How Germany’s approach to Covid helps keep fear at bay

Berlin’s attitude encourages return to normal and allows people to assess risk

Fans at Roland Kaiser’s gig in Berlin: The  Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighbourhood was summer party central and is now one of Germany’s 15 Covid hotspots. Photograph: Clemens Bilan

Fans at Roland Kaiser’s gig in Berlin: The Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighbourhood was summer party central and is now one of Germany’s 15 Covid hotspots. Photograph: Clemens Bilan

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At the best of times, returning to Dublin from Berlin can be a culture shock. But in the Covid-19 era, making the trip is like travelling back in time.

That, at least, is how a shell-shocked friend described his readjustment to Irish life in the last weeks.

“Going back to Dublin felt like going back a few months, it feels much bigger here than Berlin, there’s such a fearful mood of caution,” he said.

As the pandemic reaches the half-year mark, how European countries have dealt with the same coronavirus offers insights into how each respective society ticks differently as an uncertain winter looms.

During the summer months, the friend said, Berlin life felt deceptively normal. Compounding that feeling was how mass gatherings over the summer – political demonstrations, park raves, even sex parties – did not generate the predicted spike in infections.

Germany has had about 9,300 deaths to date and its current 14-day infection rate is 21 (compared with 33.8 in Ireland).

Though doing better than some neighbours, drill down into German numbers and you find a familiar problem. Take Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighbourhood – summer party central and now one of Germany’s 15 Covid hotspots. Viewing Berlin as a whole, the overall infection rate among Berliners aged 20-24 is three times higher than the population average.

Autumn spectre

On Monday, Berlin state’s health minister Dilek Kalayci said she feared infected summer partygoers may come back to haunt Germany in the autumn. While other countries are dealing with the consequences of poor, late decision-making, she thinks Germany may yet prove a “victim of its own success”.

Germany’s vast track-testing system, activated early, continues to process 1.1 million swabs a week. The hospitalisation rate among those infected has dropped from 22 per cent in April to 4 per cent now, with 218 intensive care patients – 0.7 of the total intensive bed capacity.

The backbone of Germany’s Covid-19 approach reflects its cultural norms, in particular a love of structures and clear rules over pragmatic recommendations. Germany’s 16-state federal system has decentralised healthcare, allowing quick reaction at local level to infection spikes. No matter where you are in Germany, though, doctor visits are free.

While Ireland ties itself in knots over wet and dry pubs, German bars and restaurants – where table service is the norm – opened in June with spaced-out seating, contact lists and no obligatory meals.

Even so, Germany’s gastronomy federation said on Tuesday that 62 per cent of its members are facing bankruptcy after a 56 per cent drop in turnover from March to August – €17.6 billion in lost earnings.

Frequency of briefings

Perhaps the most striking difference between Germany and Ireland, six months into the pandemic, is the interaction between the state and its population.

While Ireland kept daily National Public Health Emergency Team briefings going for three months, dropping back to twice weekly in June, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the central disease control body, ended its twice-weekly briefings in early May after three months.

But the RKI website still updates its Covid-19 data daily, based on daily updates from regional health authorities, allowing anyone to drill down to see the level of infection in their state or county – and make their own risk assessment.

By far the most popular source of information is a weekly podcast by Prof Christian Drosten of Berlin’s Charité clinic, a leading coronavirus specialist.

His award-winning briefings are engaging and informative, mixing the latest Covid-19 research with timely issues like “getting through the autumn” or “living with uncertainty”.

Drosten avoids direct political recommendations or emotive language. Asked this week how to approach more-at-risk, older people, Drosten suggested speaking to them as adults, asking them how they are doing and how they perceive the current risk.

“That,” he said, “is perhaps more important than permanent fear.”

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