24th Feb 2024


Covid: what Germany got right - and wrong

  • 'Wash Your Hands - Call Grandma, Call Grandpa' Coronavirus flyposting in Berlin, during the first lockdown (Photo: Matthew Tempest)
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There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the political management of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany.

This is not only because of the fourth wave, but dates back to the bumpy start of the vaccination campaign in early 2021 when an initial bout of praise gave way to widespread criticism. At the same time, people's fundamental trust in politics in Germany, as measured in surveys, is in decline.

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  • German restaurant displaying new '2G' rules - only admittance for those recovered or vaccinated, a test is not enough. November 2021 (Photo: Matthew Tempest)

Given the Germans' corona fatigue, one might think that the country has done a miserable job of managing the pandemic so far. The problem is that the policy-bashing could not be more wrong.

If we look at key objective performance indicators for health, social and economic performance in a European comparison, as highlighted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung's forthcoming study Just How Resilient are OECD and EU Countries? Sustainable Governance in the Context of the COVID-19 Crisis, there is more cause for praise than criticism of decision makers and administrators.

The first success factor is that hardly any other comparable country in Europe has been able to protect the lives and health of its population as successfully as Germany during the pandemic.

By autumn 2021, in France nearly 60-percent more people had died with and from the coronavirus, relative to the population. Meanwhile, Italy and the United Kingdom suffered almost twice as many casualties as Germany, in the context of much smaller populations.

Success factor number two lies in the fact that this effective protection of the national population did not slow the economy. To the contrary, in 2020, Germany experienced an economic downturn that was mild by European standards.

While countries such as France, Spain and Italy suffered recessions of between minus eight and minus 11 percent, Germany's contraction of minus 4.6 percent was even slightly lower than that of the financial crisis of 2009.

Success factor number three: The labour market has shown itself to be highly resilient.

The tool of short-time working has been used on a historically-unprecedented scale. This situation has become normal. Signals from the labour market in the fall of 2021 point rather to a shortage of labour again than towards any discernible prolonged damage from the pandemic.

In the EU, only Malta, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic currently have lower unemployment rates than Germany.

Is it all just a question of luck?

One attempt to explain the growing alienation between politics and the electorate would be to simply attribute Germany's first-rate international performance to lucky circumstances, rather than the impact of politics.

This explanation, however, does not prove watertight, not least because politics have clearly sparked this good performance. The federal and state governments have taken decisions in close consultation with scientific expertise in a generally transparent, rational, constitutional and comprehensible manner.

Moreover, the parliaments of the federal and state governments have gained considerable fiscal leeway through their recent budgetary policies - not least because of the institutional assistance provided by the debt brake. Thanks to the significant decline in the public debt ratio in the past decade, it was possible to go full throttle with fiscal incentives during the crisis.

The German healthcare system, sometimes branded by critics as being broken by cost-cutting, has actually proven that it can deliver even in the context of a global pandemic.

And the fact that the most successful global Covid-19 vaccine was developed by a German company with a groundbreaking new technology, is proof of an efficient innovation system, which also reflects well on the framework conditions provided by policies in Germany.

Failures and dissonances

What then explains the growing disenchantment with politics? To me, four answers seem most plausible.

First, the pandemic has exposed significant deficits in the area of digitalisation and administrative efficiency. The perception of most people is that we could have come through the crisis much better if, for example, there had already been a digitalised health administration and halfway acceptable IT equipment in schools. These technological shortcomings are quite rightly being blamed on politicians.

Second, citizens in Germany feel increasingly alienated by federalism and the incoherent crisis communication that it ushers in. French president Emmanuel Macron, endowed with nationwide executive power, was able to demonstrate a completely different capacity to act than chancellor Angela Merkel, who had to laboriously negotiate authoritative decisions in the federal-state vote amid noisy counter debate.

Third, restrictions on civil liberties in the pandemic are seriously limiting for everyone. People already suspicious of those in power tend to react negatively to such measures, to the point of even turning to alternative facts or conspiracy theories.

The fourth and perhaps most important reason is that even during the pandemic, people fortunately did not stop focusing on the major challenges of the future. Rather, they continued to look ahead at pending big issues such as slowing climate change, rethinking our energy system while at the same time preserving the industrial base, and ensuring social and economic well-being despite Germany's rapidly-ageing population.

If one wanted to solve Germany's coronavirus conundrum with a simple formula, then perhaps it would boil down to this: despite all the objective reasons for satisfaction with the performance of politics and administration in the pandemic, considerable weak points have come to light, sparking widespread doubts on whether the country will be able to withstand the major future stress tests without a comprehensive overhaul.

There is still much to be done to tackle these issues and to rein back the current crisis, something that is shown by the Bertelsmann Stiftung study. Despite all of this, a dose of optimism is still justified.

Author bio

Professor Dr Friedrich Heinemann is head of the corporate taxation and public finance research department at the ZEW - Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim. Translated from German by Jess Smee.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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