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Trapped in Germany's COVID nightmare

   March 1, 2021 11:21 PM
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PANDEMIC Germany Vaccines
BERLIN — As the coronavirus pandemic raged through the United States last summer, an old school friend from Arizona wrote me full of admiration for Germany's handling of the crisis.

For years, he, along with other American friends and my family, drew boundless schadenfreude imagining the daily difficulties I must face as an American among the supposedly humorless "krauts."

But now, as the U.S. struggled to cope with the pandemic, they looked across the Atlantic with envy, even humility. In contrast to the U.S., where politicians had fumbled the pandemic response from the beginning, Germany appeared to many Americans to have done everything right. By any measure, from the availability of PPE to the infection rate, to total deaths, Germany's handling of COVID-19 was far superior to the U.S.'s.

How "crazy" it must be, my friend wrote, to be "an American journalist in Germany watching from afar as the U.S. basically falls apart."

My German friends agreed. I was lucky, they told me, to reside in a country that functions, one led by a trained scientist and not an "incompetent lunatic."

But six months later (most of them spent in the confines of my home), I don't feel so lucky.

This week, Germany will enter its fifth-straight month of lockdown with no end in sight. Though infection rates have declined in recent weeks, it remains unclear when schools and shops, not to mention restaurants and bars, will reopen. Amid the uncertainty, small businesses across the country are facing ruin. Such fears, coupled with frustration over the seemingly neverending restrictions, have soured the national mood.

The U.S., meanwhile, is turning the corner. Schools are slowly reopening, unemployment is falling and the economy is slowly rumbling back to life. America's visceral optimism, which has always befuddled Europeans, has also begun to reemerge.

The reason for this reversal of fortune can be explained in a single word: vaccines.

As of Friday, the U.S. had administered about 68 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, reaching about 14 percent of the population with at least one shot. For its part, Germany had delivered about 5.7 million jabs, covering about 4.5 percent of the population. In other words, less than a third the rate of the U.S. The problem isn't that Germany doesn't have enough vaccines but rather that it has been slow to get them into people's arms. Of the 8.5 million doses Germany has received so far, it has only used 68 percent. That compares to a rate of 75 percent in the U.S.

Germany isn't just a laggard compared to the U.S. or international standouts like Israel and the U.K. Other EU countries, including neighboring Denmark, have proved more efficient than the purported home of efficiency.

Germany may have spawned some of the world's biggest and most successful companies, from software giant SAP to BASF to Mercedes, yet somehow it can't figure out how to accelerate the rollout of a lifesaving vaccine to its own population.

So what happened to Germany's famed organizational and logistical prowess? It would seem to have disappeared down a fax-line somewhere between Berlin and Brussels.

The reasons for Germany's vaccination struggle are both structural and political. While the country's leaders have sought to explain away the problems by pointing to structural hurdles, such as Germany's decentralized federal structure or the involvement of the EU in procuring vaccines, the most glaring shortcomings are rooted in their own political failures.

Take the fax machines. A technological dinosaur elsewhere in the West, fax machines remain a mainstay in many medical practices and government health offices. That has made coordination across Germany's nearly 400 health offices particularly difficult. Health Minister Jens Spahn has spent millions trying to put German health care online, so far with only mixed results.

The fax is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, however. Angela Merkel has talked for years of the necessity to "digitalize" German society, a goal that many other advanced economies have long made a reality. Indeed, the first thing many new arrivals in Germany notice is its lack of connectivity, from the dearth of free Wifi in cafes and restaurants to slow internet speeds. The fact that the German federal government itself still employs nearly 1,000 fax machines in its various ministries tells you everything you need to know about how successful Merkel's digital revolution is.

That said, the 1970s technology is comparatively modern to the pen and paper still in use across Germany's medical profession. That a government can't rely on antiquated communications tools to immunize Germany's 83 million inhabitants quickly should be obvious.

Yet it's not, especially to those Germans (a majority of the population) worried about that holiest of all German rights – Datenschutz (data privacy).

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