Biontech Stock – ‘We are a laughing stock’: Covid-19 and Germany’s political malaise
Steffen Bockhahn does not mince his words when it comes to Germany’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
“We are the laughing stock of the world,” he says. “Germany was supposed to be world champion at organising things, and look at us.”
Bockhahn heads the social affairs department of Rostock, a north-eastern port which has set up a massive vaccination centre housed in an exhibition hall on the outskirts of the city. The complex has the capacity to administer 2,100 jabs a day. A shortage of vaccine doses means it’s currently doing less than half of that.
Germans have been grumbling about the slow pace of inoculations for weeks now: so far, only 11 per cent of the population have received at least one dose, compared with 45 per cent in the UK, 29 per cent in the US and 60 per cent in Israel, according to latest Our World in Data figures.
But in recent days the frustration has grown into something worse: alarm at the increasingly chaotic feel of government policy and a creeping loss of confidence in Germany’s institutions.
“Germans long believed they lived in a well-governed country, one that was better run than most other states in Europe,” says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a senior MP for the liberal Free Democrats. “Both assumptions have turned out to be wrong.”
Doubts about Germany’s crisis management crystallised this week when Angela Merkel launched an extraordinary attack on the leaders of Germany’s 16 states, accusing them of relaxing their lockdowns just as the country was seeing exponential growth in new infections.
What made her broadside particularly striking was that she singled out Armin Laschet, prime minister of the powerful state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the man who is aspiring to succeed her as chancellor, saying he had failed to activate an “emergency brake” in the face of rising Covid-19 cases.
“I will not stand idly by for two weeks while nothing happens that really promises a reversal in this [upward] trend,” she said in a TV interview.
Merkel suggested she may try to grab more powers away from the regions if they persisted in going their own way, setting the scene for a punishing trial of strength over who controls Germany’s coronavirus policy. That could mean even more uncertainty and confusion for ordinary Germans.
“We are seeing in dramatic fashion that the German state can’t do pandemics,” says Ulrich Silberbach, head of the DBB civil servants’ union.
Polls bear him out, with the authorities’ approval ratings falling as quickly as infection rates are rising. According to a recent “Politbarometer” survey for the ZDF TV channel, 55 per cent of respondents were unhappy with the government’s handling of the pandemic, up from 43 per cent in February.
It’s all a far cry from last year. Germany was widely admired for its initial response to the corona outbreak — its early lockdown, its generous aid to stricken companies, its successes with track-and-trace. Led by Merkel, the EU’s most experienced crisis manager, it suffered far fewer deaths and a lower rate of infections than most other European countries.
Public approval of the government’s coronavirus policies benefited one actor in particular — Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, which last year surged to nearly 40 per cent in the polls. But those days are over. Earlier this month the party suffered its worst ever election results in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, two states that for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds.
In the run-up to the polls it was revealed that a number of MPs from Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc had earned huge commissions on deals to procure coronavirus face masks. But according to Renate Köcher, head of the Allensbach Institute, the so-called “mask affair” wasn’t the main reason for the party’s poor performance. “Faith in the CDU as the party that ‘can do crises’ has been shattered,” she recently wrote.
With just six months to go till Bundestag elections, that represents a massive headache for Laschet, who was elected CDU boss in January. Some experts say the polls look so bad for the Christian Democrats that they might end up being driven from the chancellery which they have controlled for the last 16 years.
But it’s not just the CDU that’s in trouble; all levels of government — federal, regional and municipal — are under attack for their pandemic policies, which people increasingly see as “arbitrary, contradictory and, in some instances, absurd”, Köcher wrote. “The vast majority of critics no longer believe that the country’s leaders have a plan for overcoming the crisis.”
Too many U-turns
Frustration at the inconsistencies in policies is growing. Germans are baffled at why some of them can take holidays in the Balearic island of Mallorca over Easter while those stuck at home aren’t allowed to visit local camping sites or holiday cottages in their own backyard.
Paradoxes and zigzags such as these are fuelling widespread indignation. One doctor, Carola Holzner, from the western city of Essen, even invented a word to describe the public mood — mütend, a cross between müde (tired) and wütend (furious).
“No to masks, then yes,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “No to rapid tests, then it can’t happen fast enough. Schools opened, then closed, then opened again. First there’s not enough PPE, then not enough vaccines. No one can stand all this political vacillation any more.”
The list of U-turns is indeed striking. A plan to roll out free antibody tests by March 1 was scrapped because it turned out to be impossible to implement in time. Authorities initially declared the AstraZeneca jab unfit for use on people over 65, then okayed it for everyone. The AZ shot was withdrawn completely over fears it could cause blood clots: four days later it was reinstated after the European Medicines Agency insisted it was safe. Then on Tuesday authorities decided it should only be given to the over-60s.
“People aren’t corona-deniers, but they just don’t understand this constant shilly-shallying,” says Dirk Neubauer, mayor of the small town of Augustusburg in eastern Germany. The federal and regional governments were constantly blaming each other for policy failures, “but ordinary people don’t care who’s at fault — they just want the system to work”.
Part of the anger can be ascribed to shutdown fatigue: shops, restaurants, theatres and gyms have been closed since November, and the rapid spread of the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the UK has stymied hopes that the restrictions might soon be lifted. Jens Spahn, health minister, warned last week that if the situation doesn’t improve, Germany’s health system might reach “breaking point” next month as intensive care units fill up with Covid-19 patients.
‘The next fix’
Meanwhile vaccinations are progressing too slowly to offer much of a silver lining. Germans are incredulous that so few have received a jab more than three months after a vaccine developed by a German start-up, BioNTech, became the first in the world to receive approval.
“A German company invented the vaccine, was given €375m in German government funding and we’re the last ones to get it,” says Bockhahn, the official in Rostock.
He describes the anxious wait for supplies of the BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines, all of which have proven erratic and subject to delays. “We’re like junkies desperate for our next fix,” he says.
Germans mostly blame the EU for the shortage of doses: the European Commission stands accused of ordering too little vaccine, too late. But they also fail to understand why the authorities in Germany have been so slow to administer the doses they have. Only around 262,000 people received a jab on Monday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s main public health authority — down from a peak of 306,000 on March 12.
Some critics say authorities have been far too strict about who is eligible for a shot. “It’s a German phenomenon — this idea that people shouldn’t be vaccinated if it’s not their turn,” says Ulrich Weigeldt, head of the German Association of General Practitioners. “The message should be that the more people get the jab, the better it is for society.”
Merkel herself has said authorities needed to show more flexibility. “Maybe we’re a bit too perfectionist sometimes,” she said in her Sunday TV interview. “We want to do everything right because whoever makes a mistake gets a real beating.”
But it’s not just a matter of excessive caution. Inoculations slow to a snail’s pace on Sundays — perhaps unsurprising for a country that still takes the day of rest so seriously but still extraordinary considering the gravity of the pandemic. What’s more, a number of states have announced they will close their vaccine centres over the Easter break.
The inoculation campaign has exposed a system of government that is slow and, at times, overly bureaucratic. That is particularly the case with appointments for jabs: booking websites routinely crash and hotlines are badly understaffed. “It took me five days of calling to get a slot,” says Erika Olias, an 85-year-old Rostock resident who finally got her first dose last week.
The inoculation process itself also involves a great deal of red tape. Take the mobile vaccination teams who administered jabs to care home residents up and down the country at the start of the year. “There was a pharmacist to fill the syringes, a nurse to administer the shots, a doctor to explain the procedure to patients and three Red Cross employees to do all the paperwork,” says Neubauer, who witnessed the process at an old people’s home in Augustusburg. “It just leaves you speechless.”
He said the attending doctor had to fill in, stamp and sign eight A4 sheets of forms for each patient. But a second team who came to give the second dose a few weeks later had to go home because they’d brought the wrong forms, he says.
All of the data could have been digitised. “But we’re just obsessed with paper,” he says. “And it slows us down massively.”
‘Stuck in the 60s’
Merkel has admitted that the coronavirus crisis has held an unforgiving mirror up to Germany’s inefficiencies. In a speech to the Bundestag last week she said the months of the pandemic had exposed “grave weaknesses” in the functioning of Germany’s public administration and above all a lack of progress on digitisation. “As a federal system we must get better and faster,” she told MPs. “We know that and we’re working on it.”
One example she cited was Sormas, a contact-tracing programme that was designed in Germany to help fight Ebola and offers a way of connecting 375 local public health departments with the Robert Koch Institute. The government set a goal of installing Sormas nationwide by the end of February. Yet only a quarter of the health departments were using it by the deadline. Cases are still largely passed on to the RKI by fax.
“Most of us are still stuck in the 1960s,” says Nicolai Savaskan, head of the local public health department of Neukölln, a district of south Berlin.
Opposition MPs are shocked at the lack of progress. “The fact that fax machines are still the main form of communication with the RKI is really embarrassing and a glaring failure of government,” says Konstantin von Notz, the Greens’ spokesman on digital policy. “It has missed its own targets in spectacular fashion.” Similarly the contact-tracing “Corona Warn App”, launched by the government to much fanfare last year, has turned out to be a flop, stymied by Germans’ concerns over data privacy.
Home-schooling is another area where Germany has performed poorly. Children forced to do distanced learning “were often not given the equipment they needed for online lessons, and neither were teachers”, says Marc Danneberg of Bitkom, a digital industry organisation. He cites the case of one family “where all the children had to do all their lessons on one, shared, smartphone, because the parents didn’t have a laptop or tablet”.
Germans were shocked that teachers in many regions only recently were assigned work email addresses — “and that after months of corona”, says Danneberg.
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Then there is fury over the slow disbursement of financial aid to companies affected by the shutdown — in large part because of delays in developing the necessary digital platform for applications. Many firms are still waiting for aid payments promised in November.
Officials admit the situation is unacceptable. The process of allocating funds has been “very sluggish, very bureaucratic”, Michael Kretschmer, governor of Saxony and a senior figure in the CDU, told German radio last week. “They’ve provided €80bn to save companies, a huge sum, but it’s been managed so badly that it’s generating a lot of anger . . . [and] destroyed trust.”
On vaccinations, officials insist that the pace will pick up soon, as GP clinics finally start to administer jabs. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic finance minister, recently promised 5m vaccinations a week by the end of April and 10m a week by the end of June. Experts wonder how that is possible, however. Germany is set to receive about 70m doses in the second quarter, which would only allow it to administer about 5.75m vaccinations a week, not 10m. Some critics warn another promise is about to be broken.
Germans have been horrified to discover that other EU member countries they long derided as dysfunctional, such as Greece, have outpaced them on inoculations. “We look around and discover that we’re no longer one of the leading countries, we’re average at best,” says the FDP MP Graf Lambsdorff. “That does not fit the Germans’ self-image, not at all.”