Fragmented Authority Inside Germany's Piecemeal Response to Corona

Germany has finally moved to shut down public life in the face of the coronavirus. But its halting response to the dangers posed by the pandemic illustrate the shortcomings of decentralized authority and the federalist approach. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
A meeting the German government's coronavirus crisis committee

A meeting the German government's coronavirus crisis committee

Foto: Andreas Gora/ ddp images

The things people are willing to die for. Fame, power, money? That much is clear. But James Blunt? Yeah, some people are even willing to die for James Blunt.

The English singer has been on tour in Germany since Monday. He landed his first major hit with "You’re beautiful,” which starts with a short guitar intro, with Blunt then joining in with his meltingly soft voice: "I saw your face, in a crowded place, and I don't know what to do ..."

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall was supposed be just such a "crowded place” on Wednesday evening, despite the threat of the coronavirus. Around 2,100 fans had tickets, even though some must have been wondering over the past couple of days whether they should actually go.

A day earlier, James Blunt had performed a concert in Leipzig as if the coronavirus didn’t exist. By the point, the city of Hannover had already cancelled his planned Thursday concert there. And between those two dates, there was Hamburg, with 2,100 people in a concert hall - the kind of event that virologists are now saying are high risk.

A Last Chance to Go Out

On the other hand, the gig at the Elbphilharmonie was the last chance for fans to go out before a mass wave of closures of public spaces that is now expected in Germany. "We shared a moment, that will last 'til the end,” as the Blunt lyric goes. One more magic moment, one that will stay in our memory – that’s what live concerts are all about. It almost makes you wonder how many joked that this would be their last moment of normal life?

The cancellation came on Wednesday afternoon. Blunt still performed the concert, but instead of a live audience, it was streamed on the internet. Tour sponsor Deutsche Telekom got cold feet. The planned concert at Hamburg’s Barclaycard Arena three days later had already been cancelled by the city, which has imposed a ban on any events with more than 1,000 guests. The void has now arrived in Hamburg, too, and no one knows how long it will last.

One week ago, German Health Minister Jens Spahn issued a recommendation that any event with more than 1,000 attendees be cancelled. Since then, Germany has slowly been turning into a ghost town. Professional football matches have been played in empty stadiums in North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen, the opera, concert halls and theaters have been closed in Bavaria and Berlin, semester breaks have been extended at universities in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the literature festival Lit.Cologne has been cancelled as was the Leipzig Book Festival, for the first time in 71 years. The point behind all these measures is to flatten the curve of infections and to win time in order to ensure the hospitals aren’t overflowing and thus save human lives.

Football matches continued to play to full stadiums in Leipzig, Rostock and Stuttgart, and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie continued with its concert program until Tuesday. Life had to go on somehow. But can it continue to go on like that?

All across the country, public officials and politicians have been seeking a common line on whether they should approve events or cancel them. That line, though, was rather serpentine – and the reason for that quickly became clear: It’s due to Germany’s system of federalism. Responsibility for decisions on infection control lies entirely with the German states, municipalities and administrative districts and not with the federal government in Berlin. In some places, officials quickly recognized that the virus would spread rapidly and that there would be tens of thousands of deaths if no action was taken. At least that’s how all serious virologists view the situation.

But in some places, it appears that officials really did believe that COVID-19 would be some kind of mild flu, not much different from a normal winter flu. So why shut everything down? Why not take a wait-and-see approach?

Willy-nilly decisions were made across the country as the German health minister recommended closures, but could do nothing to actually make sure they happened. With no ability to issue orders, all he could do was encourage officials to take action. Spahn lamented on Germany’s national public radio station that he would like to see "a somewhat more uniform approach.”

It was only on Thursday, at a meeting between Germany’s state governors and Chancellor Angela Merkel, that a general position began to crystalize – the strict one that Spahn had been recommending. But that doesn’t change the fact that German federalism has massively slowed down the official response to the pandemic. The decisions on how to deal with the coronavirus had to go through around 400 public health departments across Germany. And through 16 state governments, which largely left the decision-making to those public health departments.

An Ethical Dilemma

But it’s also true to say that the coronavirus has already plunged Germany into an ethical dilemma that would still be there regardless of who is in charge. It pits two of our highest values against each other, without any real way of reconciling them – that of protecting lives and that of having a free society. The virus requires a decision on what weighs most heavily: the danger of death posed to individuals or the death of public life. Protecting lives would require rigorous decisions to cancel events and close things. Who, after all, wants to be responsible for the loss of even a single life?

On the other hand, a country where everything is closed or cancelled, where people can’t live freely, isn’t what people expect from a free country. It lacks freedom of assembly, the freedom of people to manifest their personalities or participate in public life, politics, culture and sport. And what will happen if this lasts not just two or three weeks, but two or three months, as Spahn has indicated it might? Or if there is no end in sight?

Set against that conflict, any decision made can seem like the wrong one – and that’s why officials have been so torn across all of Germany in recent days and why decisions are being made without any apparent overarching plan. The strength of a federal state is its ability to adapt to any local situation, but that can also be its greatest weakness, since it requires so many decisions and so many of them can be the wrong ones. The same thing happens in the event of an imminent pandemic.

It creates a situation in which a country with 16 states responds at 16 different speeds to the coronavirus. The Chinese office of the World Health Organization first reported a growing number of patients with pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on Dec. 31, 2019. Nine days later, the Chinese authorities confirmed that a new virus had emerged. That’s the point at which the clock began ticking for the entire world, even for generally well-organized Germany, a country that has sophisticated pandemic plans at the federal, state and local levels in addition to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, which acts as Germany’s center for disease control. The institute also has a prestigious think tank working in the field of infectious diseases.

In addition, Germany’s Protection from Infection Act even provides the authorities with considerable leeway to restrict certain freedoms in an emergency. Orders can be given for the cancellation of events. People can be placed under mandatory quarantine. And officials can even force their way into people’s homes to take saliva samples. All this and more is allowed in order to contain the threat of a disease spreading.

However, responsibility for all this lies with the states in the Federal Republic of Germany, and that’s also how it should be considering that Germany’s postwar democratic structures were created as an antidote to the centralized, authoritarian leadership principles of the Nazis.

Under the system, decisions are supposed to be made as close to the people as possible, where they are. Under that same logic, the federal states also largely pass responsibility for protection from infectious diseases downward. In Hamburg, for example, it is primarily delegated to the district authorities. In Hesse, the districts and the independent cities are responsible. In cases of importance across multiple regions, the state government can intervene and issue orders to the local authorities.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Robert Koch Institute considered this political structure to be the best solution. The last pandemic, the 2009 swine flu, which caused an estimated 350 deaths in Germany and 200,000 victims globally, showed that the effects "can vary greatly, even within a large country like Germany. That’s why it’s possible, for example, for some states to undertake measures that aren’t necessary in other areas.” The regional approach to the fight against the swine flu was one of the reasons it went so smoothly in Germany, the institute stated. Praise, essentially, for the federalist system.

A Warning Shot

It appears that it took the German government quite a bit of time before they began realizing that a new virus and pathogen that poses an entirely different scale of danger could easily overwhelm regional or provincial health authorities. The federal government didn’t even set up a central crisis committee in Berlin until Feb. 27.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron, declared the corona epidemic to be his country’s main priority. He issued a decree capping the price of disinfectants and ordering the government seizure of protective face masks. In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took the unprecedented move of placing a country of 60-million residents under what is essentially house arrest. In Poland, meanwhile, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki banned all mass gatherings and, like several other countries, closed all daycare centers, schools and universities. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has held back, almost to the point of invisibility, as her health minister was dispatched to give out friendly advice.

All this as the number of infections shot up, the first Germans had died, and everyone had become cognizant of the fact that 60 to 70 percent of the population could ultimately get infected. The notes of a meeting that Helge Braun, the chief of staff at Merkel's Chancellery, held with his counterparts at the state level last week show that he conceded that "containment," the isolation of the infected and the people they have come into contact with, "probably won't work in Germany."

All the more reason, one might think, to centralize power in such a situation, but instead, laments Carsten Schneider, a senior member of parliament with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), "every district medical officer has more of a say than the federal health minister.” Not everyone in the coalition government between the SPD and Merkel’s conservatives shares that view, though. Antje Tillmann, a member of parliament with the conservatives, believes the best way to fight epidemics is still at the state and municipal level. Even with centralized decision-making structures, France and Italy have higher corona death rates than Germany. Nevertheless, Karl Lauterbach, the health policy coordinator for the SPD and a leading health expert in Germany, who is himself currently under quarantine, has scathing criticism for Germany’s pandemic policies so far. "What we’re experiencing now is a warning shot. It shows that our federal system doesn’t work in the fight against epidemics in the 21st century."

It’s a warning shot that Health Minister Spahn also likely heard at some point in recent days. Since that point, it’s clear the he has been trying to gain the upper hand – if the laws didn’t give him much power, then he at least had to take the lead in the debate. Spahn’s power is his words, and after a week of duking it out with the states, it now appears that the things he’s been calling for will now be enforced.

It took a long time before he found the courage to act so firmly. The crisis committee he assembled together with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, meets twice a week. Officials from the Robert Koch Institute provide a briefing, information is gathered and measures are recommended. The meetings are also attended by representatives of the foreign, defense, finance and transport ministries as well as by officials from the Chancellery and each of the German states. Afterward, the health and interior ministers of each state are also informed about the discussions that took place.

The Trouble with the States

Things have gone pretty well in the coronavirus crisis on issues where the federal government has jurisdiction. But it doesn’t have much jurisdiction beyond placing bans on flights or people entering the country or imposing border controls. At Tuesday’s meeting, officials quickly addressed the issue of border protection. With the coronavirus raging through Italy, Austria imposed a general ban on entry into the country for people traveling from Italy.

Rather than performing to an audience, English pop star James Blunt performed to an empty hall in Hamburg on Wednesday and live streamed the event for his fans.

Rather than performing to an audience, English pop star James Blunt performed to an empty hall in Hamburg on Wednesday and live streamed the event for his fans.

Foto: TELEKOM

The panel also decided that it was time for Germany to act. They requested that the Federal Police now check travelers at German-Austrian border for symptoms. "We'll do it," said Federal Police hear Dieter Romann, who is also a member of the crisis committee. Federal Police officers have since been questioning travelers from Italy about possible symptoms of the disease. On Thursday, Interior Minister Seehofer also moved to further tighten procedures, expanding the controls to all borders to Germany.

The next issue addressed was procurement. Doctors and nurses aren’t allowed to administer corona tests or provide treatment to those infected without special respiratory masks and protective clothing. Even normal surgical masks could become scarce in hospitals.

After the crisis committee forbade the export of protective masks a week ago, Germany’s Armed Forces are now stepping in to help: The Bundeswehr’s procurement office in Koblenz is sending staff out around the world to track down remaining stocks of masks and ventilators for intensive care units. They’re even tracking down sources in the United States.

But things grow more complicated when the German states have to play along. To cite one example of many: The district of Euskirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia has just under 200,000 residents and had four confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Thursday. The main person responsible for combating the coronavirus here is a man named Christian Ramolla, the head of Department 53, "Health.” At the beginning of February, as experts at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin were still mulling ways they could ward off the impending epidemic, Ramolla was also coming up with a plan: his own. On two pages, he noted that it was necessary "to protect sensitive structures in the district of Euskirchen.” He wrote that he wanted to prevent a scenario in which "medical practices had to close because employees were sent into quarantine, trash collectors were no longer allowed to work or the waterworks were left unstaffed.” It’s also his opinion that not everyone who comes into contact with an infected person should be placed under immediate quarantine. Nor did it bother him much that his stance deviated from the Robert Koch Institute’s firm position on putting those infected or exposed into isolation. He also had the backing of the district government and the state. Their view was that Berlin wasn’t responsible and it was far away.

Conflicts Over Public Events

But there has been no other area where the crisis committee’s impotence has been as obvious as it is on the question of whether to cancel football matches, concerts or trade fairs. Initially, the federal government’s crisis managers felt it was better not to intervene, that things needed to be left to the states – otherwise the federal government would soon find itself having to make a decision about every little village fair. That was also Spahn's position. So two weeks ago, the crisis committee decided to refer to the Robert Koch Institute's more stringent recommendations, but to keep things sufficiently vague so that the states would still have a free hand. Decisions on whether to approve events without any changes or to impose conditions or push for them to be postponed or totally cancelled was a matter for the states. Talk of the 1,000-visitor-limits that have now become the norm hadn’t even begun yet.

But the number of questions being asked of the Federal Health Ministry by the states and the districts started growing. Why did all the vague statements really mean? And when could they expect clear announcements so that the football clubs and concert managers wouldn’t be directing their anger solely at them? Yet others wanted to hear as little as possible from Berlin, so that they could still hold a festival or football match. Just last weekend, the Bundesliga, Germany’s top football league, played all of its matches in stadiums filled with fans. Hadn’t anyone heard about the coronavirus?

By Sunday, Spahn had had enough and broke out of the corset federalism places on federal ministers. He tweeted that events with more than 1,000 participants should be cancelled. Pro forma, he added "from my point of view," to the end of his message, but it still marked the beginning of the fight. And although many in the states might not have realized it immediately, that fight had already been won. In a crisis, the side that offers the greatest possible safety wins. To risk something when others are issuing urgent warnings is not a political survival strategy.

But it still took some time for the states to realize that Health Minister Spahn had prevailed. In Stuttgart, the public health office was hesitant to lock fans out of the stadiums at the match between the local team VfB Stuttgart and Arminia Bielefeld on Monday. By that point, Baden-Württemberg, where the match was to be held, was the state with the second most infections in the country, with 234 cases, but the top match between the second division teams was apparently more important.

Coronavirus Infections in Germany

Just as in Leipzig. The fact that the annual Leipzig Book Fair was cancelled on March 3 under pressure from the federal government had already hit the city hard. And now it was supposed to keep the fans out of the stadium of the first Champions Leagues round of 16 in the history of the RB Leipzig football team? The team has not only become the city’s most famous brand, but also a provider of 3,000 to 8,000 jobs in the region, as Mayor Burkhard Jung once said. The city ultimately refused to keep fans at home on Tuesday, the justification being that the opposing team, Tottenham, didn't come from a coronavirus hotspot. All the better that James Blunt from England was also there. He was allowed to sing in front of 5,000 fans that same evening in a different venue about 400 meters away as the crow flies. The fact that Britain had experienced six COVID-19 deaths by then? Didn't matter.

More of the Same

The football team Eintracht Frankfurt was also supposed to play a Europa League match in a sold-out stadium on Thursday night against FC Basel. René Gottschalk, the head of the public health department in Frankfurt, argued on Monday that he didn’t think there would be too many spectators from risk areas such as Italy or Iran coming to the Frankfurt stadium. Moreover, he argued that the risk of infection is much higher in confined spaces or party tents.

Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler, German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a coronavirus press conference in Berlin

Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler, German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a coronavirus press conference in Berlin

Foto: HERMANN BREDEHORST

Two days later, more of the same. Only this time, Gottschalk was claiming that the statistical risk of infection in a stadium is zero. Just hours later, Gottschalk found himself sitting in front of the press again, but this time he had to explain that the match would be played in an empty stadium after all. He said the risks were minimal, but that the Robert Koch Institute had issued a new risk assessment for the Alsace region, which is also home to a number of FC Basel fans.

In Hannover, Hauke Jagau, the regional president responsible for the decision, said on Monday that a closer look would be taken at the thousands of visitors planning to attend the James Blunt concert in the TUI Arena three days later. The attendees were coming from close by, and not from risk regions, he argued. Health Minister Carola Reimann took a similar position. She argued that the virus wasn’t even circulating in Lower Saxony yet. Then the concert was cancelled after all.

This kind of reticence continued across the country until the middle of the week. Kai Klose, the social minister in the central German state of Hesse, which had 30 known cases on Monday, claimed that the situation in the state could not be compared to the one in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which by that point had 500 confirmed cases. The governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, said it did make any sense for "some person in Berlin to make stipulations that apply down to the smallest village.”

But by that point, others had already begun retreating, and then the states fell like dominoes. The first to drop was North Rhine-Westphalia Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann on Sunday evening, who announced on a talk show that, for now, Bundesliga games would no longer be played in front of fans in his state. Then came Bavaria on Monday: No more events with more than 1,000 attendees. On Tuesday, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia and Bremen followed suit. Under pressure from Spahn’s tweet, they all suddenly realized that they could easily implement quite a few measures.

Then came Saxony on Wednesday, one day after an RB Leipzig game. The first event to be postponed was the 61st Congress of the German Society for Pneumology and Respiratory Medicine in Leipzig, which was to gather precisely the doctors needed to take care of corona patients. 

Growing Pressure

Other states, however, once again made it clear that they didn’t approve of the overall direction of things, and decided to limit their measures to non-binding recommendations to cancel events with more than 1,000 visitors. This included Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, which also suggested that this limit only be implemented for indoor spaces, not for outdoor gatherings. Governor Dreyer grumbled that the number 1,000 had been "plucked” out of the air and that it was not scientifically justified. She argued that, for many events in closed spaces, the figure was much too high, while more visitors could safely attend events outdoors.

But there was enormous pressure on the states to agree on a plan of action by Thursday at the latest, when governors were scheduled to meet with Chancellor Merkel. Even before the group separated again, Hesse and Hamburg announced that they were also implementing a 1,000-person limit. That evening, the chancellor explained that the federal and state governments had agreed not only to cancel events with more than 1,000 participants, but also to call off all non-essential gatherings with smaller numbers of participants. Bavarian Governor Marcus Söder specified that "essential” meant legally essential, infrastructurally essential and economically essential. Everything else, he said, should not take place. The measures were to be implemented for four to five weeks, for now.

Ultimately, they were also under pressure from their own health authorities, who wanted clarity, and from event organizers, who didn’t want to be left hanging with costs. Cancelling an event was hard enough. But additional requests for compensation from artists and ticket buyers would have been even worse. As long as authorities were only recommending that events be cancelled, the event-organizers were trapped "on the fence,” says Tobias Lerch, a lawyer from the northern German city of Celle. It is possible that, in such cases, the organizer would have to pay the artists and for the space, and also return money to ticket-holders.

If the ban is mandatory, things might be different. The situation would potentially qualify as a force majeure, in which case they might be entitled to compensation. According to Hamburg administrative lawyer Sigrid Wienhues, this would probably not be based directly on the Protection Against Infection Act, "but on general regulatory law.” The states would then have to pay, which could be expensive.

Even Nuclear Protests Are Banned

In at least one area, however, the coronavirus will save the government a lot of money. In the first week of April, a date that had previously been secret, a transport carrying nuclear waste from the British reprocessing plant in Sellafield was set to arrive at the Biblis nuclear power plant in Hesse. It was to be the first of four planned deliveries from English and French facilities between now and 2024.

But the German Federal Police would have had to protect the train route with 600 officers. Officials in Berlin were concerned that such a large number of officers in a contained area could lead to mass infections on the force. Even without the nuclear transport, the German Federal Police had reported 135 potential infections among its ranks by the start of the week, as well as three confirmed cases.

Then came a decision by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to cancel the operation. A memo by Romann, the head of the German Federal Police, said that the transport was "as of immediately cancelled” and that the deployment "could not be authorized” given the current spread of the coronavirus. In the midst of a pandemic, it turns out, even anti-nuclear protests are considered public events with more than 1,000 people.

By Matthias Bartsch, Annette Bruhns, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Michael Fröhlingsdorf, Hubert Gude, Dietmar Hipp, Julia Jüttner, Veit Medick, Lydia Rosenfelder, Jonas Schaible, Cornelia Schmergal, Ansgar Siemens, Lukas Stern, Steffen Winter