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Matthew Karnitschnig is POLITICO’s chief Europe correspondent.
BERLIN — As the coronavirus pandemic raged through the United States last summer, an old school friend from Arizona wrote me full of admiration for Germany’s handling of the crisis.
For years, he, along with other American friends and my family, drew boundless schadenfreude imagining the daily difficulties I must face as an American among the supposedly humorless “krauts.”
But now, as the U.S. struggled to cope with the pandemic, they looked across the Atlantic with envy, even humility. In contrast to the U.S., where politicians had fumbled the pandemic response from the beginning, Germany appeared to many Americans to have done everything right. By any measure, from the availability of PPE to the infection rate, to total deaths, Germany’s handling of COVID-19 was far superior to the U.S.’s.
How “crazy” it must be, my friend wrote, to be “an American journalist in Germany watching from afar as the U.S. basically falls apart.”
My German friends agreed. I was lucky, they told me, to reside in a country that functions, one led by a trained scientist and not an “incompetent lunatic.”
But six months later (most of them spent in the confines of my home), I don’t feel so lucky.
This week, Germany will enter its fifth-straight month of lockdown with no end in sight. Though infection rates have declined in recent weeks, it remains unclear when schools and shops, not to mention restaurants and bars, will reopen. Amid the uncertainty, small businesses across the country are facing ruin. Such fears, coupled with frustration over the seemingly neverending restrictions, have soured the national mood.
The U.S., meanwhile, is turning the corner. Schools are slowly reopening, unemployment is falling and the economy is slowly rumbling back to life. America’s visceral optimism, which has always befuddled Europeans, has also begun to reemerge.
The reason for this reversal of fortune can be explained in a single word: vaccines.
As of Friday, the U.S. had administered about 68 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, reaching about 14 percent of the population with at least one shot. For its part, Germany had delivered about 5.7 million jabs, covering about 4.5 percent of the population. In other words, less than a third the rate of the U.S. The problem isn’t that Germany doesn’t have enough vaccines but rather that it has been slow to get them into people’s arms. Of the 8.5 million doses Germany has received so far, it has only used 68 percent. That compares to a rate of 75 percent in the U.S.
Germany isn’t just a laggard compared to the U.S. or international standouts like Israel and the U.K. Other EU countries, including neighboring Denmark, have proved more efficient than the purported home of efficiency.
Germany may have spawned some of the world’s biggest and most successful companies, from software giant SAP to BASF to Mercedes, yet somehow it can’t figure out how to accelerate the rollout of a lifesaving vaccine to its own population.
So what happened to Germany’s famed organizational and logistical prowess? It would seem to have disappeared down a fax-line somewhere between Berlin and Brussels.
The reasons for Germany’s vaccination struggle are both structural and political. While the country’s leaders have sought to explain away the problems by pointing to structural hurdles, such as Germany’s decentralized federal structure or the involvement of the EU in procuring vaccines, the most glaring shortcomings are rooted in their own political failures.
Take the fax machines. A technological dinosaur elsewhere in the West, fax machines remain a mainstay in many medical practices and government health offices. That has made coordination across Germany’s nearly 400 health offices particularly difficult. Health Minister Jens Spahn has spent millions trying to put German health care online, so far with only mixed results.
The fax is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, however. Angela Merkel has talked for years of the necessity to “digitalize” German society, a goal that many other advanced economies have long made a reality. Indeed, the first thing many new arrivals in Germany notice is its lack of connectivity, from the dearth of free Wifi in cafes and restaurants to slow internet speeds. The fact that the German federal government itself still employs nearly 1,000 fax machines in its various ministries tells you everything you need to know about how successful Merkel’s digital revolution is.
That said, the 1970s technology is comparatively modern to the pen and paper still in use across Germany’s medical profession. That a government can’t rely on antiquated communications tools to immunize Germany’s 83 million inhabitants quickly should be obvious.
Yet it’s not, especially to those Germans (a majority of the population) worried about that holiest of all German rights – Datenschutz (data privacy).
As part of its deal with BioNTech-Pfizer, Israel, which has immunized more than half its population of 9 million, agreed to provide the drugmaker with a wide swath of anonymous data on those receiving the vaccination, including age and gender. The data agreement was one reason Israel was at the front of the line for vaccine deliveries.
In privacy-obsessed Germany, the idea of embracing such data collection meets a lot of resistance.
It is important “that we undertake as many confidence-building measures as possible and prioritize Datenschutz in order to build trust in immunizations,” Merkel said earlier this month.
In other words, any German who dies of COVID-19 because they didn’t get a vaccine on time can take solace in the knowledge that her data will be safe and secure in the ever after.
What’s particularly striking to an outsider like me about Germany’s handling of the pandemic is the amount of energy the country puts into identifying and dissecting the problems, rather than resolving them.
For months, millions of Germans have tuned into one of the country’s nightly primetime political talk shows to watch their leaders talk about the pandemic, often out of both sides of their mouths.
The coronaporn attracts an audience with a false promise of fresh insight (the title of one recent such program: “Lockdown instead of a way forward – Is there really no alternative to Germany’s pandemic strategy?”) only to leave the questions unanswered, sending viewers to bed unfulfilled.
Most of the discussions revolve around the question of who should be held responsible for the mess.
These days, most fingers are pointing in Spahn’s direction. And while the minister is no doubt guilty of overpromising and underdelivering on everything from the speed of the vaccine rollout to the availability of self-administered coronavirus tests, I’ve been struck by how little criticism his boss has received.
Just as Germans were confounded by the allegiance of millions of Americans to Donald Trump in the face of his obvious incompetence, I’m mystified by Germans’ willingness to give Merkel a pass on her management of the pandemic. Despite the deep problems with Germany’s COVID-19 response and the uncertain outlook, Merkel remains the country’s most popular politician with an approval rating approaching 70 percent.
History is unlikely to be so forgiving.
Merkel’s biggest mistake during the pandemic — arguably of her entire tenure as chancellor — came last June when she agreed to strip responsibility from her own government to procure vaccines and hand it to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Of the many qualities von der Leyen showed in her years in Merkel’s Cabinet, competence was rarely among them. That’s why it should have surprised virtually no one that the procurement process turned into a fiasco, marked by protracted negotiations and delays, which will force Germany and other EU countries to maintain restrictions for much longer than would have otherwise been necessary. Even if Germany had gotten its act together on the logistics of delivering the vaccines to its citizens, it would have quickly run out anyway due to the lack of supply.
A wiser course would have been for Germany, which had formed a negotiating alliance with France, Italy and the Netherlands, to proceed in talks with the drug companies, negotiating and even footing the bill to vaccinate the entire EU in a beau geste of European solidarity.
Of course, that would have only worked if scientist Merkel had remembered how and where to produce enough vaccine. She need only have listened to Bill Gates who had been raising alarm bells for months over the need to ensure adequate production capacity.
Instead, Germany and Europe did next to nothing, letting the lull in the pandemic over the summer come and go only to realize early this year that the drug companies faced massive production shortfalls.
“We need a massive state subsidy to build out vaccine production,” Clemens Fuest, the head of the Ifo Institut, a Munich-based economic think tank, said this week.
The immunization delays, he warned, are throttling Germany’s economy, a fact the country’s political class seems to take in stride as they bemoan the inevitability of it all on television. The violations of citizens’ basic rights, be they to run a business, receive an education or simply meet with friends in the park, is only temporary, they assure us.
This summer, my old school friend was hoping to visit us in Berlin.
By the look of things, it’s probably better if we go see him in Arizona instead.