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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day – it’s time to move on

While many other countries relax Covid measures, Germany remains stuck in a rut despite the Omicron variant changing the situation dramatically. Brian Melican asks why Germany can't get out of its 'Groundhog Day'.

OPINION: Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day - it's time to move on
People queue for a Covid test in Munich. Vaccinated and recovered people need to show proof of tests to enter some public places under 2G-plus rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

For anyone into retro, Germany is a fantastic place to live. There are still pubs you can smoke in, paying for beer with notes and coins and listening to top-notch charts cheese on the radio; the barmaid may well be sporting the same un-ironic mullet she had back in 1993. Incidentally, that year saw the release of Groundhog Day, a comedy film about someone who gets stuck in a time loop and seems doomed to relive the same day – 2nd February – over and over again. Every morning, the radio plays the same tune.

To those of us living through early February 2022 in Germany, this plot device is depressingly believable. Anyone who listens to our public service broadcaster Deutschlandfunk’s morning news programme will certainly feel like they’ve heard it all before: first up, it’s the Siebentagesinzidenz (rolling 7-day incidence of Covid-19 infections), usually followed by an upcoming/recent Bund-Länder-Konferenz (the forum for coordinating the response to the pandemic between Berlin and the regional capitals) before, third in the running order, some poor soul who has been foolhardy enough to suggest potentially, maybe loosening some coronavirus restrictions at some point in the near-to-distant future is dealt a hefty slap-down by a virologist, intensive care consultant, or – if neither is available – audibly outraged presenter.

Yes, Germany is stuck in a Covid-rut and afraid to pull itself out. This was already the case last summer, when, after the seven-month closure ended, no further moves were made to get things back to normal; setting sky-high vaccination levels as a goal for loosening restrictions, however, disguised this worrying fact and led to widespread exasperation with the unvaccinated. Now, Omicron has – in a quite unforeseen, yet astonishingly speedy way – rendered what remained of a national strategy outmoded and called the restrictions still in place into question. 

ANALYSIS: Are Germany’s Covid rules backed up by science?

2G and 2G-plus are a ‘dead end’

Essentially, the stated strategy (preventing the spread of the virus) is now all but impossible with a variant so contagious that even three doses of vaccination and an FFP2 mask seem to offer at best patchy protection from infection. Moreover, it is now eminently questionable given that the variant causes less severe illness, especially in the 70 percent of the population who are now vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the primary means of applying the prevention strategy – restricting public life to the vaccinated – seems to have the unintended consequence of increased transmission among the vaccinated, given the soaring infection rates in Germany. Those who are now no longer allowed to go shopping, visit restaurants, or attend gyms, pools, and evening classes are still more at risk from the virus, but have been deprived of most opportunities to catch it. 

OPINION: The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules

A woman walks past a 2G-plus sign at a restaurant in Griefswald.

A woman walks past a 2G-plus sign at a restaurant in Griefswald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

Indeed, it has now become evident that “2G” – i.e. Germany’s version of vaccine passporting – is a dead end; or, more accurately, has come full circle. What started with allowing only those who have had two jabs into venues was then increased to “2G-plus”, i.e. either three jabs or two jabs and a test; now, those of us who visit care homes are already on “2G++”, which means having had the booster jab and getting a test (and yes, even then, you still have to wear your mask, keep your distance etc.). So if the direction of travel is, as it would seem to be, that everyone will need to prove that they don’t have Covid19 every day to do, well, pretty much anything, I don’t see why the unvaccinated shouldn’t also be allowed to also prove that they don’t have Covid19 and then also start doing things again.

No-one hates to admit this more than me, by the way: as I wrote in November, it is frustrating that so many Germans won’t have a vaccine which would keep them safe. Yet those who claimed that vaccination would not change much have, unfortunately, been proven right, thanks to the rise of the less serious, but highly transmissible Omicron variant: almost three quarters of the population have now been immunised, countless others have contracted the disease, and hospitals are not under anything like the same strain as last year. And yet the restrictions persist.

READ ALSO: ‘Hard to keep up’: Your verdict on Germany’s ever-changing Covid rules

Where’s Germany’s Covid exit strategy?

Worse: there has been no attempt whatsoever to define criteria for when and how curtailments to basic freedoms in place for nearly two years now will ever be repealed. With similar levels of illness and hospitalisation to Germany, the UK and Denmark have gone ahead and lifted all restrictions; and even countries which have taken a more hawkish approach to date, such as France, the Netherlands, and Austria, are now plotting their course back to normality. Meanwhile, all we hear are ominous ruminations from the likes of Lothar Wieler at the Robert Koch Institute, who is on record as saying that he can envision compulsory mask-wearing every winter in order to stop the spread of the flu, and the Green’s health spokesman Janosch Dahmen, whose response to suggestions that some restrictions could potentially be lifted during the course of the year is to trot out worst-case scenarios in which Delta combines with Omicron to become a super-mutant and kill us all…

If you’re concerned that this sounds like the beginning of a future in which we live with our breath baited behind an FFP2 mask, then you’re right to be. As the load of illnesses eases, the courts will kick out some of the most disproportionate measures – but only if cases are brought, and to a varying degree across the country: in Lower Saxony, vaccine passporting for shops has already been declared unlawful, for instance, but here in neighbouring Hamburg, almost all appeals against even the most egregious examples of legislative overreach are routinely thrown out.

A person walks by a discarded face mask in Munich.

A person walks by a discarded face mask in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

READ ALSO: German politicians spar over Covid exit strategy

The judges are, after all, representative of the society they live in – and this is the nub of the issue. Germany as a whole is still petrified of coronavirus to an extent that, for those of us who were born elsewhere and/or have been outside the country at any point in recent months, is hard to truly fathom. That’s where all the crazy Querdenker-cum-Neonazi protesters have got it so wrong: this isn’t, as they claim, a “Corona dictatorship”. No, this is, as countless surveys have proven – and a cursory glance at streets full of people wearing masks out in the open air will demonstrate – simply the way a majority of Germans want it.

Indeed, it’s telling that those in government more focussed on the economy, such as Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Finance Minister Christian Lindner, hesitated about appointing the notoriously ascetic epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach as Health Minister until public opinion forced their hand. After all, several years of grinding Coronavirus restrictions will limit growth – and, not unimportantly, hamper Germany’s attempts to attract skilled labour when neighbouring countries are back running at full steam.

Having said that, those that do come will find that there is at least one benefit to constant repetition: it’s an exceptionally good way of learning a language. So if you’re struggling with German, I’d suggest tuning into Deutschlandfunk in the mornings. Here, by the way, Groundhog Day was titled as Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier: “Every morning, the groundhog says hi!” In 2022, it’d be Und täglich grüßt die Siebentageinzidenz (every morning, the seven day incidence says hi!).

Member comments

  1. This is no longer about the virus, or the hospitals, or risk. This is about politicians refusing to admit wrong and instead, doubling down on failed policies. Remember: the job of the politician is NOT to serve us, it’s to be re-elected and keep the power chair for as long as possible.

  2. Preach it! I’ve basically assumed a “Germany during the week, literally anywhere else on the weekend” attitude.

  3. Let’s compare oranges to oranges: Omicron wave haven’t yet peaked in Germany – it did in UK and Denmark (and most likely France). I’m sure the politicians will rush to lift the restrictions as soon as it peaked.

    1. Because they’ve rushed to remove any restrictions in the last 2 years?

      Once we give up liberty. It is seldom returned voluntarily.

      1. Oh, please! Spare us this petulant adolescent lie that our liberty is at risk because of simple, necessary public health measures that have been normal in Germany and many other countries for decades and decades.

        1. Lockdowns and 2G ABC. Have not been in place for decades. The WHO advised against lockdown until 2019.

          You’re freedom and liberty are always at risk. From people who would take them from you. Luckily there are young men prepared to do evil on our behalf. So you can sleep soundly in your bed. Freedom is not free.

          Anyone trying to do something on your behalf for your own good almost always wants to rule you.

  4. All true. The most offensive thing to me is testing our children 2-3 days a week and STILL making them wear masks ALL day. How very unscientific. After having visited family in the US and UK and seeing life is back to normal, it was with great sadness to return to Germany where masks are on constant and you have to carry your papers everywhere. This work contract can’t end soon enough. I want to go home.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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