Global Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

An overview of Germany’s response to Covid-19

Patrick Jowett analyses Germany’s relative success in tackling the Covid-19 outbreak in addition to considering the financial impacts of the crisis.

As the world’s media continues to examine how different nations are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, few countries have attracted more attention than Germany. Their response to the outbreak has been commended internationally for its foresight and vigilance, alongside the speed at which the German healthcare system has researched and prepared itself for combating the virus. Whilst Germany’s battle to flatten the curve continues, attention is shifting towards Germany’s future after the crisis and the potential financial implications for Europe’s largest economy at both the national and local government level.

According to the latest figures, Germany has the fourth-largest number of cases worldwide, exceeding 100,000 as of April 6. A breakdown of German cases per region shows the regions of Bayern and Baden-Württemberg on the Swiss-Austrian borders in the South and Nordrhein-Westfalen on the Dutch-Belgian borders in the West as the most affected.

Despite the high number of confirmed cases, Germany’s death rate remains around 1.5%, which is relatively low when compared to nations dealing with similar total case numbers and also against nations such as Sweden who continue at the moment to impose only limited restrictions on their citizens.

The figures can be partly attributed to the median age of infected patients being lower in Germany and the high volume of tests conducted. Higher testing figures are suggested by scientists to lead to a more accurate understanding of the overall impact of the virus and by making testing available to those not admitted to hospitals, it is anticipated and hoped that the registered death rate will be lower.

Germany should be applauded for its preparedness towards mass testing from the offset of the crisis, made possible by the work of scientists within their public health institution. It is estimated that Germany has the capacity and resources to conduct around 500,000 tests each week, considerably more than any other European nation.

The Bundestag made the decision to impose conditions akin to lockdown on March 22, occurring relatively early in Germany’s fight against Covid-19, whilst the total number of deaths across the nation stood at 94. For perspective, the death toll stood at 196 in Spain, 422 in the UK and 463 in Italy when similar federal decisions were implemented.

As well as quickly enforcing social prevention methods, Germany’s robust health care system has appeared so far to be comparatively better prepared than those of its neighbours. Germany boasts the largest number of critical care beds per 1000 people in Europe and the government has already pledged €3 billion towards doubling the number of beds to 56,000 in the wake of the crisis. The German military has also been drafted in to build a 1000-bed hospital in Berlin, to alleviate a bottleneck of cases in the capital.

On paper, Germany’s highly decentralised medical system would appear a complex infrastructure to quickly organise into a national collective effort. However, Germany’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak is overseen by a national pandemic plan, administered at the federal level by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

The RKI monitors public health across Germany and is responsible for the detection and mitigation of infectious diseases. The institution is primarily publicly funded and is currently working in conjunction with key industry players in Germany’s internationally renowned biotechnology industry. Different units of the institution are located across Germany, running alongside the public health care system.

As outlined in a previous briefing reviewing Germany’s government, Germany’s distribution of power across the layers of governance gives both regional and local governments the autonomy to make decisions on education, health and social matters.

Throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, the advice administered by the RKI and federal government has set the base level to which the whole nation must adhere to, whilst leaving scope for regional and local governments to impose stricter measures within their remit.

For example, the district of Heinsberg decided to close down public spaces including schools and libraries, as early as February 26. Berlin, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland closed bars and other leisure venues on March 14. The entire state of Bavaria declared a state of emergency on March 20, whilst Saarland enforced curfew measures on their citizens. These measures all proceeded the federal state announcement of nationwide regulations on March 22, which included restrictions on social gatherings of more than two and leaving the house for all but essential reasons.

Bavaria’s response came under particular scrutiny. Alongside initial opposition from the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, major politicians criticised the move, including leader of the Green Party who suggested it “shakes confidence in politics if each region does its own thing”.

Most recently, the city of Jena became the first to make wearing face masks mandatory. This decision was decided by the local municipality, who have since emphasised the use of home-sewn masks to alleviate the draught of surgical masks the country is facing, following criticism from other councils across Germany. RKI has since advised that the preventative wearing of a face mask can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others, which may now lead to other municipalities adopting similar measures to Jena.

Although governments at the regional and local level show some differences in their approach, federal guidance remains relatively well-received across Germany. Over half of Germans surveyed believe that the federal government is doing a good or very good job of handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Friends of mine in Berlin and Hamburg have commended how proactively residents have adhered to the restrictions in place, which has allowed police intervention in suburban areas to remain relatively low. As citizens continue to act under the social distancing conditions set by the government, federal politics has begun to prepare for the economic fallout expected to arrive in the wake of Covid-19.

Germany narrowly escaped entering a recession at the end of 2019, a fate which now appears inevitable. Early predictions from economists suggests GDP could drop between 2.8-5.5%, although further extensions to lockdown measures could lead to further decreases. As a country that relies heavily on its exports, Germany is also reliant on its neighbours and trading markets to make speedy recoveries too.

One of the short-term initiatives that could alleviate some economic tension are immunity passports, which would act as passes for key workers that have recovered from Covid-19, excluding them from the restrictive measures still in place. Although the Bundestag have not yet formally commented their stance on implementing the idea, RKI are currently conducting a major study into Covid-19 immunity by testing 100,000 volunteers across Germany. With the UK government already expressing their interest in introducing immunity passports, the results are likely to have an international impact on the next steps of combatting the virus.

In a pre-emptive move to protect the economy long term, the Bundestag recently approved a €750 billion aid package. This includes €156 billion in new government debt this year, citing the end of Germany’s notorious black zero policy, which had been heavily criticised by municipal governments from preventing the handing down of state funds to aid grassroots politics.

This bill is mainly directed at support for the self-employed and businesses who will be hit hardest by any recession, but as the local German government generates most of their finances from grants and subsidies, they are likely to be reliant on similar assistance. Recent times show that even during periods of national economic success, rural municipal councils across Germany often struggle to generate independent finance.

In Germany, local governments are likely to enter testing times in the wake of Covid-19. It is too early to predict to what extent, but it is already clear that the amount of financial help local government will get remains in the hands of Germany’s national and regional levels of governance. This is likely to become a contentious topic for local government, as it may also provide an insight into how quickly Germany’s grassroots economies will be able to respond from an inevitable period of economic downturn.

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