The Resurrection When Will Germany Begin Loosening Coronavirus Restrictions?
By Lukas Eberle, Jan Friedmann, Christoph Hickmann, Martin Knobbe, Julia Koch, Peter Müller, Cornelia Schmergal, Gerald Traufetter and Steffen Winter
Easter is a variable holiday, at least when it comes to the day it is celebrated. It sometimes falls at the end of March, sometimes in early April and occasionally even later than that. This year, though, it falls on this Sunday -- and the entire country is looking forward to it.
It is a bit of a paradox: The churches will be empty, since services are still prohibited because of the coronavirus. Yet Easter this year is meaningful for everybody in the country -- for Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, schoolchildren, ice-cream vendors and CEOs alike. Because after Easter, the decision will be made as to what happens next in Germany.
As things currently stand, yet another of those innumerable video conferences is planned for next Wednesday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel discussing the next steps in combatting the COVID-19 crisis with state governors from around the country. But all signs point to the meeting being anything but ordinary. It will focus on whether it is time to begin loosening the measures that have brought public life to a standstill -- measures that have pushed many people to desperation and the economy into recession. It will focus on whether a hint of freedom, or normalcy, can be reintroduced.
For Christians, Easter is the festival of resurrection. And this year, the entire country is hoping for resurrection. For a way out of the standstill.
In the past several weeks, it has frequently been said that the country is being governed by experts. It's almost as though the virologists have the power, along with, to a certain extent, the economists. But that's not entirely accurate, as the pre-Easter anticipation has demonstrated. It's not the scientists who will make the decision about returning to some semblance of normalcy, but the politicians. Only they have the power to do so.
It will likely be one of the most meaningful political decisions made in recent times. The supplementary budget of over 156 billion euros ($171 billion) that the German parliament recently passed, of course, was also a momentous decision, at least financially. But there is a huge amount riding on the question as to when and how the country can be gradually powered up again -- things like the mood in society and the economy, whether there will once again be room for plans, for optimism, for investments. Whether the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching, or whether the tunnel takes another turn.
There is a lot to consider, first and foremost the number of future infections and deaths, but also the number of unemployed. Another important factor, though, is also the mood in the country, its psychological state. It is a decision that requires instinct, intuition and the courage to take risks -- essentially those qualities that tend to distinguish politics from science.
How do politicians prepare to make such a decision? Who is advising them, what factors are they considering and how much pressure are they under? Is there already a rough outline of the decision that might be made?
Pressure from the Neighbors
Markus Söder, the governor of Bavaria, has a problem. Or, rather, two of them. And this despite things having looked so good for him for so long.
Söder, 53, has thus far played the role of decisive crisis manager in the coronavirus pandemic. But currently -- and this is his first problem -- Bavaria is number one in a category that Söder would be more than happy to give up leadership: Bavaria currently has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any state in Germany, and the most fatalities.
That is primarily a function of Bavaria's geographic location, specifically its proximity to Italy and Austria. And in the Austrian capital of Vienna is Söder's second problem: the country's chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.
Kurz this week presented a plan for leading his country out of its current lockdown. Starting on April 14, just after Easter, small shops will be allowed to reopen, followed in May by all shopping centers and hairdressers. It was Kurz, it must be recalled, who demonstrated to German conservatives how to breathe new life into a stagnant big-tent party, and now he is showing them how an exit from the corona lockdown might look. Other countries, such as Denmark, have also already initiated first steps toward loosening isolation measures.
The push from Austria caused ears to perk up around Germany, but it heaped additional pressure on its direct neighbors in Bavaria -- and on Söder in particular. There were immediate calls from the opposition Free Democrats (FDP) for the presentation of an exit timeline.
It is almost reassuring just how reliable political reflexes remain even in a crisis of the magnitude of this one. Ultimately, crisis politics are power politics. And nobody knows that better than Söder, whose crisis management has even led some to argue that he would make a good chancellor.
But thanks to Kurz, Söder is no longer in the role of proactive leader, but that of reactive killjoy. He is skeptical of prematurely loosening lockdown measures and has pointed out that Austria is three weeks ahead of Bavaria when it comes to the course of the pandemic. "We must remain careful and vigilant," he warned just before Easter. "If we can steadily persevere, we increase our chances of success in the period that follows."
Pressure from Experts
Armin Laschet, governor of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has suffered significantly under Söder's crisis management in Bavaria. The more decisive the Bavarian governor has acted, the more hesitant his counterpart in North Rhine-Westphalia has seemed. And that is a problem, given Laschet's ambitions of taking over the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and becoming the conservative candidate for chancellor in next year's election. Against that backdrop, indecision is not a good look.
That, at least, was the initial impression. Since then, though, Laschet, 59, has managed to find an appropriate role in the crisis -- that of the eager student.
He has assembled a sizeable team of consultants to address the pandemic and named the 12-person group the "Corona Expert Council." The sociologist Armin Nassehi is on the council, as is former German high court justice Udo Di Fabio and Deutsche Telekom executive Claudia Nemat. The group also includes psychologists, demographers and representatives from social services agencies.
By comparison, Thuringia Governor Bodo Ramelow prefers to rely on just three advisers. But Thuringia is quite a bit smaller than North Rhine-Westphalia. Laschet's state isn't just the most populous in Germany, but also the strongest economically. His decisions are important for the entire country.
Thus far, the Expert Council has met in three video conferences, with more such gatherings planned. Laschet plays the role of moderator, sitting at his desk in the state capital staring at a huge computer screen, a glass of cola next to him. He asks follow-up questions and takes careful notes.
Participants say the meetings focus on economic data in addition to statistics pertaining to panic-buying and to domestic violence. They say that Laschet has been advised to no longer speak of an "exit" from the lockdown measures, since it sounds too dark. Instead, Laschet now speaks of "reentry."
One of those who will have a significant influence over the decisions Laschet takes is the Bonn-based virologist Hendrik Streeck, 42. He is also part of the Expert Council and has essentially become Laschet's chief adviser in the crisis. Currently, Streeck is leading a study in Heinsberg, the area of Germany with the highest percentage of COVID-19 infections. One of the goals of the study is to figure out how large the number of unreported cases is -- how many people have unknowingly become infected with the virus. Initial results from the study, financed by the state government, were presented on Thursday. In one community in the study area, an infection rate of 15 percent was found, far higher than the 5 percent previously assumed.
"Pardon me," the professor says when reached by phone, chewing into the mouthpiece. He says he has to eat something before he collapses, understandable given the stress he is under. Laschet wants to have concrete numbers at hand when he begins discussion of "reentry" measures with the chancellor and the other state governors.
"We can't say precisely what each particular measure has actually achieved," Streeck says. "But we can deliver so-called important indicators. We are looking at the transmission of the virus in families. Should it become clear, for example, that children are less likely to get sick from the virus, that could be an indicator that reopening schools might be possible."
Health Minister Jens Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel prior to the corona crisis: "It is important that we remain vigilant."Foto: Axel Schmidt/ REUTERS
Streeck and his team members are visiting homes and apartments, examining door handles and remote controls to determine where the virus can be found. They are trying to learn why some people end up in intensive care and why some die. These are basic questions to which answers must quickly be found. Most scientists hate rushed research. But there isn't much of a choice at the moment.
"Many politicians have an idea of what the next steps might look like," says Streeck. "Armin Laschet will be one of the few who can refer to scientific data."
Pressure from the Infection Curve
At midday last Tuesday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn displayed a rare moment of public emotion. He was sitting in front of an ice-blue wall displaying the Baden-Württemberg coat-of-arms and had a somber look on his face as he discussed Easter weekend.
Spahn, 39, had come to Stuttgart for a meeting with Governor Winfried Kretschmann. "It is also difficult for me to refrain from visiting my parents this weekend. But it is important that we remain vigilant."
The minister usually avoids making any references to his private life, but he wanted to send a message. Easter weekend will play a decisive role in deciding whether it is time to begin returning to normalcy.
The curve of new infections is flattening out, but when it comes to serious cases, Spahn is concerned that an initial "peak" is still to come. In many regions, Easter will likely provide a first answer to a life-or-death question: Does Germany have enough ventilators available for COVID-19 patients? The answer is crucial for Spahn.
To find it, the Health Ministry monitors one particular group of numbers on a daily basis. It can be found in a nationwide platform called DIVI, an online register of available ventilators. Spahn has issued a decree requiring all clinics to report unused capacity.
The second decisive number for Spahn is provided by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's answer to the Centers of Disease Control in the U.S. The so-called "reproductive number," referred to simply as the RO by experts, indicates how many people a COVID-19 patient infects. "That is the number that is extremely relevant to us," says RKI head Lothar Wieler.
At the beginning of the epidemic, the number was around three. On Wednesday, it was around 1.2, dropping then to 1.1 on Thursday. The stated goal is that of getting it permanently under one, which would mean that the pandemic was subsiding and the point at which a gradual loosening of measures could be considered.
It is now, in other words, up to DIVI and RO to determine when people can start looking forward to an evening in the beer garden or a visit to their families. And ultimately it is up to Spahn to consider the numbers, produce a recommendation and make a decision. To do so, he is relying on two guiding questions. The first: What is least expendable? Where must we take the first steps back to normality? He counts the ability to make a living in that category. The second question: What things are easiest to do without? Spahn's answer: "Festivals, going to clubs, things like fairs and carinvals."
Pressure from the Economy
The largest concerns are reserved for the business world, and that is the territory of Economy Minister Peter Altmaier. Of all people.
More than almost any economy minister before him, Altmaier has recently been in the crosshairs of companies and the industry trade groups to which they belong. Germany's mid-sized companies have been particularly disenchanted in the last year, but so too has the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA). And now it is up to Altmaier to save German companies?
Suddenly, they all want money from him. The KfW, Germany's state-owned development bank, has already received 7,500 applications for loans amounting to 20 billion euros, with the number climbing steadily. Altmaier is currently holding two video conferences a week with all association representatives -- and they are overwhelming him with new requests. More than anything, though, they are asking the same question over and over: When will the restrictions on public life finally be lifted?
Altmaier knows that May will be the decisive month. If things don't start looking up for companies by then, the problems will become so large that they can no longer be managed. Altmaier's deputies are watching with concern the slow pace of preparations for easing restrictions. And because nobody likes to bear the blame alone, they have found a favorite target for their frustrations: the Health Ministry, led by Altmaier's party ally, Jens Spahn.
Germans have largely taken the social distancing measures to heart, but politicians are worried about lifting them too soon.Foto: Christoph Soeder/ DPA
There are two areas where Altmaier's staff feel their counterparts in the Health Ministry are wanting. For one, protective face masks. A precondition for lifting restrictions after Easter is the presence of sufficient masks -- several million of them each day. Companies will need huge numbers of masks if they are to restart production -- for workers on the factory floor, for example. The Health Ministry has taken the lead on the issue, which has ruffled feathers in the Economy Ministry, where staff point out that failures to order enough masks in January and February can hardly be made up for now. A team under the leadership of the Economy Ministry has now been tasked with expanding mask production in Germany. Spahn remains responsible for obtaining masks from abroad.
The second area is the development of the app that could warn people if they had contact with someone later identified as corona-positive. Here, too, the health minister is responsible, and here, too, things are not going as planned. Taken together, people in the Economy Ministry worry, the problems could have a toxic effect on an already plummeting economy. If initial steps aren't taken to ease measures after Easter, then things will likely get even darker, Economy Ministry staff argues. Their message: It wouldn't be our fault.
But after Easter -- on Wednesday, to be precise -- Spahn and Altmaier will be part of the same conference. Together with the woman who will ultimately have to bear responsibility.
What the Path Ahead Might Look Like
The lives of Angela Merkel and her chief of staff, Helge Braun, consist these days of video conferences, text messages and more video conferences. There are constant meetings with state governors, cabinet members, business leaders, European neighbors, the European Commission in Brussels and with government leaders from around the world. And then there are the scientists with all of their recommendations.
Merkel has recently been a decent barometer of just how quickly some experts have changed their minds at times during this crisis. The chancellor was initially opposed to early school closures, but rapidly reversed course when virologist Christian Drosten, a leading scientific adviser to the government, changed his mind virtually overnight.
It wasn't the only area where the government corrected its course. Just over a week ago, the government was skeptical of the efficacy of recommending face masks for the public at large. But on Monday, Merkel said that expert opinion on masks was changing, "and we won't stand in the way." And indeed, masks are likely to play a significant role when the government does announce measures to loosen restrictions. "Why do you think the chancellor is pushing so hard for their acquisition," says one cabinet member.
To get an idea of the direction things might go next week, it is helpful to take a look at Halle. The city is home to the Leopoldina, an almost 370-year-old research collective with 1,610 members. More importantly, it is an institute that Merkel trusts. What they say carries weight in the Chancellery.
The institute has long in the business of advising politicians and they recently established an 18-member working group focusing specifically on the coronavirus pandemic. They hold video conferences once or twice a week, sometimes more, and have already produced two "ad-hoc expert opinions" on fighting the disease. The third is expected early next week. It will likely play a significant role in whether Merkel will propose measures to ease the restrictions. And if so, which ones.
The scientists are still struggling to arrive at a consensus, but everyone knows that time is short. "Things that normally take half a year are now happening in just one or two weeks," says one of the researchers involved in the process. "It's clear that the current situation has to come to an end. Step-by-step, to be sure, but we have to start so that the economy stays alive."
And the first steps are taking shape. If it were entirely up to the research collective, then the first schoolchildren could start going back to school in coming weeks -- though at first just the older ones, since they can be trusted to deal appropriately with face masks and to observe social distancing regulations. "Kindergarten children can't do that," says the Leopoldina researcher, which is why there is general agreement that the younger ones should remain at home for the time being.
The next question: Can shops begin reopening after the Easter holidays? The answer depends largely on the availability of masks. The experts at the Leopoldina are convinced that a return to normal life can only succeed if sufficient anti-infection measures are taken -- which include the wearing of masks that cover nose and mouth. "Masks have to become standard in public life," says the Leopoldina researcher. "They have to become the new cool."
And then there are the tests. For quite some time, there has been consensus among politicians and scientists that the number of tests must be increased to get a more precise picture of the spread of the disease.
In other words, the framework for the Wednesday after Easter has been established and the first ideas are circulating. Yet the chancellor has nevertheless refrained from making any public statements about possible steps toward easing restrictions. When North Rhine-Westphalian Governor Armin Laschet recently demanded that the debate over loosening measures be held publicly, Merkel said nothing at all in response. It is just as it has always been: She would prefer saying too little than risk saying too much. And this time, she is driven by one fear in particular.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 16/2020 (April 11, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
The chancellor was worried that if the government had begun holding a public debate before Easter, it could have caused some confusion and been seen as a signal that social distancing measures didn't have to be taken all that seriously anymore. But the statistics don't yet look quite good enough for such a conclusion. The curve in Germany hasn't yet flattened to the degree it has in Austria, for example, where the number of confirmed infections is currently doubling only every four weeks. In Germany, they are still doubling every two weeks.
Merkel has been keeping a close eye on those differences. She is afraid of loosening measures too quickly and too broadly -- and then facing a situation in which some of the measures will have to be re-imposed. That would make it look as though the government didn't completely have things under control -- and in the worst case, it could lead to a sudden strong increase in the number of infections and fatalities. In crises such as this one, it is better to have a frustrated public than a confused one.
On Thursday, the chancellor said there was "cause for cautious optimism," but it wasn't yet time to "presume we are safe." She warned that we have to be wary of "very quickly destroying what we have achieved." The pandemic, she said, will not go away "before we have a vaccine." On the eve of Easter, her comments sounded quite a bit more guarded than those from Laschet, who has repeatedly demanded a discussion about an end to the precautionary measures.
But the dangers of prematurely striking a relaxed tone became immediately apparent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday. During a meeting with EU ambassadors from member states, Commission officials indicated that the EU executive would be issuing proposals for a European exit strategy the very next day. The result was a not insignificant uproar.
Representatives of several countries complained to von der Leyen and her officials, saying that for as long as some countries were still in the middle of the fight against the deadly outbreak, the time wasn't right to talk about taking steps toward normalcy.
But in Germany?
The pressure is high. Thus far, people have been relatively disciplined in doing what has been asked of them. Conditions such as those seen here in recent weeks would have been considered inconceivable just a short time ago. And measures restricting freedoms cannot be kept in place for long in a democratic society. The government in Berlin is fully aware of that, but is nevertheless seeking to temper hopes. Under no circumstances, says the cabinet member, can Germany expect "the all-clear" in the week following Easter. If steps toward lifting restrictions are taken, the cabinet member said, it will be a "small packet" of measures. One step at a time.
What does that exactly mean? Officials are currently looking at specific sectors, says the cabinet member, with the focus on determining the conditions under which work can begin again. "I could imagine, for example, that hairdressers with sufficient protective measures and a limitation on the number of people allowed inside could be allowed to open their doors again."
Every crisis has its symbol. Perhaps this time around, the symbol of hope will be a decent haircut. It would be a start. And it has to start somewhere.