Case study: How COVID-19 is impacting Germany

4th May 2020

This coronavirus pandemic seems to have changed phases over the past few weeks as it travels across Europe with many nations across this continent having passed their initial peak of COVID-19 infections. As a result, many countries have begun to ease their pandemic restrictions and allow their citizens more freedom as the virus is brought under control. As governments do this, questions are being raised as to how nations will cope with the aftermath of this crisis. Countries have had different responses to this pandemic with different effects witnessed. Germany appears to have managed to weather the storm better than most but there is growing discord that they should be doing more to help other and less fortunate nations in a show of solidarity to the ‘European project’.1


Germany has the 6th highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases with over 164,000 reported infections, on a par with France and the UK, yet it has only had 6,736 COVID-19 related deaths compared with 24,594 and 27,510 for France and the UK respectively.2 While the majority of Germans have been in favour of their lockdown, the recent May Day protests indicate citizens are becoming irritated by its length and severity.3 Germany has slowly been easing its way out of a six-week lockdown with playgrounds, museums and churches now opening alongside the smaller shops that have already re-opened some days earlier.


However, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that there is a risk of COVID-19 resurgence if people do not keep to social distancing.4 Any further easing would be dependent on the rate of infection remaining low. The requirement to use face masks while shopping or on public transport and to remain 1.5 metres apart will remain in place until May 10th. Currently, all major events with spectators are suspended until August 31st, meaning any restart of the football league will have to be done without fans.


The UK’s Chief Medical Adviser has admitted that the UK could learn a lot from Germany’s testing of COVID-19.5 Germany is home to Roche, which is one of the biggest diagnostic companies in the world, who envisioned the importance of COVID-19 testing early on. In the week ending the 4th April, 132 laboratories across Germany carried out an average of 116,655 swab tests per day for COVID-19, compared to the UK only just reaching its target of 100,000 tests on 1st May. Germany was able to identify cases at an early stage and respond quickly, tracing anyone who had been in contact with infected individuals.


While the success of testing in Germany is thought to have been due to the nation’s ability to scale up production and an increased budget on healthcare, actually the political system with which they operate seems to have been more of a factor. Germany devolves power over health policy away from central government to state level and below, creating more autonomy and flexibility when it comes to testing. Compared to the UK where the Government was initially slow on the uptake and Public Health England was advising that mass testing was too difficult at an early stage as they were beset with problems.6 Germany is now investing in antibody tests to determine how far the virus has spread into their society and how deadly the disease has really been. Diagnostic company Siemens Helthineers are expecting to produce 25 million testing kits per month from June in a bid to help test the whole nation.7 Germany also invested early on in intensive care to increase their capacity by 50% in some areas, and are now able to take patients from France, Italy and Spain.8 Their focus was on treating people early on as once patients had to go onto ventilators their mortality rate went up.


The impact on Germany’s economy has been significant during this pandemic. Public life in Germany has ground to a halt, much like the UK, but things may return to normal if certain conditions are met to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Germany like every other country is having to weigh up the health effects of the pandemic against the broader impacts on the economy. As Europe’s largest export economy the country has been badly affected by export restrictions, with top economic research institutes predicting a contraction in the economy of 9.8% in the second quarter. 9 This is the biggest since records began in the 1970s and twice the decline seen during the global financial crisis of 2009. The car industry has been hit hard as it is the country’s biggest exporter and employer of more than 800,000 people. The government is currently in talks to help the industry as part of a fiscal package. Due to its effective control measures, the government’s focus is now on getting the economy moving again before things become worse. They have committed to producing 50 million face masks a week by the beginning of August, a boost for the healthcare sector as well as the economy.10


Germany is also currently looking to open borders even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in time to allow migrant workers in to help with the nation’s harvest. Tighter border controls to contain the spread of COVID-19 has had the side-effect of restricting the movement of seasonal workers across Europe. Around 80,000 workers are expected to cross over into Germany from Eastern Europe, split over April and May, to help harvest fruit and vegetable crops on farms.11 Without this workforce, the farmers had predicted supply chain problems, with crops going to waste that will result in higher food prices. This runs the risk of bringing in people from countries where lockdown measures have not been as stringent. The possibility of bringing in a second wave of cases has been outweighed by the need for food and propping up the economy. In order to help mitigate infection, the agriculture ministry has instructed seasonal workers to travel by air rather than bus, undergo regular medical checks, with their accommodations only containing half the normal number of residents.


Berlin has been hit particularly hard with unemployment, homelessness, and migrants. A number of sub-groups of people have fallen through the cracks.12 The social welfare system is struggling to cope due to a lack of income and is having to use crowdfunding, as well as having serious health concerns for people living rough on the streets. People without housing are not able to self-isolate, to register with the state and therefore have access to any services, have limited bathroom facilities and means to appropriately prepare and cook food. Primary school teachers have had to give extra one to one tuition over the phone to those children in lower socio-economic groups for fear of them falling behind. Homeless shelters in the capital are being affected due to social distancing measures, increased demand and fewer volunteers available. Refugee camps have been shown to be particularly at risk due to the high density of people and limited cleanliness of such camps, with not enough information being provided in different languages to inform inhabitants of what is going on.13


The European Union (EU) has agreed a €500 billion rescue package, however, this is part of a European Stability Mechanism already in place to help bail out countries. The European Central Bank has predicted three times the amount will be required to tackle the impacts COVID-19 has taken on the EU.14 The effects of the virus has divided European nations, primarily Italy and Spain against Germany and the Netherlands, in how much money should be given and the provision of ‘coronabonds’ to pool their collective debt. Germany is not keen on this as they see their success in combatting the virus being affected by having to shore up nations that were not as responsible in dealing with this pandemic. Angela Merkel has intonated that Germany, while intense believing in solidarity in Europe, is already doing everything it can to help, amidst their own economic trouble, leaving other European nations unsure as to what to expect.15


The German Chancellor is set to end her tenure within the next year, even though her popularity has soared in recent weeks. Widely thought to be due to her handling of the current coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, support for her conservative party has seen a three year high of almost 40 per cent.16 This is primarily due to her clear and calm communication strategy, embracing of scientific facts and calls for unity in fighting the virus. As can be seen by their low death rate, Germany is dealing with the pandemic far better than many other countries such the US, UK, Italy and France.17