28th Sep 2023


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)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Nearly 200 MEPs set to shun Strasbourg over Covid spike

Almost 200 MEPs want to use remote voting rather than attend next week's session in Strasbourg, due to Covid-19 worries. The parliament's senior administrator has instructed staff to follow Belgian four-day home working rules - as has the European Commission.

EU Commission: This Covid wave will not hit economy as hard

"Our estimate is that the economic consequences will not be as serious as they have been last winter," economic commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters when presenting the executive's economic recommendations for EU countries.

Central Europe struggles with new Covid-19 wave

A new wave of Covid-19 infections has been sweeping through central Europe, where the vaccination rate is generally below the EU average - partly due to low trust in institutions.

Where Germany's Greens and FDP will collide on environment

The Greens and the FDP disagree on major political issues. While they both support the climate battle, their ways of ushering change are vastly different: the Greens advocate tougher environmental laws and regulations, and the FDP calls for market-based solutions.

Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling

Vasco Alves Cordeiro, president of the European Committee of the Regions, is advocating a revamp of the EU's regional policy so that it better supports all regions in addressing major challenges such as the green and digital transitions.

How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.


Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?

International media must make clear that these are not fair, democratic elections. The flawed race should be the story at least as much as the race itself.

Latest News

  1. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  2. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border
  3. EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making
  4. How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?
  5. Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election
  6. EU and US urge Azerbijan to allow aid access to Armenians
  7. EU warns of Russian 'mass manipulation' as elections loom
  8. Blocking minority of EU states risks derailing asylum overhaul

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  2. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  3. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  4. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us