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How Germany is mastering the pandemic

Decisive action is intended to overcome the pandemic and alleviate its effects. This involves an enormous joint effort by government, business and the whole population.

Arnd Festerling, 11.03.2021
© picture alliance/dpa

Cough, fever, congestion and an impaired sense of taste or smell are some of the symptoms that people with ­COVID-19 present. An overburdened health system, economic downturn, insolvencies and unemployment are the symptoms of affected societies. And all of them are affected, all over the world, with no exception. No matter how great the obligation all countries have to protect their citizens and their economies, there is little they can do alone to control the corona pandemic. That is why the German government is pursuing three goals in the fight against COVID-19. First of all, it wants to protect the health of its citizens and maintain the capacity of its health system. Second, it wishes to dampen the effects on people, employees and businesses. And third, it aims to overcome the pandemic with international cooperation. It has been a rather successful strategy until now. At least, that is in the view of the Organization for Economic Cooper­ation and Development (OECD), which has acknowledged the effectiveness of the measures taken against the pandemic and its effects by Germany’s federal and state authorities – also in comparison to the responses of other countries. It particularly emphasised the strength of the health system and the provision of additional capacities as the pandemic took its course.

A virus that affects us all cannot be defeated by one country alone. No country, not even Germany, can be safe from the virus if its friends and neighbours are not protected too.

When the pandemic broke out, Germany responded especially swiftly and increased its test capacities. Furthermore, the country had access to the highest number of intensive care beds in the European Union and was comparatively well staffed with doctors and nurses. This probably explains why, according to figures published by Johns Hopkins University, Germany recorded approximately 690 deaths per one million inhabitants at the end of January 2021, while the totals in other countries were more than twice as high.

Protecting health andavoiding infection

Worldwide, the task of protecting people’s health turned into a race against time during 2020 and at the beginning of 2021. On one hand, it has been important to keep the number of infections as low as possible to guarantee the best possible treatment of patients in a health system that has not become ­overburdened. On the other hand, enormous efforts have been made to develop and produce vaccines and to vaccinate the population to combat not the disease and its effects, but its spread and the ­pathogen itself. That is why both in spring 2020 and winter 2020/2021 the Federal Government agreed lockdowns with the German states which the states then implemented to varying degrees. This is because the Federal Government does not have the right to make these decisions alone in Germany’s federal system. These measures have encroached deeply on people’s lives and put a considerable strain on the economy. Economic output has fallen by roughly 5% – after a ten-year period of continuous growth.

Mitigating the impactson individuals and the economy

Because the two lockdowns aimed to reduce the number of personal contacts, they had an especially severe impact on the parts of the economy and public life that live from direct personal interaction: childcare centres, schools and universities, the non-food retail trade and many services as well as restaur­ants, cinemas, theatres, museums and zoos. Federal and state governments therefore made extraordinary efforts to cushion the economic consequences of the corona crisis and, specifically, the effects of the lockdowns. At the same time, they attempted, as Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “to create resilient foundations for sustainable economic growth in the future”.

A brief look at the various programmes to support businesses, employees and other institutions shows how comprehensive the efforts of the Federal Government have been. For example, assistance is being provided by legislation to secure employment (Beschäftigungssicherungsgesetz), which facilitates and finances short-time working. Direct payments have also been made under the auspices of an extraordinary economic assistance programme (Aus­serordentliche Wirtschaftshilfe). Programmes have been set up to safeguard apprenticeships (Ausbildungsplätze sichern) and to protect suppliers against payment defaults (Schutzschirm für Lieferketten). Over 900 inclusive businesses that employ people with disabilities are also receiving special grants. There is a programme to support sports clubs (Corona­hilfen Profisport), and a rescue programme is providing assistance for cinemas, theatres and ­music festivals (Neustart Kultur). These Federal Government support measures are also being supplemented by state projects.

A key concern of the Federal Government is providing support for families when schools and childcare centres are closed or only working to a very limited extent. In addition to direct payments to families, the rules on taking time off work to provide childcare and parents’ entitlement to income support for such periods have been adjusted to meet the new situation. In an international comparison, the OECD has praised these economic measures as a successful policy for overcoming the crisis. They also form the basis for the Federal ­Government’s hopes of a significant economic ­recovery in 2021 with between 3 and 4% growth in gross domestic product.

Combating the virus together

All the measures aim to gain time until vaccines stop the spread of COVID-19 and enable public life to begin again. The greatest successes here ­include the fact that the first reliable corona test was developed in Germany as was the first vaccine approved for use in Europe: the product of the Mainz-based company Biontech and its US partner Pfizer (see page 40). The German Government ­regards researching the disease, developing medicines and combating the pandemic with vaccines not as a national, but as an international task. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel even mentioned this in her New Year’s address. The Biontech founders had previously told her that people from 60 nations worked in their company. “I can think of no better example,” said the Chancellor, “of how European and international cooperation, the strength of ­diversity, is what brings progress.”


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