Updated: Apr 2, 2020
By George Ruskin
International media is painting Germany as a place of pandemic aspiration. A sense of ‘How are they doing it?’ is evident in recent articles: ‘Why is Germany able to test for coronavirus so much more than the UK?’, ‘Germany scores early against virus’, ‘Germany's Coronavirus Response Is Putting Trump To Shame’. How accurate are these comparisons and to what extent, if at all, has Germany succeeded where most have failed?
Statistically, Germany is coping exceptionally well in these (my apologies for the hackneyed soundbite) unprecedented times: despite recording 75,000 cases (the world’s fifth highest), Germany has managed a staggeringly low 821 deaths (the world’s tenth highest and four times lower than neighbouring France), rendering the coronavirus only marginally more deadly in Germany than a subjunctive sentence.
This has left other world leaders with egg on their faces as they desperately play catch up; their jealousy is mounting. Donald Trump suggested the United States should treat Germany more like an enemy in a rambling Fox News interview on Monday, after he was caught trying to poach German company CureVac – working on a coronavirus vaccine – in his snowballing desperation not to hand the upcoming presidential election to the Democrats. Furthermore, Italian politicians took out a full-page advertisement in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Tuesday, urging Germans to do more to help them through the coronavirus crisis, threatening that the EU “will cease to exist” – knowing exactly which buttons to push with the paper’s conservative readership.
It’s clear to see that Germany’s so-far successful approach has infuriated the other G7 leaders, but their policies are far from revolutionary: a rock solid, publicly funded healthcare system of 28,000 ICU beds and sufficient respirators as standard, with a capacity to double that number if need be. Early and strict social distancing measures and a capacity for half a million covid-19 tests every week are also crucial factors in what many see as Germany’s ‘head-start’. Germans, meanwhile, see this as a series of logical preparations, puzzled at their neighbours’ inertia. There is an undeniable Germanic smugness at the heart of this: “We are well prepared today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow” said Dr Uwe Janssens, who heads Germany's Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine. “It was clear that if the epidemic swept over here from China, then we had to start testing” said Hendrik Borucki, a spokesperson for Bioscientia Healthcare, who began working on a test for the virus way back in December. There is a cautious optimism in Germany.
Culturally, Germany has been conspicuous since the crisis began. Mutti herself went viral after a picture of her picking up groceries was circulated and celebrated on Twitter: “Angela Merkel's shopping trolley was all the leadership we needed for surviving this crisis” wrote Sinead Ryan. Along with the sensible items like the (single) pack of loo rolls, soap and detergent, Merkel – spotted in her local supermarket just before going into self-isolation – had added just the four bottles of wine. Contestants of Germany’s Big Brother – themselves in unwitting self-isolation since February before the term had even been invented – were the subject of international attention when they were only informed about the pandemic last week. This caused a shocked reaction – any reality TV producer’s dream – and was criticised as an (admittedly wildly successful) profiteering move by the production company.
In truth, however, it is impossible, even for Germany, to succeed during this global crisis. Germany is simply the least-failing country. Tragedy and terror have struck the German people as everywhere else, and its healthcare system is being tested to its limits as case numbers and deaths continue to rise, and millions of Germans are stuck in quarantine. The reason Germany is perceived as having been privy to some sort of heads-up is because it has, for a long time, sustained high-quality, generously funded public services. This is now, in the international context, tragically the rarest of phenomena. This one of the main reasons why so many countries are paying a far higher price than Germany.