Germany’s coronavirus mitigation measures have resulted in a “fragile intermediate success,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday as she announced that the country would begin to slowly open back up starting this week.
“Fragile intermediate success” sounds more hopeful than boastful. But that’s in keeping with Merkel’s cautious, consensus-building style that was just one of the factors contributing to a relatively low COVID-19 death toll of 4,105 for 138,369 documented cases through last Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. By way of comparison, hard-hit Italy and the United Kingdom have tragically had much higher totals: 22,170 deaths and 168,941 documented cases in Italy and 14,606 deaths amid 109,754 cases in the U.K.
Germany’s tracking of cases through aggressive testing has helped keep the fatality rate low through early identification of carriers, including asymptomatic ones. The outbreak in Germany also developed differently, with relatively younger patients who contracted the virus at ski resorts, or in the original epicenter, a Bavarian car parts company, where researchers were able to track the first transmission to the passing of a saltshaker, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.
Germany tested and traced aggressively, and because of prior planning did not face any shocking shortages of tests, ventilators, personal protective equipment and ICU beds, among other necessary elements of a modern health system, let alone modern society. More profoundly, Germany, despite the deep political and social divisions endemic to any Western democracy, has widespread consensus on the severity of the pandemic and the strategy to fight it.
And it’s not just coming from the top; Germany has a federalist system similar to the U.S. (which mostly designed it in the postwar era), and so Merkel worked closely with state and regional leaders. But in the end, she led, according to Jorn Fleck, associate director at the Atlantic Council. Merkel deployed a “personal plea with the Germans to understand that this is a common effort, that we have to stay together, that we have to take care of everyone in society and especially those that are more vulnerable,” Fleck told an editorial writer. Merkel addressed the nation for the first time outside of the traditional Christmas address, Fleck said, adding to the gravity of the appeal.
The contrast couldn’t be stronger to President Donald Trump’s endless riffing at his mostly nonproductive news conferences.
And unlike the president’s hastily arranged, ad hoc councils to open up the economy (many members only learned of their participation when Trump read their names during a White House briefing), Merkel turned to the Leopoldina, of German National Academy of Sciences, an august institution that began in 1652 and includes a range of experts, including social scientists.
Merkel’s “calm demeanor is an asset,” Henning Schroeder, director of international programs at the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, told an editorial writer. Referencing her background as an engineer, Schroeder added that “the way she operates and tackles problems you can tell that’s her background.” And, Schroder concluded, it’s a good sign that Merkel turns to experts. “Even if they are from an ivory tower, they know more than talk-show hosts.”
Germany, Merkel said, doesn’t have “much room to maneuver.” Whatever it does have is due to the chancellor leading a rational, data-driven scientific consensus on how to mitigate the crisis — an approach that has been tragically lacking in Washington.