Small-state politics undermines response to Covid in Germany

Bad organisation has plunged the country into a hard Christmas lockdown as daily death rates top 600

German chancellor Angela Merkel arriving at a Berlin press conference following video-conference talks with state leaders on coronavirus restrictions. Photograph: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/pool/AFP via Getty Images

Germans were models of efficient modesty in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Relatively low infection numbers and an even lower death rate made them the envy of the world.

Yet German politicians and experts refused to swallow the nationalist bait offered to them by the envious international press. There was a long way to go yet, they insisted stubbornly, and Germany’s mild first wave was down to a mixture of good organisation and good luck. That modesty was prescient as nine months later bad organisation and bad luck have plunged the country into a hard Christmas lockdown.

“If we aren’t careful,” said a sombre Bavarian leader Markus Söder on Sunday, “Germany could become the problem child in Europe.”

That Germany’s 16 state leaders took the unprecedented step to pull the plug on the shopping season is an indication of how serious Germany’s runaway second wave has become.


The chastened leaders’ decisiveness on Sunday was in marked contrast to their bullish confidence just over two weeks ago. Then they dismissed chancellor Angela Merkel’s demands – pleas – to impose a significant curb on shopping and socialising to drive down numbers and save Christmas.

Instead, faced with heterogeneous infection patterns and distracted by local political priorities, leaders between the Baltic and the Bavarian Alps adopted a lowest common denominator “lockdown lite” that left life pretty much as it has been for most of the autumn.

Restaurants, bars, gyms and cultural institutions were closed again, except for takeaway, but schools and shops were open, with only mild restrictions.

For three Advent weekends Germans packed pedestrian zones and supped mulled wine like their lives depended on it. Little by little, retail therapy undermined efforts to drive down infection rates.

Death rates

It was only this week, as daily death rates topped 600, that reality – and their responsibility – began to dawn on Germany’s regional leaders.

In a typical response Berlin’s governing mayor Michael Müller pushed blamed far from his door, asking rhetorically: “How many deaths is a shopping trip worth?”

Germany’s decentralised federal system demonstrated its strengths in the spring, allowing each state, with far-reaching health competences, to deliver its own tailored response that drew on local university clinic expertise and was implemented by local health authorities.

The last weeks has seen the flip side of Germany’s federal system: so-called Kleinstaaterei, the worst kind of inward-looking provincialism with deep historical roots.

Finding herself like a latter day Cassandra, Merkel’s warnings went unheeded as Germany’s state leaders rearranged their pandemic deck chairs.