Germany Is Reopening. And Learning a Tough Lesson

People on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, May 9. Credit Christian Mang/Reuters
People on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, May 9. Credit Christian Mang/Reuters

For good reason: The curve has flattened. The number of people newly infected each day is stable. The absolute number of deaths and the fatality rate remain low compared to other countries. And the reproduction factor — a key metric to measure the virus’s spread — hovers around one, meaning that on average, one infected person infects only one other person. The first wave of the virus has passed. Germany, cautiously, is reopening.

But as it gradually eases up, opening shops, schools and even museums, the country is learning a tough lesson: The way out is much harder than the way in. Loosening the lockdown, even in conditions of relative success, is fraught with difficulties.

The path to lockdown was relatively smooth, by contrast. When the number of infections started to accelerate in early March, Germany’s politicians hit the brakes. By mid-March, public life had come to a grinding halt. Schools, kindergartens and most shops were closed, as were the country’s borders. Social distancing measures were introduced and gatherings of more than two people were banned. People were urged to stay home, though they could still go for a walk, shop for groceries and take exercise. At the same time, Germany increased its number of intensive care beds and quadrupled its testing capacity.

On March 18, Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the nation in a televised speech, speaking with unusual emotion and poignancy. “It is serious,” she said. “Do take this seriously. Not since the day of German reunification, no, not since the Second World War, has our country seen a challenge that so severely depends on all of us acting together in solidarity.”

It was a moment of national unity and solidarity, something that felt precious in a political era still marked by the aftershocks of the migration crisis of 2015. Policymakers of all political camps were almost unanimous in stressing the severity of the situation and agreed on the cure. The German people understood and followed.

By the beginning of May, it looked like the measures had worked. Even the most prudent virus-watchers allowed themselves expressions of cautious relief. “It is our duty to protect Germany’s citizens as best as we can,” Lothar Wieler, the notoriously sober president of the Robert Koch Institute, said in a news conference on May 5. “We have done very well so far, as the figures are showing.”

Other epidemiologists were cautiously optimistic as well. “Infections are pretty much under control,” Stefan Willich, the director of the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, told me. “The German health care system was far from being overwhelmed at any point in this crisis so far.”

Germany was lucky to be late in line, most experts agree. The distress in Italy, and before that in China, was sobering: German citizens knew the stakes and adapted accordingly. And crucially, both the country’s politics and the health care system proved to be up to the task. “I was surprised to see how very flexibly Germany’s health care system reacted to the crisis,” Wolfgang Greiner, a professor of health care economics at the University of Bielefeld, told me. Both the market — most labs are private companies, as are many hospitals — and the political steering worked.

On May 6, the country’s 16 states agreed to ease the lockdown. The guiding principle is regional autonomy, with each state pretty much in charge of its own way out, following only rough common guidelines. There’s one condition: If the number of new cases rises above 50 in 100,000 inhabitants across seven days in an area, the local authorities must reinstall restrictions.

Experts disagree on the wisdom of the strategy. “Instead of knocking the whole country out with a nationwide lockdown,” said Professor Greiner, who supports the approach, “we now have better monitoring in place and can react regionally.” But Karl Lauterbach, a lawmaker from the Social Democratic Party and an epidemiologist, disagrees. “The way we’re easing the lockdown is unsystematic,” he told me. He’s afraid that states may outbid each other as they try to jump-start regional economies and cater to voters’ hunger for life.

The real trouble, however, goes much deeper. The economy is in disarray: 10.1 million Germans have applied for wage subsidies; many have lost their jobs, particularly those in precarious work and the service sector. Projections suggest that the economy, which has officially entered recession, will shrink somewhere between 6 to 20 percent. The loss in tax revenues will be substantial — nearly 100 billion euros, or $108 billion, by one estimate. And the country’s debt burden will soar.

The question is: Who will pay? That quandary is likely to define the next months and years, setting off a dirty lobbying war — as companies vie for concessions, support and contracts — and political turmoil. The Social Democratic Party wants to “tax the rich,” while the Christian Democrats are expected to retable their age-old idea of cutting corporate taxes. Their governing coalition could fracture. More difficulties lie ahead.

And right now, demons old and new are out on the streets. Just a few weeks ago, Germans sniffed at gun-waving Americans protesting the lockdown. But the schadenfreude was short lived. On May 8, thousands of protesters — a wild mix of extremists, conspiracy theorists and ordinary citizens, supported in large part by the far-right populist Alternative for Germany Party — flocked to the streets of major cities like Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart, claiming their rights were under threat and touting conspiracy theories. On Saturday, they turned out again: 5,000 gathered in Stuttgart, and smaller demonstrations dotted the country.

The protesters speak for very few: A clear majority of the population backs the restrictions. But it’s a bitter irony that in the country’s brief moment of vindication, all the old conflicts are re-emerging. It makes the early togetherness look shallow, a product of our instincts for survival rather than of humanitarian insight.

So instead of solidarity, we have strife. In place of unity, division. It looks like this is Germany’s new normal, too.

Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.

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