By almost any measure, Germany has managed the Covid-19 epidemic better than most other countries. What did it do right and what did others get wrong? Frances Cowell draws on others’ analyses and adds some observations of her own.

2,220 infections per million of population and 105 deaths, compared to Spain, Italy or France, which saw 6,200, 3,900 and 2,400, and 580, 580 and 450 deaths per million of population, according to Worldometer.info at 7 June. Germany is one of the models to emulate when managing an epidemic.

Was Germany more competent while everyone else mismanaged things? Perhaps, and it is easy to talk about natural German cool-headedness and a disciplined and civic-minded populace. But that explanation goes only so far: after all, the British, too, are supposed to share those qualities (at least until it came to Brexit). But other countries, notably Taiwan and South Korea, also managed the pandemic well. Governments everywhere are looking to learn from others. What lessons should they, and we, draw?

Certainly, many factors affect how affected any country is by an epidemic, and it is not always easy to tease out the effects of deliberate decisions from those of happy coincidence and luck. Yet it is clear that the German government made some good decisions early on. The German authorities, like the Taiwanese and South Koreans, tested early and often. With access to plenty of test kits and the necessary protective equipment, it tested sick and asymptomatic people alike, allowing it to isolate those who needed to be isolated before they could pass the virus on to more vulnerable neighbours, keeping hospitalisation and death rates down. Being confident of its ability to test and trace infections meant that it could target lock-ins to those most at risk of passing on the virus or becoming infected themselves, thereby avoiding the crippling, economy-wide lock-ins that Italy, Spain and France were obliged to impose.

Germany took the controversial step of closing its borders unilaterally, even to other Europeans. Spain, Italy and France were reluctant to do so, preferring a coordinated Schengen-wide approach. That turned out to be one of the mistakes early on in the crisis.

Strong political leadership is crucial in any crisis. While Italian, Spanish and French governments were assiduous in heeding expert advice, Angela Merkel, a physicist in her pre-politics day job, did not only that, but she also spoke with personal authority, explaining in easy terms how pandemics spread, and the importance of getting the R0 to below 1.0 and keeping it there. Her political experience in previous crises had taught her to communicate regularly, not just with her political confreres in Germany, but with all Germans, thereby winning their confidence.

But other, unrelated factors worked in German’s favour too. In particular, Mrs Merkel was helped by the federal structure, a legacy of the constitution composed for it by the Allies at the end of WWII, designed to limit the power of the Chancellor. This meant that, in the course of ordinary business, Chancellors consulted frequently with leaders of the 16 Länder, where power resides, before taking decisions at the federal level. And as Mrs Merkel had already announced that she would not be seeking re-election at the end of her term, as the other heads of governments will be obliged to do, she had important extra room to move.

The governments of Italy Spain and France are much more centralised. This allows quick decision-making, but with debate tending to happen afterward, also increases the scope for dissent. That demands even stronger leadership at the top. Yet all three leaders are relatively young, and lack Mrs Merkel’s first-hand experience in dealing with crises.

All four countries have excellent health systems. But they were handicapped by two critical differences. All four, but Italy in particular, was hit early, when information about the virus was sparse and notoriously unreliable, increasing the likelihood that decisions would turn out to be wrong. For various reasons, and despite concerted efforts, they were less able to get their hands on the quantities of tests and protective gear needed for widespread testing and isolation, obliging them to restrict these to medical and paramedical staff. When lock-ins became unavoidable, they were necessarily broad and economically crippling.

If you wonder why Italy, Spain and France were hit so much earlier than Germany, start with the structure of their economies. In all three, tourism, a major vector of contagion, is a big part of the economy, whereas in Germany it is less so. This is doubly unfortunate, as it is the sector hit hardest by the subsequent self-imposed economic coma, making the economic consequences that much worse for all three – and longer-lasting.

Covid-19 is unique and uniquely challenging. It is the first time in living memory that a profound crisis hit health, economic and political systems simultaneously. It is also very unusual in that it affects all major economies more or less severely. Few have escaped. Unlike with, say, the GFC in 2008-09 or a natural disaster such as a flood, Covid-stricken countries cannot count on international aid and robust demand in other parts of the world to help their economies recover – or even to furnish urgently needed goods and services.

Prompt, smart decisions and strong leadership are crucial in any national crisis and Germany scores highly. It also demonstrated good neighbourliness in welcoming sick French and Italians into its hospitals when those countries’ systems were overloaded. But it would be a big mistake to draw the wrong lessons by not recognising the importance of some happy circumstances unrelated to epidemic management that smiled on Germany during Covid-19.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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