This story is one in our six-part series The Pandemic Playbook. Explore all the stories here.
Last summer in Berlin, Christine Wagner could safely do something Covid-19 prevented much of the world’s population from doing: go to a movie theater.
The possibility of strangers sitting together, indoors, for hours, taking off masks to eat popcorn and other snacks, led even big chains like AMC to shut down for some time in the US. But in Germany, things were different: The virus was under enough control for the country to reopen with some social distancing and masking rules. So Wagner could go out — and indoors — with her friends.
“Everyone was free,” Wagner, the head of pandemic communication and strategy at a local German health department, told me. “We could go out to travel, meet friends. … It was like normal life.”
That summer, the streets of Berlin and other German cities were busy. Foot traffic at retail outlets hovered around pre-pandemic levels, according to Google’s mobility data. The number of reservations to dine out actually increased at times compared to 2019, based on the online reservation app OpenTable’s restaurant data. In hospitals, doctors saw way fewer Covid-19 patients than a few months before: In a country of roughly 80 million people, new cases had dropped into the hundreds per day — half the daily rate of new cases in the European Union and United Kingdom last summer, and 95 percent less than the United States.
Today, Germany’s streets are emptier. Few people trickle along the sidewalks, and even fewer enter indoor establishments, as many of the businesses Germans could visit last summer have closed down. Dining out across the country has dropped nearly 99 percent compared to before the pandemic. Trips to retail and recreation outlets are now down around 38 percent compared to pre-pandemic times, according to Google’s mobility data. Daily new Covid-19 cases are below the second wave’s peak over Christmas 2020 but remain high — and have recently risen in Germany’s third wave.
“The only thing I do with other people is work in the intensive care ward, treating patients sick with Covid,” Petra Dickmann, a doctor and researcher at Jena University Hospital, told me. “There’s effectively no private life.”
In the span of a few months, Germany has gone from a shining example of a country that rallied the public behind a Covid-19 strategy to a cautionary tale about what can happen when that strategy falls apart.
No country has had a perfect response to Covid-19. But nations around the world took steps to successfully limit the pandemic’s damage. In this series, the Pandemic Playbook, Vox is exploring the victories and setbacks in six places, including Germany, where a summer of virus suppression eventually gave way to fall, winter, and now spring waves. Unified, clear public health communication saved lives — but as the months dragged on, it was no match for shifting national politics, a fragmented system of government, and a public so tired of the pandemic that they came up with a word for the exhaustion: “coronamüde.”
Germany still reports about two-thirds the Covid-19 deaths per capita as the rest of the EU, and about half the per capita death toll of the US. But its lead has shrunk over time, and at some points in the past few months, the country has reported more deaths relative to its population than either the EU or the US.
So what happened? Germany’s federalist system — in broad strokes, similar to the US’s division between federal and state governments — allowed discord among the country’s leaders to have a major impact on the country’s response, slowing down major decisions. Politics played a growing role as well: In 2018, well before the pandemic, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would retire in 2021; the political jostling to replace her featured politicians trying to draw contrasts, often with a less cautious approach to Covid-19 than Merkel’s.
All of this turned a nationwide response that was once marked by unity into one that was fragmented, dividing both the public and its leaders.
“It was very much complacency,” Ilona Kickbusch, a political scientist focused on global health at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, told me. “There was a feeling that we’ll get through this relatively quickly. Many, many countries made that mistake — they thought this pandemic response would be a question of three to six months, but it’s turning out to be between 18 months and two to three years.”
Germany’s experience during the coronavirus pandemic shows how a country can unite behind a single public health message and mission. But it also shows how fragile that victory can be — and how quickly an initial success can collapse once something goes wrong.
Germany was initially united on Covid-19
Merkel’s first major speech on Covid-19 could be summarized in three words: “Es ist ernst.” This is serious.
With the Reichstag parliamentary building and German and EU flags behind her, Merkel delivered a speech in her standard, matter-of-fact terms. “Take it seriously,” she urged. “Since German unification — no, since the Second World War — no challenge to our nation has ever demanded such a degree of common and united action.”
In my interviews with people in Germany, they all described tuning in to Merkel’s speech. It was even a family affair. “We were all sitting in front of the TV, listening to her,” Klaus Wälde, an economist who’s done Covid-19 research at the Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, told me.
Merkel knew what she was doing. A scientist herself, with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, she explained the need for open communication on scientific and public health issues: “This is part of an open democracy: that we make political decisions transparent, and explain them, that we establish and communicate our actions as well as possible, so that it becomes relatable.”
She would continue to deliver these direct messages, breaking down what was going on and why Germany needed to take action. In another moment that went viral worldwide, Merkel explained the epidemiological concept of a pathogen’s reproductive number, or its R0, used by scientists to measure a virus’s potential spread. She warned that letting the virus spread at even a 10 or 20 percent higher rate could doom the country’s health care system months earlier than would otherwise be the case.
The message trickled down to the local level. Cities and states were eager to avoid the horrors reported at the time in Italy, where hospitals were overwhelmed and death rates were high.
One of those places was Jena, a city of around 110,000 located in the southern part of former East Germany. It had a major university hospital that left it well-positioned to confront the pandemic. In March, the Jena University Hospital made a crucial decision: It required staff involved in patient care to wear masks, well before mask mandates became the norm outside of East Asia. It subsequently found that masks sharply decreased Covid-19 infections among health care workers.
It wasn’t perfect evidence — certainly not a gold-standard randomized controlled trial — but it was good enough during an emergency, and public health officials took it to Jena Mayor Thomas Nitzsche.
“In a pandemic, you cannot wait for the evidence,” Mathias Pletz, director of the Institute for Infectious Diseases and Infection Control and a doctor at Jena University Hospital, told me. “Sometimes, you have to make pragmatic decisions.”
The mayor embraced the idea of masks. He told me he knew he wanted to get ahead of Covid-19. So he and his team devised what was in the spring a solution untried in Germany: a mask mandate.
Nitzsche’s decision, announced on March 30, was not without risks. As in the US and other parts of the world, there were concerns across Germany about shortages of protective equipment, including masks, for health care workers. Some worried the public would reject a mask mandate as a violation of their freedoms.