In Germany, ‘tis the season to point fingers

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BERLIN — If there’s one thing Germans excel at (aside from engineering and self-deprecation), it’s what they call nörgeln, an ancient Teutonic exercise in unrelenting complaint that can border on the pathological. 

As it happens, there’s no better time than Christmas for nörgeln, and amid this year’s lockdown, Germans are going full bore over the country’s handling of the coronavirus, blaming everyone from politicians to the press for ruining the holidays.

For months, Germans basked in the accolades they received for their handling of the pandemic. Then November hit, and infection rates began to skyrocket, plunging the nation into a fit of Nietschian angst.

“The Winter Failure,” Der Spiegel concluded on its somber cover last week, next to an ominous chart illustrating Germany’s rising COVID-19 death rate.  

But has Germany really failed?

As of Friday, about 25,000 people had died of or with the disease in Germany, more than half of them in the last month alone. That’s a bitter loss, but with just 30 deaths per 100,000, Germany still has recorded fewer than one-third of the fatalities that countries such as Spain, Italy, the U.S. or the U.K. have seen. Even in neighboring France, the per-capita death rate is triple what it is in Germany. 

What’s more, as a result of the government’s light-touch corona management, Germany’s economy has recorded an impressive run in recent months. The country’s GDP jumped 8.5 percent in the third quarter from the previous quarter, outpacing economists’ expectations, as demand for the country’s exports in Asia buoyed output. In November, unemployment dropped to its lowest level since April, another hopeful sign for the economy. 

That might sound like a cynical tradeoff, but the real-world social effects of a falling economy are often wrenching, as increases in suicides and domestic violence across many countries during the pandemic attest.

One reason for Germany’s economic boost is that schools remained open, allowing parents to continue to work unhindered. 

Had the government forced Germany into a hard lockdown in October, the fourth quarter, which is often the strongest in many industries, would likely have been a disaster.  

That’s not to say all is well. On Friday, health authorities announced a one-day record for new COVID-19 infections of 34,000. While a new nationwide lockdown went into effect on Wednesday, health experts expect the crisis to get worse in the short term. 

The lockdown, which comes at the height of the Christmas shopping season, will hit retailers hard and though most shop owners will get some government support, that won’t compensate them for all of their lost revenue. As worrying as that reality is for many retailers, an earlier lockdown would have put them in an even worse position. 

That’s true for the broader German economy as well. Under the current lockdown timetable (which may yet be revised), restrictions will be lifted on January 10. In other words, the brunt of the lockdown will fall during the holiday break, when many workers are on vacation anyway.

Much of the second-guessing in the German public and media about the government’s handling of the pandemic focuses on the past two months. After the infection rate began to inch up in October, Angela Merkel’s government convinced the country’s 16 states, which under Germany’s federalist structure control health policy, to embrace what they dubbed a “lockdown light.”

Under the policy, bars and restaurants, cinemas and sports clubs were forced to close (with a government promise to reimburse owners for lost revenue), but schools, shops and hair salons were allowed to remain open. The hope was that a month of lockdown light would bring down infection rates enough to permit a full reopening for Christmas. 

At the time, Merkel, said the goal was to return to “normal” by December. 

But in the weeks that followed, the rate of new infections remained stubbornly high, making it impossible to limit outbreaks through contact tracing and other targeted measures. In contrast to a harsher lockdown in the spring, when Germans reduced their daily movements by 40 percent, mobility in November fell by just 10 percent.

By early December, infection rates in some parts of the country were so high that local authorities imposed hard lockdowns overnight. 

At the first signs of a second wave in September, Merkel began urging regional leaders to embrace tougher measures, warning that cases would explode to “19,200” per day by Christmas if they didn’t act. She continued to quietly nudge the regional leaders in the weeks that followed. 

But they didn’t heed her advice, fearing that tougher restrictions would trigger a political backlash.

One thing Germany’s light lockdown did have a positive effect on was Germans’ mental health. Only 44 percent of Germans report negative psychological effects connected to the pandemic, the lowest rate across 16 countries, according to a YouGov study published last week.

And given the country’s latest bout of nörgeln, Germans need every bit of positive thinking they can muster.

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