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Merkel Adviser on the Future Course of the Pandemic: “I Am Especially Worried About the Unvaccinated Children at School”

  • June 18, 2021

DER SPIEGEL: Seriously? Fifty-thousand deaths is a success?

Meyer-Hermann: Yes, within the scope of what was realistically possible in terms of giving policy advice. There were contact restrictions, after all, and they did work. We would have been worse off without them. In that respect, I’m glad it wasn’t 100,000 dead.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there anything you could have done better?

Meyer-Hermann: Yes. In September, we didn’t really want to see what was happening – myself included, unfortunately. We were coasting on the low numbers from the summer. If we modelers had sounded the alarm earlier, it’s possible we would have been listened to.

DER SPIEGEL: There was another important meeting of German state governors in January. The numbers of infections were falling and there was a great yearning for a loosening of the lockdown measures among the populace. But the Alpha variant was on the advance.

Meyer-Hermann: At that meeting, there were eight of us scientists, and we more or less spoke with a single voice. It was quite a strong message. Still, nothing happened, and in February, they just opened things up, against better judgment.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you start wondering whether what you were doing really mattered?

Meyer-Hermann: You mean, why we were even bothering with the modeling? Yeah, we did. People should have learned from their mistakes!

DER SPIEGEL: Beyond the meetings of the state governors, other politicians were also being advised by academics who were explicitly opposed to lockdowns. How are lay people supposed to distinguish which advice is scientifically sound and which is not?

Meyer-Hermann: That is a problem, because you can really only do that if you go deep enough into the science. You can’t really expect that of politicians.

DER SPIEGEL: Some media outlets gave prominence to opinions that could hardly be supported scientifically. This created the impression that scientists were divided into two, equal camps and they just had to meet in the middle. To what extent did that false equivalence harm the pandemic response?

Meyer-Hermann: Given that the behavior of the population is even more important than that of the politicians in a pandemic, communication has indeed often been borderline. The wrong messages have certainly caused some people to rebel against what they perceive to be excessive measures and to underestimate the virus, to think of it as some kind of flu virus.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you say to colleagues who spread those kinds of things?

Meyer-Hermann: I asked some of them whether they were aware that they sounded as though they were playing down the risks. The strange thing is that they didn’t see it that way. But maybe that innocence was feigned. I can’t tell.

DER SPIEGEL: Economic concerns are frequently behind resistance to lockdowns.

Meyer-Hermann: Yet there is now overwhelming evidence that in the pandemics of the past 100 years, those countries that took stronger measures ultimately wound up better off, both economically and in terms of health. Unfortunately, because this knowledge has not caught on, there are interest groups that think they are helping the economy by opposing the lockdowns.

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