OPINION: Covid has sent Germany into hysteria again but the remedy is under its nose

The rocketing Covid cases and rising patient numbers has seen Germany lurch once again towards national hysteria and the current strategy means the country's incoming government are in danger of committing political suicide, writes Brian Melican.

A face mask lies in autumn leaves in Hamburg.
A face mask lies in autumn leaves in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

Although German is more renowned for its complicated compound nouns than its compact witticisms, it’s not short on pithy morsels. There’s this one, for example: aus Angst vor dem Tod Selbstmord begehen – to commit suicide for fear of dying. It aptly describes a very human mechanism: when faced with seemingly overwhelming danger, many people either exhaust all other options (including patently bad ones) before taking real action or, worse, do nothing at all.

Having said that, English has certainly got a knack for good analogies, and recently, I’ve been searching for the German equivalent of this one: “When you’ve got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” 

Both these figures of speech are useful ways of looking at the current Coronavirus situation in Germany – which is, of course, not good. Case numbers are high, vaccination rates are low, and the atmosphere is apocalyptic.

After November 2020 (the half-arsed “semi-lockdown”) and April 2021 (the doomed “Easter break”), for the third time in just over a year, the country is suffering a collective nervous breakdown over a pandemic which has, later than elsewhere, but just as unforgivingly, laid bare our most unattractive national traits: a tendency to alternate between states of chauvinism and hysteria, an obsession with pointless details excluding the bigger picture, and a deeply unbalanced concept of liberty. For anyone asking “How did we get here?” (or perhaps: “Why are we still here?”), this is what’s happened.

Self congratulation

Germany likes to think of itself as being among the best, and is especially happy when its successes come either from innovation and high quality or from the strict, disciplined application of rules. So early last year, when a prompt national lockdown with high levels of compliance seemed to keep the virus at bay, this – combined with the fact that Germany also had good PCR testing where other countries were lacking it – had us all patting ourselves on the back. 

A Covid test centre in Schkeuditz, Saxony.
A Covid test centre in Schkeuditz, Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

The flipside was the usual chauvinism. In summer 2020, Germans on holiday would come back “shocked” at all those Italians hugging or the French still exchanging kisses. In their astonishment, the fact that they were returning without being routinely tested escaped them – much as it escaped a government also too busy with self-congratulation to put in place much by way of preparation for the autumn.

That was unfortunate, because, as it turned out, we basically got lucky last spring. What autumn revealed was that all the performative hand-disinfecting and door-to-table mask-wearing in the world wasn’t enough to stop Covid when, outside of restaurant settings, Germans were behaving like pretty much everyone else: meeting family, hugging friends, bending rules. 

READ ALSO: 7 things the Covid-19 crisis has taught us about Germany

Yet rather than just accept that we, too, are humans faced with a very nasty virus, we panicked about the fact that we were no longer on par with wholly incomparable countries (e.g. New Zealand) and simply facing the same trouble as our immediate neighbours. That rates of illness and death here, while higher than hoped, were still considerably lower than across the borders in pretty much every direction was not deemed a moderate success, but rather grounds for national hysteria. 

The result was a deeply damaging seven-month lockdown so inescapably grinding that compliance broke down halfway through, precipitating a nationwide curfew of dubious constitutionality. After (an unfortunately late) spring eventually freed us from this dysfunctionality, we immediately reverted back to national chauvinism, basking in the success of the Germany-made BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine while we scorned other vaccines, like Renaults next to BMWs on a dealership forecourt.

Now, as we stumble into winter with under 70 percent of the population fully vaccinated and ICUs under strain, we have flipped back to national hysteria. While Denmark is only reapplying minimal Covid measures at 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants per week, Germany is doubling down on measures which never went away at the 300 mark and the national mood is somewhere between “We’re all doomed” and “Please, just shoot me”.

Education, fiscal prudence, digitisation – and now Corona: clearly we have immense difficulty with the idea that we might just be a normal central European country and not either an absolute Weltmeister or an abject failure.

A police van drives through Hanover during the government curfew in April.
A police van drives through Hanover during the government curfew in April as part of the months-long shutdown. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

Obsession with detailed rules

It’s a hallmark of hysteria that prevents those gripped by it from assessing their options and responding adequately. This is worsened by a long-held national tendency which has been given free rein since Coronavirus struck: an obsessive approach to detailed rules which gets in the way of actual issues.

That’s why it’s illegal to cross the road on a red light even when there’s no traffic, but totally legal to drive two tonnes of metal at over 30mph even in built-up areas. That’s also why it’s legal to be an unvaccinated medical professional and treat vulnerable patients in Hamburg’s hospitals, but illegal to take off your mask in all manner of outdoor spaces – unless, of course, you have one of the numerous exemptions, have bought a takeaway coffee, or want a cigarette…

German also has a neat word for this kind of ‘displacement activity’: Ersatzhandlungen. The solutions currently being proposed, withdrawn, and proposed again are all, to varying degrees of egregiousness, displacement activity which fails to deal with the elephant in the room. It’s an elephant shaped like the 30 percent of the population who have not yet received even a single dose of vaccination against the virus. 

And so new legislation will allow for making the fully-vaccinated take tests to go to restaurants (“2G Plus”) and re-imposing mask wearing into the bargain, will limit public transport to those who have immunity, a vaccine pass, or an up-to-date negative test (“3G”), and will gives states powers to impose lockdowns if things get out of hand.

And while this new approach is certainly preferable to the previous federal-level solution, all of it is just managing a pandemic instead of really pushing for, say, Portuguese levels of vaccination which would put us in a much better position. 

READ ALSO: Why are so many Germans reluctant to get vaccinated?

A Hamburg bar excludes unvaccinated people
A Hamburg bar excludes unvaccinated people (so-called 2G rules). Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

German politicians have not levelled with those unvaccinated 

There is a massive irony to the fact that the most effective Covid vaccine out there was developed in Germany, yet Germans have proved some of the most unwilling to take it (or any others) in Europe. There are lots of reasons for this hesitancy, but it won’t do to shift the blame wholly onto the population. It’s a political failure.

Unfortunately, we were told all of last year that our world-class testing infrastructure and comparatively early adoption of surgical and construction-grade masks were keeping our figures low. And so now, 18 grinding months of restrictions later and even with a plethora of vaccines at our disposal, a non-negligible number of Germans still think tests and masks will be enough to ride this thing out. Why? Because, thus far, politicians have proven unwilling to level with them. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s planned Covid restrictions to fight fourth wave

That’s perhaps why, over yet another wasted summer, the outgoing grand coalition – led by Chancellor Angela Merkel – allowed vaccination to drift off to a wholly hyperlocal level, predicating people’s interest in or access to it on their relationship to their GPs (assuming they have one…). Only now, as health experts are raising the alarm every day is there any talk of reactivating large-scale vaccination centres. What there will certainly be, though, as of next week: more tests.

Essentially, lateral-flow tests and masks are Germany’s hammer, and so all of our Covid problems look like nails. The problems are, however, screws. And the fact that we are still hammering away at them rather than using our screwdriver (i.e. vaccination) is so frustrating that it’s painful to watch. 

We are now faced with the spectacle of an incoming administration which, rather than even just forcing nurses and care-workers to get vaccinated, is planning to make the doubly, potentially even triply inoculated get near-daily tests.

The 70 percent of us who have overridden the national tendency to excessive caution are still being treated as ticking time-bombs while live munition is wondering around all over the place. This is tantamount to placing a powder keg under trust in the state and in medical science. For fear of death at the ballot box dealt out by the 30 percent, Germany’s new government currently looks intent on committing potentially explosive suicide.

READ ALSO: Germany risks losing support of the vaccinated in Covid fight

Member comments

  1. Sick of the people who refuse to get vaccinated, while sensible people are waiting to get our third jab. No, I won’t agree to also be also forced to take a test to go somewhere the same as someone who cannot be bothered to be vaccinated.
    This Government is too scared to take the Bull by the horns & make these idiots get a jab.

    1. We cannot vaccinate our way out of this. It is the like the flu and we have never “ beaten” the flu through vaccination.

      The only long term solution is to gradually reduce the masks, the restrictions and rely on natural immunity in the longer term.

      1. Agreed. This idea that vaccination is a silver bullet is misleading, and not borne out by historical approach to any other illness. And shame and blame, or creating essentially two societies based on vaccination status, is not constructive or solving the problem at the root. Also, “breakthrough cases” are not so rare. There have been countless cases of vaccinated individuals in the US and around the world who have still gotten sick and can still be carriers. Treating the unvaccinated as pariahs, or the source of the ongoing pandemic, is simply isolating a segment of the population further with faulty reasoning.

        1. You are false to put this on the same level. Vaccinated people are much less likely to become reinfected, much less likely to become very ill, and much less likely to spread the disease, thus reducing the chance of further more dangerous mutations.

          1. Richard. You are incorrect in part of your statement.

            “Vaccinated are much less likely to become very ill” – Partly true as symptoms seem to be reduced, although many vaccinated are becoming ill and dying too.

            “Vaccinated people are much less likely to become infected” – They are less likely to become infected at first, but the vaccine effectiveness drops off after a few months. Recent data from the UK (Public Health England) for weeks 36-44 shows that for everyone over 30 years, infection rates are HIGHER in the vaccinated. No-one seems to know how this can be, and the media are not really talking about it, but the data is the data.

            “Vaccinated are much less likely to spread the disease” – This is completely false. They have known for many months now that viral loads for those infected are the same regardless of vaccination status. US CDC has confirmed this. Data from UK and Israel has confirmed this. If viral loading is the same then infectiousness is also the same.

            It is also worth considering that if symptoms are lower and testing less frequent for the vaccinated, it is the vaccinated who are far more likely to be the driver of disease spread at this point in time.

          2. Just one further point:
            Mass vaccinating into a pandemic is actually a driver of mutations, dangerous or otherwise. This is especially the case for “leaky” vaccines that don’t block infection.
            This used to be well known virology 101 before 2020.

      2. I agree that Vaccination is not the ultimate solution, but it helps get us out of this just like the flu jab reduces cases. And people who will not even get vaccinated are filling up the wards that could otherwise be avaviable to people with existing problems

    2. The government certainly spent their resources in the wrong places such as poorly effective lateral flow tests, instead of investing in a campaign to get people vaccinated. Just because the vaccination is the first application of mRNA, does not mean its not well researched and understood; it has decades of research supporting its effectiveness. The lack of scientific rational and explanation around the technology has allowed for anti-vaxers to spread their misinformation.

      1. Completely agree. And where I live (Eastern Part of NRW), there was a massive shortage of vaccine. I had to BEG my Doctor to find just one more dose and get the first jab, and I’m 65 and that was not until May 26th 2021!
        Laschet totally mishandled the situation here. Thank God he is now History.

  2. I have yet to see proof that this constant testing concept has any ACTUAL result on infections or spread. The correlation associated with it can be compared with every other European country that also saw reductions as temperatures went up, and you see that this huge expense on testing is just a waste of money.

    Unlike other commenters believe, vaccination is the way out of this, combined with actually checking and verifying vaccination status and ID. Contrary to belief, vaccination has both effectively eradicated disease (i.e. measles) and does effectively reduce infection rate and severity (i.e. flu) when the uptake is significant enough.

    The concept of natural herd immunity through devastating levels of infection and recovery is both irresponsible in respect to humanity and highly risky in regards to emergence of variants.

  3. I think we could do with some moderation of BJD’s comments – several of these ‘facts’ are really not true

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OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.