BERLIN — “We have lost control of this thing.”
Those were the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, surveying the country’s situation in late January at a confidential meeting. She spoke with typical precision. In Germany, which on Wednesday prolonged its current lockdown until at least March 7, things are bad: Since October, cases have soared — they are only now starting to come down — and over 50,000 people have died. An atmosphere of grim resignation prevails.
But wasn’t Germany one of the global leaders in pandemic control during the first wave? Didn’t Germans enjoy a fairly normal summer of trips to the beach and meeting with friends at beer gardens? Didn’t their children return to school, as normal, in August and September?
Yes, yes and yes. But when fall came, things started to go wrong. And it wasn’t bad luck. It was politics.
Last spring, as the virus rampaged through Europe, German policymakers acted swiftly and with rare unity. In March, schools, shops and restaurants were closed and gatherings of more than two people banned. After a few weeks, cases dropped and the country started to reopen gradually in April and May. Over the summer, there were very few restrictions — and very little Covid-19.
But when cases started to rise in the fall, policymakers failed to repeat the trick. During the first week of October, the caseload was as high as it had been when the first lockdown had been imposed in March. But many explained the rise by pointing to the increased number of tests, ignoring the clear trend of cases upward. Nothing was done.
In the following weeks, the virus took full advantage of Germany’s complacency. By the end of October, the number of daily cases had more than tripled. The response was halfhearted: closing restaurants and bars but leaving schools open — a “lockdown light” that, for a time, stabilized the situation. It wasn’t until just before Christmas, at which point cases were rising sharply, that politicians hit the emergency brake and closed down the country.
The decision came so late that by early January, some intensive care units were nearly overwhelmed. Daily deaths were at times quadruple their highest point in the first wave. In the first half of January, the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants temporarily exceeded that in the United States. The elderly were devastated: Roughly 90 percent of those who died in the second wave were 70 or older.
For a country that had been widely hailed for its successful handling of the pandemic, it was a shocking reversal. Why did this happen?
The short answer: politics. In 2021, Germany will hold six state elections plus the national parliamentary election in September. If ever there was a time to take political risks — and there’s little riskier than depriving weary citizens of their freedoms for uncertain gain — the middle of a major election year is not it.
Last spring, electoral calculus was briefly suspended by the all-encompassing threat of the virus. That’s no longer the case. Though the pandemic is far from over, now is a time for sharpening individual political profiles instead of compromising, for catering to local constituents’ special interests instead of focusing on the national common good. Political considerations are back.
Those have played out in conflicts among the 16 regional governors and also in tensions between the governors and the chancellor. One reason for the country’s slow reintroduction of restrictions was that the regional heads felt Ms. Merkel was pushing too hard, aiming at a show of power.
The troubled vaccination rollout has poured fuel on the fire. As part of the European Union — which was slow to agree on a contract with suppliers and late to begin the rollout — Germany has struggled to vaccinate its citizens: Currently only 4 percent have had a vaccine. And when AstraZeneca, one of the manufacturers, announced in January that it would cut its supply to the bloc, political war broke out.
States, the parties in the governing coalition and the minister of health all frantically blamed each other — or Ms. Merkel and Brussels. Germans were left desperately trying to get hold of a vaccination appointment for their elderly kin.
After the failures of the past few months, Germany is in for a marathon. To bring the finish line closer, a different approach is gaining traction: A group of experts is currently promoting a strategy of “No Covid,” where lockdowns won’t be lifted until there are fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants a week.
It would require sacrifices, but such a strategy could stop the country from stumbling from one lockdown to the next through this election year. Yet it would take courage to prolong restrictions until cases reached a sufficiently low level. The decision on Wednesday to extend the lockdown suggests Germany’s politicians might be able to act bravely.
But as campaigning gets underway, will they hold their nerve?