Anna Holzscheiter, Professor of International Politics at TU Dresden and Head of the Research Group ‘Governance for Global Health’ at WZB Berlin Social Science Center, details the factors contributing to Germany’s relative Covid-19 ‘success’ in comparison to the UK.
The German government’s response to Covid-19 has been met with considerable interest outside Germany, particularly because of the rather low number of fatalities in the country during the first spike of infections in March and April 2020. Among major Western countries, Germany’s performance has been exceptional. Anecdotally, I have heard many friends, family members and colleagues here in Germany say that they feel they are in the right place in the face of this emergency. In what follows, I will highlight four reasons for this success story that go beyond political leadership as a decisive factor.
The centralization of competencies
Policy analysts and media reports have noted repeatedly that the German government’s effective response to the pandemic is noteworthy because of Germany’s multi-level system with power-sharing between the federal, state and local levels. We have, indeed, seen numerous struggles between the federal government and state governments (Länderregierungen) over restrictive measures, particularly in the past few weeks. But the amendments of the so-called Infektionsschutzgesetz (infection protection act) we have seen since March 2020 clearly signal a power-shift towards the federal government. While it is the parliament that still decides on “epidemic situations of national extent”, once such a situation has been declared an amendment containing a so-called ‘general clause’ gives the Minister of Health ample powers to execute and oversee pandemic measures such as travel restrictions, quarantine measures, procurement and distribution of drugs and medical equipment, etc.
A bulging wallet
Germany’s response, in comparison with other European or ‘rich’ countries, has benefited from a brimming treasury that has allowed the finance minister to generously fund redistributive measures such as short-time allowances, compensation for parental leave due to closed schools, compensation for freelance workers and small businesses, etc. It is estimated that the pandemic has cost the federal government 50 million Euros of tax money.
A robust health-care system
Overall, Germany’s health-care system has navigated the Corona-storm quite well, notwithstanding major issues in elderly people’s homes, many of whom failed to adequately protect their residents. It should be noted that there is a divergence between international reporting about Germany’s ‘success’ and national reporting on Germany being close to its limits.
As we see right now, in some areas of Germany, including Berlin, the test and trace strategy of the German government has already reached its limits with overwhelmed district health offices and laboratories, shortage of staff and supplies. It is projected that the greatest limit on hospital capacities for patients in ICUs will be staff shortages.
Effective communication to build trust
The German response to the pandemic is notable further in terms of the highly effective public communication strategy by key actors in politics & science – a strategy that has, for a long time, succeeded in presenting policies as rational, without alternative, and proportionate. Already in 2014, the German Ministry of the Interior has issued “Guidelines for crisis communication” in which it lays out a detailed plan for communicating internally, with the German populace and media as well as through social media. One of the goals specified in this strategy is to maintain ‘Meinungshoheit‘, i.e. control over public opinion, in order to ensure maximum support and trust by the population and social cohesion.
It is thus the efficient and consistent way in which the government and its scientific advisors have explained evidence underlying their policy choices that has secured the trust of the majority of Germans in their political leaders. The success of this communication strategy is reflected in sustained strong popular support for those most heavily involved in pandemic politics, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel, Health Minister Jens Spahn or Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz. This is at least what is shown in the ‘Deutschlandtrend’, a widely noted weekly opinion poll.
But where are we now in terms of public support for restrictive measures and trust in policy-makers in Germany? The longer the pandemic continues, the more we can observe a growing restlessness and even helplessness in policies confronting this health emergency – and this includes Germany. ‘Crisis fatigue’ and frequent protest events against the personal sacrifices required to protect public health and ‘save lives’ unite Germany with countries such as Spain, Italy, the UK, and the US, to name just a few.
Covid-19 has been a magnifying glass for the collisions of norms and values in international politics – the crux of my research in global health policy. David Easton’s infamous definition of politics as the ‘authoritative allocation of values”, including a hierarchization of values, is a particularly relevant frame for understanding current debates over appropriate responses to the pandemic. No matter which country we speak of– and I think this is something that unites Germany and the UK – pandemic control policies present difficult choices between three core values – liberty, security and welfare. State leaders, governments, parliaments and the judiciary are working hard in order to ensure that measures taken to control Covid-19 remain proportionate and just, and that they produce as few negative externalities as possible.
A typical policy response during emergencies and crises is to catapult security (in that case the protection of individual health and lives) to the top of the value hierarchy. But the longer emergencies last and the more pressure grows to switch from crisis to normality mode, the more we see contestation of these value hierarchies. What we are observing right now in German media discourse, in the scientific base, and among groups under-represented in pandemic policy-making, is a slow but steady rupture of the supposedly strong consensus on the appropriate response to the pandemic. This rupture is expressed in battles between medical associations over ‘framings’ and ‘strategies’ not only to contain the virus but also to ensure that major parts of the German population continue to endorse pandemic policies.
The battle over appropriate ways to address the pandemic in Germany also extends to an ever more intense debate on the role of the German parliament vis-à-vis exceptional executive powers, with some important voices warning of a dangerous de-politicization of the pandemic. Considering that the current state of emergency will not be ended in hindsight, an effective pandemic response of the German government will thus also depend on how it engages with the politicization of knowledge and scientific evidence and oppositional forces inside and outside the political system.
Want to read more on norm collisions and pandemic politics? Find more of Anna Holzscheiter’s work here. You can also access a recently published article on power relations in global health governance here.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.