“Rudi, we Brits know so little about Germany. There used to be a popular BBC radio programme: ‘Letter from America’. I’d like you to write a ‘Letter from Germany’. To educate us about Germany. Just like you and I did with the Japanese in Tokyo back in the 1990s.” So said my British friend, Richard, trying to find someone, anyone, to write something for his new magazine. This one in fact. He was speaking fast, too fast for a German like me but I think I have got what he said right. I have a Japanese wife, you see. Richard sometimes forgets that English is not my second language. Anyway, he’s the editor. So, he can correct my German English with Japanese characteristics.
Yes, Richard and I worked together in Japan. Together we agreed to organize intercultural workshops for Japanese managers from companies like BMW, Bosch and Bayer. Working with the Germans. A strange title, chosen by Richard. Was working with us Germans so difficult for these polite, hard-working Japanese?
You may have noticed that Richard calls me Rudi. This was my stage name in our workshops. Richard called me the ‘stooge’ but I never liked this word. My job was to role-play Dr Rudi Friedrichs, a northern German.
The beginning of each workshop: a meeting between a German manager and his Japanese subordinates. Dr. Friedrichs grips each limp Japanese hand, looks at each Japanese person in the eye and commands them to have a Guten Morgen. 29 seconds after some short welcoming remarks, in his typically efficient and formal manner, he places the agenda on the table and orders in his best English “Let’s get down to business.” The Japanese wish they could be anywhere but here. Richard beams. Rudi is his German stereotype. The Germans don’t waste time on small talk. They’re so efficient!
But – are the Germans really that efficient? Let’s leave those happy days in Japan behind and look at my country today.
More than one year after the Covid-19 pandemic began in earnest in Europe, Germany has failed to deal with it effectively or, dare I say it, efficiently over the last few months. Although, for a long time, Germany’s famed efficiency appeared to be working perfectly. Low infection rates in 2020 were envied by many countries, its health system was praised highly, the German people obediently followed the rules set by the government, Chancellor Merkel and her party scored high in the polls. Recently, however, Germany’s Corona-championship bid has waned – endless discussions but no agreement, no clear decisions, no efficiency. The previously strict lock-down policy was abandoned and followed by ‘lock-down-light’, and waves of ‘shut-down-light’‚ ‘open-up-light’. The bickering and inconsistency left people in distress. The virus was not bothered. It had become British, according to Mrs Merkel, and went on its way more aggressively. The weekly incidence rates are rising fast again.
Germans have been left bewildered. A clear, efficient way of coping with Coronavirus has not been visible. A heap of rules have been created, which many can’t understand. And suddenly the Astra Zeneca vaccination process was stopped - luckily for only a few days - because 8 people out of 1,600,000 vaccinated patients had had complications. If all 80,000,000 Germans were vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, about 400 cases with complications could occur - a risk of 1 in 200,000. To do without the vaccination would lead to a death rate of 1%, which is equal to 800,000 people. The economic damage of not using the AstraZeneca vaccine at all could add up to 4,000,000,000€ per week! Nevertheless, German media still accuse the AstraZeneca vaccine of having severe side-effects, of being a second class vaccine, amidst the efforts of experts who insist that the vaccine is very useful in the battle against the virus. German Angst prevails! Richard made similar points in his article two weeks ago - A lousy image is bad for your health.
It’s called Freedom: each federal state decides their own fate, their own rules. Many German people are confused. And – as a national German sport – they complain. Whatever happens, my countrymen and women complain, undermining the previous success of Covid 19-management. Here they are, the complainers, the mavericks, criticising every step the central government has taken, sabotaging well-meant strategies. Having fun is more important than caring for others. The media also do what they do best: they support the critics.
No more are we the champions of pandemic control. Now, there are other countries showing how efficient state management can be. Great Britain excels here with its vaccination success and is much envied. Germans are asking how it is possible that Israel has vaccinated nearly 60% of its population, the United Arab Emirates more than 50% and Great Britain around 38%, while ‘efficient’ Germany is lingering somewhere around 8%.
What has gone wrong in ‘efficient’ Germany? The list of failures is long:
1. In 2012 the Federal Government of Germany imagined what would happen if the country was hit by a pandemic caused by the SARS virus. They worked out what to do. Nobody listened, nothing was done. Had the government reacted properly when the Coronavirus arrived, masks and protective clothes could have been bought in time.
2. Instead, when the first wave arrived and politicians acknowledged that nothing was prepared, panic ensued. The export of masks and protective clothes to European countries in need, such as Italy and Switzerland, was forbidden. National egoism gained, European solidarity lost. Politicians were in a frenzy.
3. Too late and too expensive, the procurement of FFP2 masks became another disaster. Some politicians got involved and were bribed to award contracts to undeserving suppliers who could not fulfil the orders.
4. A ‘Corona-App’ was developed, following the best practice examples of South Korea and Taiwan, at a cost of about 20,000,000€. It turned out to be an expensive flop. Even now local health departments aren’t able to follow chains of infection quickly. Why? Because our bureaucrats still operate with pen and paper. We call this Zettelwirtschaft. You will think I am joking but many of these people still communicate with each other and with us citizens by letter and by fax. In the middle of a pandemic!
5. Testing became a very important tool in the pandemic: the government organized a task force but there was little co-ordination. Companies, kindergartens, schools and others were left on their own to work out how to test their staff and students.
6. Old people are the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Many of them live in nursing homes. The government could have used the period of low infections last summer to work out how best to protect old people from the second wave. Tests were available; they only had to be purchased. But bureaucracy slowed the decision-making to a snail’s pace. Zettelwirtschaft!
7. Great Britain is analysing the virus in order to understand it better and detect mutants. Germany could have learned from this best practice. Instead shops and restaurants have been closed without anyone knowing how or why infections occur.
8. The procurement of vaccines was handled by the EU Commission. Another complete failure. Not enough vaccines were ordered and were ordered too late because European politicians wanted to save money.
9. Germany doesn’t have sufficient production capacity to make enough vaccines itself. While Great Britain enlarged its capacity quite early, Germany hesitated to do so. Delays in delivery from outside Germany, though not the fault of the German authorities, have made the problem worse.
10. Financial assistance for stressed companies was promised by politicians and carried out by government institutions. It often took months for the bureaucrats to send the urgently needed cash injections to the right recipient. What a surprise! Have I mentioned Zettelwirtschaft before? By the way, the German government was much quicker in agreeing to lend to poorer EU countries in dire straits, such as Greece or Portugal, without asking the German taxpayer.
11. Schools didn’t take the chance of upgrading their digital equipment quickly during the first lock-down in March 2020. They got no support from the ministry of education in each state. Instead these ministries pleaded that schools stayed open, denying that there was much risk of infection. Teachers, students and parents alike were left alone to cope. Although money was available, inefficient German bureaucracy prevented the schools from taking the necessary steps to make them Covid-safe. Better ventilation, free express-tests (the Austrians stand out here) and effective masks – the list of promises is long, the list of unkept assurances is longer. At least the universities reacted smartly: during the last 12 months lectures have mostly been held online. Here efficiency still seems to exist.
12. At the moment medical doctors are not involved in the vaccination process, though this is probably about to change in April. Again, numerous discussions were held, but decisions have been postponed because not enough vaccines are available. Furthermore, the bureaucratic procedures accompanying the vaccination process are slowing its roll-out.
13. Germany refuses to learn from those east Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan which have been...er...much more efficient and successful in combatting Coronavirus.
So, am I a typical German complainer? Yes but, as Richard would say. It’s not all bad here. We did pretty well at the beginning and for much of the last year. But we did not take advantage of this relative success. And now many Germans have become more careless and more selfish. They believe in fake news, they take part in unauthorized parties. Wearing masks is increasingly regarded as an attack on individual democratic rights and freedom. Even some politicians ignore their own rules. Many bureaucrats have tried hard to do their best. Even so they won’t take responsibility for their many mistakes and tend to blame others for them. Friedrich Nietzsche’s egoistic will dominates. Poor Immanuel Kant; his categorical imperative is going downhill. He would turn in his grave...
Can I say that we Germans are efficient? I still believe that we admire reason and efficiency. But admiring something is one thing, being it is another. Our handling of this pandemic has made me doubt that we are as rational or as efficient as we once thought we were. Maybe we will learn from our many mistakes and do better in future.
Rudi still exists though. After all, he managed to get this written (on a computer) and delivered (electronically) to his friend, Richard, on time and in budget. Budget?! What budget?