MUNICH — During the first covid wave last spring, the world was feting Germany as a light unto the nations because of its low infection rate and superb health system. The international media were gushing over Teutonic efficiency and preparedness. For instance, Germany had 30 intensive-care beds per 100,000 people, Italy only 12. While mourning their victims, the British had it rubbed in by a book that said it all: Why Germany Does It Better.
Today Merkel Country reports 19,000 new cases per day, which is 7 times more than Britain’s with a similar-sized population. When vaccination rates are compared, Israel comes out on top with 60 percent of the citizenry. The United Kingdom scores 49 percent, the United States 37—the latter with 4 times the population of Germany, which is way behind with 17 percent. The differences become even more dramatic when comparing doses per 100 people, with Israel scoring 116, the United Kingdom 61, and the United States 59. Germany gets 23, and Europe as a whole 22.
Why this astounding role reversal?
Let’s start with a rosy picture, displaying Germany’s administrative savvy at its best. Suddenly, this author was blessed with a vax date from the Munich authorities, and heaven’s door cracked open. On the autobahn, brightly lit new signs showed the way. At the inoculation center, friendly folks steered him to a free parking spot. Inside the vast hall, the young woman behind her screened counter just asked for an ID. More helpers pointed me to the doctor’s office. “Would you like a glass of water?” Then the quick jab, and off I went. The entire procedure took thirty minutes—warp speed compared to the normal ways of the German bureaucracy.
Now to the darker picture. This happy personal experience unfolded only at the micro-level where Germany’s organizational culture functions best. The top management sets the goal, and the engineers design the system down to the most minute detail—predictability über alles. The problems start biting on the two levels above: the federal government and the European Union.
The moral of this tale: The centralized state, or a federal government with a strong executive like the United States, does better. Britain, Israel, and the United States were in deep trouble last summer, with soaring infections and fatalities. Yet by the fall, they had gotten their act together. Germany and the EU have not.
Chancellor Merkel’s mantra is her lack of power. “Yes, we decided too late in the fall,” she apologized. But “nothing can be decided in this Republic, unless the Federal Government and the  States act together.”
The result is chaos. Some Länder loosen up, others clamp down with curfews and store closures. Some permit smallish gatherings; others allow only one non-family person to come to dinner. Schools and kindergartens are closed in one state, but another state over they experiment with openings.
Now, the United States is a federal construction, as well. But the President has enormous executive powers. So, Donald Trump could order pharma companies to build vaccine production facilities, sweetening the pot with federal investments of $12 billion in a slew of manufacturing companies. The irony is thick here. A German lab, BioNTech, cooperating with Pfizer, was first in the vaccine race, but there is only one production facility in a country of eighty million.
Next level up: the EU, which looks more like a patient than a healer—Germany squared. The bloc could not act with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch,” which Alexander Hamilton invoked in favor of a unitary executive in the run-up to the U.S. Constitution.
The EU doesn’t have such a figure. It has to make do with a President who must string together twenty-seven member states—one by one. Naturally, the slowest in the bunch determine the speed of the entire train. Thus, the bloc wasted months of precious time while cobbling together a consensus and only then starting to haggle with suppliers over price. The bookkeepers were in charge. Meanwhile, the hospitals were filling up.
Compare this to the United Kingdom, which has left the EU. Initially, the Boris Johnson government resembled the Keystone Kops. But then, “keep calm and carry on,” as the World War II slogan had it, kicked in. The rule was “don’t penny-pinch,” same as in Israel and the United States. Kate Bingham, the head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, adds,
When we were negotiating, no vaccine company knew what it was going to cost to make their vaccines, so it was all being done with best efforts and best data at the time. If we’d gone in and said ‘you’re charging us too much’, then they’d have replied ‘it was lovely to know you’ and walked away.
Whipped along by soaring infections, the Israelis paid the pharma companies twice: with lots of cash plus even more precious statistical data on the efficacy of the drugs. Nine million people essentially became the largest testing sample of all times. Europe, however, wasted more time in the name of community-wide equity. “No vaccine nationalism,” ran the mantra; we must all move together, not race ahead singly and outbid one another.
This was a noble, unity-minded strategy, though skeptics might grumble: While we were getting our ducks in a row in Brussels, people were dying back home. Egged on by her mentor Angela Merkel, hapless EU chief Ursula von der Leyen orated, “The EU is proud of vaccine manufacturers who supply not only the EU, but also the rest of the world.” A lofty sentiment, but no consolation for 450 million endangered EU inhabitants.
What goes for Europe, goes for Germany. Their institutions and cultures work well in placid, routine-driven times. They can regulate their affairs down to the last detail. Take only the EU. It has 150,000 acts, verdicts, and standards on everything, including food coloring.
The premium is on consensus and consistency, which work well in normal times, when the future is just an extension of the past. Yet covid meant war, demanding real-time intelligence, fleet-footed adaptation, and rapid decision-making in the fog of battle. War cannot be prosecuted by committee, be it the twenty-seven members of the EU or the sixteen states of Germany. These constructions favor not “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch,” as Hamilton put it, but buck-passing and kicking the can down the road. If everybody is responsible, nobody is.
It may not be coincidence that America, Israel, and Britain were able to turn disaster into success. These nations have been embroiled in combat even after World War II. They have their emergency systems in place. When nations face military action, they need up-to-date manuals. To boot, they must quickly learn from failure. By contrast, the EU and Germany have enjoyed the longest peace in European history, and so readiness is not them. Yet habits acquired in times of bureaucratic tranquility generate no guidance, let alone leadership, in revolutionary situations like the covid pandemic.
In the special case of Germany with its Nazi past, Hamiltonian “decision” and “dispatch” continually run up against the constraints of carefully diffused and balanced power. So, Germany’s vaunted administrators built vaccination centers like the one in Munich once the local marching orders were in place. But Berlin was stumped, needlessly exposing the population to a deadly threat. No more strongmen and top-down rule. In Israel, soldiers could be deployed to quarantine hot-spot towns. In Germany, the armed forces could not be used to deliver vaccines to hospitals. As one wag in a TV comedy show put it, Even if allowed, how could they, when their planes are always in the repair shop?
One year into the pandemic, Chancellor Merkel seems to have woken up. On the health front, she wants to shift power from the Länder to the center so that Berlin can act on its own. It is a whiff of American-style executive power that would trump states’ prerogatives in health policy. One of her party’s grandees, Norbert Röttgen, says, “The point is that the Government finally will be able to act.”
It better be. Corona does not negotiate; it spreads where it can—from wave to wave. Vaccinations still remain strictly regulated in Germany. In the United States, people can go to Walmarts, supermarkets, and Targets to get a shot. In Germany, not even pharmacies can get in on the act. By now, general practitioners can jab their patients in their offices. They have to fill out up to ten pages before they do. And each doctor can dispense a maximum of only fifty shots per week. Why not more? They don’t have enough stuff in their refrigerators.
An editorial board member of American Purpose, Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. He teaches U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he is a senior fellow at the Kissinger Center. He is also a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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