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The Lessons of Germany’s Coronavirus Response

  • October 08, 2020

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.

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