For members


Is Merkel’s legacy in danger as Germany grapples with slow Covid-19 vaccine rollout?

After weathering the Covid-19 first wave relatively well compared to European counterparts, Germany’s second wave has been tough - and the vaccine rollout remains slow so far. Will this cast a cloud over Angela Merkel’s legacy?

Is Merkel's legacy in danger as Germany grapples with slow Covid-19 vaccine rollout?
Angela Merkel on February 11th. Photo: DPA

With about seven months to go until the election to determine who will succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, Germany marks the grim milestone of more than 65,000 coronavirus deaths. The country has extended its “hard lockdown” and taken the unusual step of closing its borders to fellow EU countries like Austria and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, just four percent of German residents have received a coronavirus vaccine – a figure lagging far behind Israel (70 percent), the United Arab Emirates (47 percent), the United Kingdom (20 percent), and slightly behind fellow EU members Malta (10 percent) and Denmark (six percent).

For a country that handled the first wave relatively well compared to many of its European counterparts, Germany’s pandemic performance lately looks to be coming in below public expectations. After 15 years in near-constant crisis management mode as the world’s most powerful woman, what effect might Germany’s recent Covid-19 woes have on Merkel’s legacy?

READ ALSO: Life after Merkel – is Germany ready to think about what’s next?

Merkel lauded for handling of the first wave

Merkel’s own personal approval rating still tops any other German politician, standing at around 69 percent. Yet, public opinion polls are starting to register German impatience. Just under 70 percent of Germans responding to one survey now say national vaccination is moving too slowly, up from 52 percent a month ago. And 56 percent now disapprove of the federal and state-level government’s combined crisis management. 

The Chancellor herself recently admitted to the Bundestag that the government’s approach to a second lockdown in late summer and early autumn last year was “too hesitant.” She has sometimes struggled, paricularly during the second wave, to convince leaders in Germany’s 16 federal states to opt for the tougher measures she often favours.

It wasn’t always this way. As the first wave hit in March 2020, Merkel proved she could still surprise German residents even after 15 years in power. Her government gained wide parliamentary approval to suspend its constitutionally-enshrined debt brake and make unprecedented amounts of emergency money available to keep companies and the self-employed afloat.

Merkel giving a rare TV address on March 18th 2020. Photo: DPA

She was instrumental in negotiating a €750 billion deal to support EU countries in their economic recoveries. She spoke in uncharacteristically emotional language during the only televised address she’s ever given outside of her New Year messages. “[Case numbers] aren’t just abstract numbers or statistics,” she said at the time. “But rather about a father or grandfather; a mother or grandmother; a partner. This is about people.”

For Andrea Römmele, professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, it was a stark contrast to the cautious, unemotional, “lead-from-behind” leadership style Germans are used to from Merkel.

“During the first couple of weeks, she was definitely leading from the front,” Römmele says. “That was new. We haven’t seen that before to that extent.” After facing down some pressure to step down early in February 2020, Europe’s crisis managing Chancellor was in her element again, leaving many German residents to wonder what life would be like without her.

Then as the winter Covid-19 resurgence gripped the country, Europe’s vaccination drive descended into a disastrous debacle. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who’s a close ally and confidante of Merkel’s, got into an acrimonious dispute with both the UK and AstraZeneca over the company’s announcement that it was reducing its first quarter EU deliveries by 60 percent.

BioNTech, the German company that developed the world’s first-approved vaccine with Pfizer, also cut deliveries. Meanwhile, UK, US, and Israeli vaccination rates soared while Germany’s lumbered along.

Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen in September 2020. Photo: DPA

Europeans then found out the UK and US had negotiated their contracts with vaccine manufacturers months ahead of the EU. They had also spent seven times what the EU had per capita on developing and purchasing vaccines – suggesting the EU could have used a lot more of its considerable economic weight to help boost vaccine production capacity earlier.

What’s more, the EU reportedly rejected a BioNTech offer to supply an additional 100 million doses on top of its initial 200 million dose order.

As the EU’s most senior and influential national leader, how much of this is Merkel’s responsibility?

“When we talk about vaccination in Germany, the buck stops with Merkel,” says Hamburg-based political analyst Marcel Dirsus. “She can’t just point the finger at Brussels and say ‘this has got nothing to do with us,’ because Germany is one of the richest and most powerful countries on Earth.

“Its citizens should be able to expect to get vaccinated quickly. If it’s not possible to arrange for that at a European level, then either the German government needs to try to change policies in Brussels, or they need to find an alternative.”

Source: Our World in Data.

While the European Commission is responsible for procuring EU vaccines, it’s difficult to imagine any Commission President not taking a call from Merkel – let alone Ursula von der Leyen – a close confidante, political ally, and a minister in all four of Merkel’s cabinets.

As the longest-serving member of the European Council, Merkel also enjoys tremendous amounts of political capital among the EU’s national leaders. There was hardly a better opportunity for her to push for faster action, backed by more money, had she wished to.

A vaccination centre in Germany. Photo: DPA

As criticism over Germany’s slow rollout intensified, Merkel convened a vaccine summit, where she maintained that the country would be able to offer all German residents a vaccine by the end of September – coinciding with the same timeframe as when German citizens will vote on who should take the reins of the country’s first post-Merkel government.

As Germany belatedly prepares to pony up more cash to help vaccine manufacturers increase their production capacity, whether Merkel’s legacy survives Covid-19 is still uncertain. A lot may well ride on whether she can keep that vaccination promise – and how the current difficult phase of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds in Germany.

Aaron Burnett is a German-Canadian journalist specialising in international security, as well as European and Canadian politics.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now