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Germany Is Expected To Centralize Its COVID-19 Response. Some Fear It May Be Too Late

Lines form in front of a vaccination center in Hamburg, Germany.
Lines form in front of a vaccination center in Hamburg, Germany.

This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is making good on a veiled threat she issued two weeks ago to centralize pandemic management. Amid growing calls for Merkel to take control of the situation and bypass the country's 16 state leaders, Germany's parliament is expected to pass a measure this month that will allow her finally to take charge of the country's COVID-19 response.

As the third wave of infection rages, some worry it may already be too late. Hospitals in Germany warn they're about to run out of intensive care beds, even as state leaders continue to relax coronavirus restrictions.

Germany, with a population of 83 million, has lost nearly 79,000 lives to the pandemic. With the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant now dominant, the national seven-day incidence rate has risen in recent weeks from below 100 to 136.4 cases per 100,000 people. The country's total number of infections has surpassed 3 million.

A year ago, Germany was weathering the pandemic relatively well and Merkel's coronavirus response — attributed to her scientific understanding of the virus and a robust test, track and trace system — was praised far and wide. But exponential growth has long since overwhelmed virus trackers, and the slow start to vaccine rollout, combined with an increasingly confusing patchwork of regional lockdown regulations, has left the country in epidemiological disarray and sent Merkel's party plummeting in the polls, losing 10 points in recent weeks.

"It's been a bit of a rude awakening for us Germans to realize that we're not the masters of organization," says Melanie Amann, who heads the Berlin bureau of Der Spiegel.

While the pandemic has debunked the myth about German efficiency, the same cannot be said of another cliché — the nation's love of red tape.

"Our ability to create complex systems and bureaucracy have pretty much stopped us from effectively fighting the pandemic," Amann says. Nonfunctioning websites, unstaffed hotlines, excessive paperwork and authorizations are among the issues she cites — amid regulations that differ from state to state.

Severin Opel, a 23-year-old Berlin resident, had to wait several days to get an appointment for a recent rapid coronavirus test.

"Paperwork is getting in the way of this pandemic," he laments. "There's so much focus on minutiae and documenting every step to the nth degree, guidelines end up contradicting each other and nothing makes sense."

Merkel is known for her careful, measured responses to crises, but even she admits there's sometimes too much devil in the details.

Speaking in a rare television interview last month, Merkel conceded: "Perhaps we Germans are overly perfectionist sometimes. We always want to do everything right because whoever makes a mistake gets it in the neck publicly." But "in a pandemic," she went on to say, "there needs to be more flexibility. We Germans need to learn to let go."

Janosch Dahmen, a front-line doctor and health spokesperson for the Green Party — which is close to rivaling Merkel's conservatives in the polls — believes the government's cautious approach is actually reckless.

"A strategy or intervention without risks doesn't exist," Dahmen says. "Waiting for the perfect, flawless game plan is a recipe for failure, especially in the face of this virus, which is mutating insanely fast."

And yet Merkel's crisis management style is only one factor. Germany's system of federalism means she has little say in the country's vaccination and lockdown strategies, of which there are no fewer than 16 — one for each German state.

Amann argues, though, it's high time that Merkel — who leaves office this fall — used her considerable political capital to take charge, rather than simply advising and negotiating pandemic guidelines with the 16 state premiers.

"Because her term is ending, she theoretically has all the freedom and all the independence she wants to take bold steps in the corona management," Amann says. "Nobody could run her out of office. And she's not using this. She's just working as if she were at the beginning of her first term."

State leaders agreed in March on an "emergency brake" strategy to impose more rigorous measures as infections rose, but the agreement was only in principle, and few states have implemented the measures strictly.

After weeks of frustration, political commentators have observed, Merkel looks the way many Germans feel — namely mütend, a pandemic-era mashup that means both tired (müde) and angry (wütend).

And while there's concern that parliament might take too long to pass a bill allowing Merkel to streamline and centralize pandemic crisis management, the chancellor and most of the state premiers agree the current situation is untenable.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.