Learning from Mistakes The Lessons of Germany's Coronavirus Response

Germany's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been widely praise, but plenty of mistakes have been made both in Berlin and in state capitals. Have we learned anything?
Coronavirus testing station at the Cologne/Bonn airport.

Coronavirus testing station at the Cologne/Bonn airport.


Christoph Hardt / picture alliance / dpa

Bodo Ramelow, governor of the eastern German state of Thuringia, is sitting in his office talking about buses. Two of them. The first bus was full of schoolchildren from Lake Balaton in Hungary, while the other was carrying retirees back home from the spa town of Františkovy Lázně in the Czech Republic. Each, though, had passengers on board who were infected with the coronavirus.

In bus one, no additional child caught the infection. But in bus two, almost everyone on board ultimately came down with the virus, as did many of the people they later came into contact with in the state of Thuringia.

"With the retirees, it spread explosively, but with the children, it didn't," says Ramelow.

If one can assume that these bus trips were representative of the behavior of the virus, then it would highlight two significant mistakes made by political leaders at the start of the pandemic. One of the first responses to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 was the closure of daycare centers and schools. Meanwhile, special protection measures for seniors were rejected, except in retirement homes.

But at the beginning of the pandemic, the situation was so new and so uncertain that the word "mistake" doesn't carry quite the same impact as it often does. Such a mistake would only be unforgivable if no lessons were learned from it.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 41/2020 (October 2nd, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Were they? Germany has spent almost seven months under the yoke of the coronavirus and the pandemic continues to overshadow our day-to-day lives and to inform many political decisions. After a difficult spring and a relatively relaxed summer, the country has grown nervous now that fall has arrived. With numbers ticking upward, nobody knows what is in store for us. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of the possibility of 19,200 daily new infections by Christmas, which many feel is rather alarmist. But we do now know that the number of infections alone doesn't say all that much about the dangers presented by the coronavirus, yet that number is still a major focus of Germany's political leadership and of the media. So, have we learned anything?

On the whole, our knowledge of the virus and its behavior and effects has grown considerably, improving the basis for political decisions. Still, there is still plenty of uncertainty, which is why a question mark remains behind every decision made by the government. What is reasonable? What is the correct decision within the trio of concerns: health, freedom and prosperity? Health, of course, has the priority, but it is just as important to avoid a second lockdown, due to its implications for freedom and prosperity.

Such is the environment within which politicians continue to find themselves, a state of ambiguity made all the more difficult by the fact that it still isn't clear whether the first lockdown was totally necessary in the first place - particularly the closure of schools and daycare centers.

With more difficult decisions coming, it is time to take a closer look at how the government has thus far navigated Germany and its federal states through this crisis. What have they experienced? What have they learned?

The Doubter

If you tell René Gottschalk that Germany has been lucky thus far because the pandemic hasn't hit the country as hard as others, his answer is: "No, it wasn't luck, but an extremely effective public health-care system." The hospitals have enough beds, he points out, and health officials have been assiduous in tracing infection chains. "Contact tracing, particularly in the early phases, was the key to success."

There is an element of self-regard in his response. Gottschalk is an infectiologist and head of the Public Health Department in the city of Frankfurt. Earlier, the position would not have given him a top slot in the banking city's hierarchy. These days, though, senior health officials are crucial.

René Gottschalk: "If people would consistently wear masks, the nightmare would be over in a few weeks."

René Gottschalk: "If people would consistently wear masks, the nightmare would be over in a few weeks."

Foto: Gaby Gerster / DER SPIEGEL

During the first SARS outbreak in 2003, Gottschalk flew to Hong Kong. The widespread use of masks combined with measures imposed by public health officials, he says, led to the disappearance of the virus. All other viruses that spread through the air were also curtailed, he adds. The lesson he has drawn: "If people would consistently wear masks, the nightmare would be over in a few weeks."

Angela Merkel and Chancellery Chief of Staff Helge Braun didn't initially agree. They even thought masks might be counterproductive. Instead, they implemented a rather moderate lockdown.

Gottschalk didn't agree with that decision at the time. "We have to be clear about what we are discussing here. We are talking about an illness that 80 percent of the population has no trouble with. A very, very small number of patients die, in Germany it is between 0.4 and 0.7 percent," he says. Since March, 3,428 people in Frankfurt have become infected with the virus and 71 of them have died. "That is very, very few." In total, he says, Germany's mortality rate is even sinking.

Is that because of the measures that have been imposed? Or would Germany have emerged relatively unscathed even without a lockdown? It is a discussion that will likely continue for eternity.

Gottschalk's proposal for a new approach is as follows: "Protect those who are especially at risk," meaning the elderly and those with existing conditions. Bus number two, in other words, should never have been allowed to depart.

The population is becoming increasingly critical, Gottschalk believes, and he isn't referring to the tin-hat conspiracy theorists who believe that Bill Gates manufactured the virus intentionally. He means reasonable people, even though support for government measures remains quite high in public opinion surveys.

Gottschalk himself suffers from the fact that the opera house is only allowing a significantly restricted number of visitors. "Cabarets are dead, as are the theaters and the trade fairs. And it's all because of this illness."

The Decision Makers

Mornings are the worst, say both Armin Laschet and Markus Söder. The two men are significant figures in Germany's battle against the pandemic: Laschet is the conservative governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and Söder holds the same position in Bavaria. They agree that waking up to the pandemic every morning is like an ongoing nightmare, especially because they have to make the decisions.

They are faced with a perpetual search for numbers, for facts, for a basis upon which to decide which course to chart. They rarely find the kind of reliable information they need, but the decisions have to be made nonetheless, and they have far-reaching consequences for the people in the states they govern.

But aside from the feeling they wake up with, the two don't have all that much in common. Despite their conservative politics - with Laschet belonging to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Söder a member of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the vast differences between the two became abundantly clear in conversations with DER SPIEGEL.

Markus Söder speaks like a man who is comfortably satisfied with himself despite knowing that not everything has been perfect. There were, after all, no off-the-shelf plans available for a situation like this. Nothing had been prepared. It is something that he is still surprised about, though he didn't do much pandemic planning either in the many years he has been involved in Bavarian politics.

When asked specifically about the snafus with Bavaria's late summer testing strategy, Söder reacts as though he has no idea what the question is referring to. What snafu? When reminded that it took several days for Bavarian officials to process tens of thousands of tests performed on people returning from summer vacation, Söder sought to explain it away.

Gottfried Ludewig, Health Ministry tech expert: "There is a proclivity in the public debate to describe the coronavirus with a specific number. But there isn't one, this is an iterative process."

Gottfried Ludewig, Health Ministry tech expert: "There is a proclivity in the public debate to describe the coronavirus with a specific number. But there isn't one, this is an iterative process."

Foto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

Armin Laschet presents himself completely differently. He is more the contemplative sort, seemingly free of self-satisfaction and often a bit contrite. In contrast to Söder, he is more than happy to talk about mistakes that may have been made.

The closure of schools and daycare centers in Germany, one of the early steps taken in the crisis, came in March after Christian Drosten, a virologist who quickly became a leading COVID-19 advisor to the German government, changed his mind on the issue and after German state governors began growing increasingly concerned about the pandemic. Laschet was unsure what to do at the time, but he knew that something had to be done, so he agreed to shut down schools in the state. Today, he says he wouldn't make that same decision again because of the serious social consequences, a mistake he has learned from. And Laschet has no problem admitting it.

It is, of course, easier for Söder to exhibit self-confidence because his policies have been well-received, and he is far ahead of Laschet in the popularity rankings. Indeed, whereas Laschet had realistic hopes prior to the pandemic of becoming the conservative candidate for the Chancellery in next year's elections, he has long since been overtaken by Söder, even if the Bavarian governor has thus far said he isn't interested in the position.

Still, the differences between the two cannot have all that much to do with the effects of their pandemic policies in their states, since both Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) aren't doing particularly well. That is likely due to the fact that they are both home to large metropolitan areas - Munich in Bavaria and the Ruhr Valley in NRW – and both are close to countries that have been hit relatively hard – Italy in the south, Belgium and France in the north and west.

Nevertheless, infection numbers in their home states aren't nearly enough to explain the differences in popularity between the two politicians. Indeed, NRW hasn't had the same kind of testing snafu that Bavaria has experienced. Laschet's biggest gaffe was his awkward appearance following the July coronavirus outbreak in a huge slaughterhouse in his home state, when a huge number of workers became infected.

But appearance is everything in politics, and that is the decisive difference between the two. Söder personifies a strong, decisive state - particularly early on in the pandemic when he wanted to immediately impose a strict lockdown. Combined with a clear message, Söder's strategy was well-received in Bavaria and around the country.

For Laschet, meanwhile, self-doubt was a constant companion. How many limitations on fundamental rights can a democracy withstand? And it was obvious. His appearances seemed tortured and he looked indecisive. It's not a good look, as surveys were quick to show.

In discussing those early days, Laschet grows almost melancholic. The doubts he had, his unwillingness to completely abandon democratic freedoms: In a crisis, Germans apparently prefer the appearance of certainty and a tendency toward the authoritarian. That, too, is an interesting lesson from the pandemic.

The word "authoritarian," however, is one that Söder refuses to accept. Neither he nor the rest of the Bavarians, he insists, are particularly susceptible to authoritarian tendencies. "As much freedom as possible, as much protection as necessary," that was the tightrope he was trying to walk, he says. It is a sentence that clearly communicates the hierarchy: The necessary defines the extent of the possible. Freedom came second.

The answer each of them gave to the question regarding what they have learned about Germany's federal system during the pandemic – a system which saw each state responsible for coming up with its own approach to the virus and the shutdown – fits the pattern. Laschet says that federalism "has proved its worth. Centralism doesn't help in such situations." Söder, though, isn't so sure. "It's half-half. I sometimes found myself wishing for more from the federal government" – meaning more uniformity in the country's anti-pandemic strategy.

It is also interesting that prior to the pandemic, the political positions held by Laschet and Merkel seemed to overlap to a much greater degree than those of Merkel and Söder, but that situation has now reversed. The chancellor, who is seen as a liberal just as is Laschet, has very clearly prioritized public health above democratic freedoms.

During her conference call with the governors of German states last Tuesday, she called for the strict enforcement of the rules governing private parties. She wanted coercion. Many governors, particularly those from the states that used to make up East Germany, were opposed.

What should happen next? On this question, too, the approaches of Laschet and Söder could hardly be more different. It's not that the measures in question are so divergent, but the way the two present them. Laschet talks about the details whereas Söder prefers a trenchant slogan. Best, perhaps, would be for the two of them to work in the same team. Söder could be the point person, the salesman, while Laschet would discuss the shortcomings and the impacts on freedom.

The Numbers Guy

A pandemic can also rewrite entire careers, pushing some into the spotlight while sidelining others. Gottfried Ludewig is one of the winners of this crisis, even if he might not agree with that characterization. Thus far in his life, Ludewig's father, who was the head of Germany's national railway for a time, has always been the more famous of the two. But it may not always be so. When the pandemic arrived, Gottfried Ludewig was in the right place at the right time, working at the German Health Ministry, where he is responsible for digitalization.

In the early days of the outbreak in Germany, there was a lack of clear information for German citizens, for journalists and for politicians, despite the flood of new numbers, including infection rates, the R number and doubling rates, to name just a few. The most urgently needed statistics, though, seemed to be lacking.

"We had no precise overview of our hospital bed capacity," Ludewig says. "But we needed that number so that we could quickly see when our health-care system would reach its limits."

After just four weeks, Ludewig rolled out a new database of intensive care beds in the country, suddenly giving policymakers real-time knowledge about how many beds were occupied and how many were still free. Such a rapid roll-out would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. Indeed, corona has revealed just how much potential there is in companies and parliaments around the world. Suddenly, things can move extremely quickly, often thanks to digital developments. In many instances, red tape was eliminated virtually overnight - a situation that many would like to see continue.

Ludewig says he would like to see "more courage to accept imperfection" when it comes to digital innovation. Normally, projects like the one he pushed through would be preceded by two years of draft plans, only to realize that they no longer mirror reality. He says Germany's coronavirus app is a good example. It is far from being perfect, but Ludewig says it shouldn't necessarily be measured according to that standard. It is, he says, no panacea, but it is an additional tool to help us live with the virus.

More broadly, Ludewig says that we shouldn't be fixating on pandemic statistics of the kind that continue to dominate the headlines and the public debate. "There is a proclivity in the public debate to describe the coronavirus with a specific number. But there isn't one, this is an iterative process. You have to consider a variety of aspects to get a realistic view." The number of intensive care beds available, the infection numbers, the death rate and much more: It's all interrelated, he says.

Ludewig doesn't mention the chancellor specifically, but she – a scientist herself – hasn't always cut the best figure in her approach to pandemic statistics. She has discussed the doubling rate, the R number and, most recently, a speculative daily infection number, but she has often been oddly superficial. It has often seemed as though she reaches for the number that best reflects her level of concern. That, though, isn't enough to paint a complete picture.

High school students in Berlin: "Closing the schools was easy. But responsibly reopening them again, that was the true challenge facing us."

High school students in Berlin: "Closing the schools was easy. But responsibly reopening them again, that was the true challenge facing us."

Foto: Karsten Thielker / FOTOFINDER

The Critic

One early reflex was to protect the children combined with the urge for a quick solution. The result was the rapid closure of schools in Germany. And that, in addition to the early skepticism surrounding the efficacy of masks, was likely the biggest mistake made in the pandemic.

"Closing the schools was easy," says Christian Piwarz, a member of the CDU and the education minister in the state of Saxony. "But responsibly reopening them again, that was the true challenge facing us."

It took quite some time before it became clear that children hardly contribute to the spread of the pandemic - as in the bus described by Bodo Ramelow. In contrast to other states in Germany, Saxony didn't wait around for others to move first, instead bringing in a team of advisers and becoming the first state in Germany to partially reopen its schools. It did so way back in May.

"In my opinion, we in Germany have developed a dependence on the virologists," says Piwarz. "Virologists have vital expertise, but all other scientific perspectives were ignored. It was indicative that virologists like Christian Drosten were most opposed to restarting normal school operations while associations, such as the one representing pediatricians, were calling for allowing children to go back to school.

After all, their primary focus was on children's health, and many children were suffering both physically and mentally from the lockdown. Furthermore, youth welfare services lost contact with numerous families as a result of the anti-corona measures.

When the schools and daycare centers did begin to reopen, the question was immediately raised as to whether children had to stay home if they had a runny nose. "At the time, there was talk of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI – Germany's center for disease control) reevaluating symptoms among children and issuing new guidelines," says Piwarz. "But that never happened."

German states were left to come up with their own guidelines, which ultimately led to children generally being allowed to go to school even if they had cold symptoms. "In such a difficult situation, I need a bit more movement from experts, who have a significant role to play. The RKI would have been the right place to issue such guidelines."

Piwarz is demanding more "interdisciplinary discussion among different scientific disciplines and solutions instead of inflexible demands." School and daycare closures should be the last resort. The best example for how not to do things, he says, is the July outbreak at the Tönnies slaughterhouse in Gütersloh. "The first thing they did was to close the schools and the daycare centers" in the area, even though there were no infections there. It was just a reflex response, a simple solution that solved nothing.

The lockdown on all public life only came several days later. Piwarz is quick to add that the authorities should definitely take quick action if there are cases in schools. "But this idea that schools and childcare centers must be shut down first: We have to get beyond that."

Armin Laschet now agrees. "We can't repeat the strategy of closing down schools and kindergartens first, we can't close down the shops again."

In Germany's staggered summer vacation system, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was the first state to start the new school year – at a time when it wasn’t at all clear that other states would follow suit. "The attention was enormous," says Piwarz. In the very first week, two schools in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania reported cases of COVID-19. "It was a media circus. But nobody reported on the other 560 schools where there were no cases."

The Reformer

"Do you know the story?" asks Bodo Ramelow, the governor of Thuringia, before launching into it. There was a meeting of legionnaires in a hotel in the U.S. in a hotel where water in the cooling system had apparently remained stagnant for an extended period. Bacteria was able to multiply, and once the air conditioning system was turned on, many of the legionnaires became ill and several died. The illness came to be known as Legionnaires' Disease.

"We drew consequences from the outbreak among the legionnaires," says Ramelow. "We introduced laws according to which water systems must be exhaustively tested" in hotels, schools and other public buildings. His message: There was a warning and lasting changes were made. Society behaves as though Legionnaires' Disease can come pop up at any time, and that behavior has largely prevented such an outbreak.

Bodo Ramelow: "We protect computer networks from viruses, but not our real lives. I see that as a grave mistake."

Bodo Ramelow: "We protect computer networks from viruses, but not our real lives. I see that as a grave mistake."

Foto: Nora Klein

There were also warnings of a viral pandemic. In a 2013 paper in German parliament outlining potential risks to the country's security, the possibility of a SARS epidemic was described. Everyone was shocked, Ramelow says, but nothing was done. "We didn't have a pandemic on our radar."

That is the biggest failure of the country's political leadership and institutions, but also of society, including the media. Apparently, a warning in black-and-white wasn't enough. People had to die before anything happened.

"We protect computer networks from viruses, but not our real lives," says Ramelow. "I see that as a grave mistake." He proposes taking precautions similar to those implemented following the discovery of the Legionnaires' bacteria. That means accepting that a virus can appear at any time and making the necessary preparations. One possible step could be the more widespread use of HEPA filters, which are mandatory in operating rooms and which filter out bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. "In modern buildings, we are prepared for everything, things like temperature changes and air convection," Ramelow says. "Only viruses are not part of the protection measures. We need to install HEPA filters."

In the Thuringian town of Altenburg, a device was recently developed that can filter viruses and bacteria out of 2,000 cubic meters of air per hour. If you were to hang such a filter above the supermarket checkout or in a classroom, the cashier or teacher would essentially be breathing permanently filtered air. Such a strategy would also protect against future viruses.

Ramelow also believes that drills should be developed to prepare for pandemics. "We practice for fire, for floods. We even prepare for accidents in tunnels and for train crashes. But we've never practiced for viruses. That has to change."

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has spoken of a "new normality." Filters and pandemic drills will have to be part of that.

A lot went wrong in the seven months since this pandemic started here in Germany, and a lot has been learned from those mistakes. With the relevant numbers in the country having consistently compared well internationally, it is clear, though, that the state made a lot of right moves as well.

But the state is also a behemoth that has shown a tendency to limit freedoms and extend its power into the day-to-day lives of the German people. It is up to the people in the country to reign in those tendencies. The more people adhere to the rules, the less politicians and the state will have to limit freedoms to tamp down the virus and the fewer threats there are to our prosperity.

Gottfried Ludewig, the digitalization leader in the Health Ministry, puts it this way: "No state can do as much as common citizens can when it comes to fighting this pandemic. Wearing masks, maintaining distance, following hygiene rules, not attending family gatherings if you're feeling under the weather: All of that helps in this situation far more than state-imposed requirements."