s “Corona Commission” yesterday complained of the “astonishing and unacceptable lack of knowledge developed since the spring about the places where people become infected and the dynamics of epidemiological events.”
The statement called for the immediate establishment of a central research centre that can finally provide evidence-based answers to the most fundamental question: which measures actually work - and why?
How much can the economy take?
Some of the proponents of the toughest lockdown measures, such as Thuringian state leader Bodo Ramelow, want Germany’s industrial production to be brought to a standstill. Something similar was done in March when industrial output dropped by 9.2%.
But how much more pain can German industry take? Der Spiegel spoke to seven of the country’s most respected economists and six of them spoke out against the shuttering of industry warning of “waves of bankruptcies and unemployment.”
The economists also rejected closing the borders. For a country at the centre of highly complex chains of production, border closures would ultimately end in an industrial shut-down.
At the same time, repeat dire warning of mass bankruptcy still haven’t come true. The firms that have gone broke often had problems before the pandemic.
‘Failing to help the vulnerable’
One of the most substantial criticisms was published by the former deputy head of the government’s health advisory board, Matthias Schrappe, last week. Dr Schrappe and seven colleagues from various academic disciplines were withering in their assessment of the effect of current measures.
The “one dimensional” lockdown is ensuring that the elderly bear the brunt of the pandemic, the experts argued. Dr. Schrappe’s team showed that infections among the elderly rose continually through November and December. Their conclusion: lockdowns are doing little to stop the virus from spreading uniformly through the population (with the real number of infections around a million a week).
The paper accuses the government of allocating far too few resources to the protection of care homes (where almost a third of all deaths have taken place), with testing of staff and visitors still only sporadically implemented. Meanwhile, Dr. Schrappe’s team found that “due to as yet unknown reasons” some 6,000 intensive care beds have disappeared from the national register since the summer, leading to an avoidable shortfall in key treatment facilities.
“The elderly are hardest hit by the current policies - they aren’t profiting from the limited effect of the lockdown and they are bearing the weight of the death toll due to a lack of targeted prevention,” the report concluded.
The “give the lockdown a chance” school
A last criticism of the government - and this is one voiced in many countries - is that they keep fiddling with the rules before the epidemiological community has enough time to analyse their effect.
It has been pointed out in some quarters that the rate of infection has been coming down in recent days. Occupancy of intensive care beds meanwhile has been dropping since early January.
This has led some specialists to call for more patience. Dr. Klaus-Dieter Zastrow of the Free University of Berlin said on Monday that further intensification of the lockdown “cannot be justified by the numbers at the moment.”
Dr. Zastrow, by the way, recommends disinfecting your mouth every three days in order to slow the spread of the disease. Now, where’s my whisky?
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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.