Germany, a global leader on COVID-19 response, cautiously comes out of lockdown

Germany’s robust response to the coronavirus crisis early on has been widely praised — a high number of infections, yes, but a much lower death rate compared to other Western countries. As it emerges from its phased-in lockdown, the debate has turned to the question of whether it's being eased too fast or not fast enough.

Residents of Berlin praise Germany's early response to the pandemic as they emerge to a new reality

Manager Yushi Jereczeh pours a beer at the reimagined Birgit & Bier bar in Berlin. It can't yet operate as an all night club under Germany's slowly paced loosening of lockdown rules, but it could reopen as a beer garden where staff wear masks and customers can only take them off at their tables. (Evangelo Sipsas for CBC)

The Birgit & Bier nightclub in Berlin's trendy Kreuzberg neighbourhood has been no exception to the inevitable rule cast down by the coronavirus for cafés, bars and restaurants around the world: shutter and retreat.

But as Germany comes out of lockdown, the nightclub has re-emerged to live another day by transforming itself into an old-fashioned beer garden.

"This is a big change for us," said manager Yushi Jereczeh. "Now, we are doing service at the table in a distance of [1.5] metres. And guests need to wear a mask, but not at the table." 

Goodbye to any ordering at the bar, all-night dance parties and conga lines. Hello to a meeting place designed for those practicing physical distancing.

Germany's robust response to the coronavirus crisis early on has been widely praised — a high number of infections, yes, but a much lower death rate compared to other Western countries. 

People relaxing on the patio say they're feeling fortunate. They praise the coalition government's response as strong and necessary.

"I think we have a very strong and good health system here in Germany," said Niklas, a student at Berlin's Charité University, as he sat in the beer garden. 

"The best health professionals you can imagine. And we have very good intensive care as well." 

Phased-in lockdown

According to an OECD study, even before the pandemic hit, Germany had 33.9 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. That compares with England at 10.5, Spain at 9.7 and Italy at 8.6.

"[The German government] reacted quite soon compared to other countries," said Antonia Becht, a video producer also trying out the reimagined Birgit & Bier.

"The shutdown was the best thing, the best decision, that could be." 

As of late Friday, Germany had about 183,000 cases of COVID-19 and 8,500 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The country's COVID-19 fatality rate is about 4.6 per cent while the fatality rate in France is 15.4 per cent and, in Italy, is 14.3 per cent, according to Johns Hopkins.

Germany's lockdown didn't come all at once. Measures were introduced gradually and sometimes varied from state to state.

Schools were closed on March 13, four days after the country's first reported death from the coronavirus. Visits to care homes were prohibited at the same time. 

German video producer Antonia Becht said Germany's decision to phase in a lockdown early was the best decision it could have made. (CBC)

"When the first corona cases appeared in Germany, we felt immediately vulnerable. We were very concerned, as actually we care for the high-risk patients," said Johanna Janssen, manager of a private Berlin care home called Mana Residence.

But there were bumps along the way, she said. 

"We had to fight for patients to be tested when they were discharged from the hospital. That has changed in the meantime. Now, care facilities are being tested across the board." 

But for the most part, she has nothing but praise for Germany's government — a coalition of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party — and, in particular, Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership.

"From the very beginning, she was clearly positioned, she took it seriously and when she was speaking, she addressed it directly to the people I thought that was very good," Janssen said.

Early on in the pandemic, Merkel made a rare televised address to the country and underscored the threat that the novel coronavirus posed.

"It is serious," she said on March 18. "Take it seriously, too. Since German reunification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge to our country that depends so much on our joint solidarity."

Germany had time to strategize

One advantage for Germany that is often overlooked is that the country simply had time to prepare, said Wolfgang Greiner, head of the health economy and health management faculty at Bielefeld University in the country's northwest.

"We were really happy not to be the first. We were after the Italians," he said. 

"After watching the pictures from Italy, I think that was the key. The population was really willing to follow  [government] suggestions. There was not so much enforcement necessary." 

The move to put a test, trace and isolate system in place early on, tackled by health authorities in the different German states, is also credited with Germany's ability to cope. 

Dennis Debray, 29, contracted COVID-19 from a roommate in February. He was impressed with the response of local health authorities. (Evangelo Sipsas for CBC)

"We had to tell [health authorities] the names of every person we [had come] in contact with," said 29-year-old Berliner Dennis Debray, who contracted COVID-19 from a roommate in February. He had to quarantine for 14 days. 

German planning also included adding another 12,000 ICU beds and ordering 10,000 more ventilators early on.

'Prevention paradox'

The country was in such good shape that it was able to start taking coronavirus patients from Italy and France in the midst of their crises. 

Germany slowly began opening up from lockdown around April 20, but Germany's success in keeping the death toll relatively low has paved the way that has been called the "prevention paradox." 

It refers to people seeing how well the country coped and then starting to resent remaining in lockdown and physical distancing measures or questioning whether they were needed in the first place. 

A man holds up a sign reading 'democracy instead of virology' as he attends a protest against the government's restrictions following the coronavirus outbreak in Stuttgart, Germany, on May 16. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

There have been a number of anti-lockdown demonstrations in different German cities in recent weeks. One of the largest attracted about 5,000 people in Stuttgart on May 17.

"It's a small group, but they are quite loud," said Greiner. 

"If we continue like this for some months, say, we'll be more concerned [about spread to] the wider population. This is something you could worry about."

Support for Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party has dropped dramatically during the pandemic. 

But there are worries hard-right activists will try to exploit any emerging divisions, especially in such an uncertain economic climate. 

And there are growing tensions between some German states as they emerge from lockdown at different speeds and between some states and the federal government. 

Thuringia and Saxony say they will dismiss general coronavirus rules by early June, while Berlin and Bavaria say it's too soon.

WATCH | How Germany is emerging from lockdown:

Germany garners praise for COVID-19 response

3 years ago
Duration 3:31
Despite a high number of COVID-19 cases, Germany has had a lower death rate than many western countries, resulting in praise for its quick response to the pandemic.

Support for the European Union's recovery fund

Merkel wants physical-distancing measures to remain in place until at least the end of June.

Her unprecedented support for a European Union recovery fund that would help harder hit member states, potentially in the form of grants rather than loans, could also be a point of contention for some in Germany in future if the economy shrinks further. 

"There is a discussion, which we always have," said Greiner. "How much Europe should we afford?" 

"But there are also people, of course, who say, 'Well, we will live off of open markets,' and open markets are only possible with partners who can afford our goods and services."

Maybe it's the sunshine and the feeling that comes with actually seeing old friends in person, but most of those asked at the beer garden said they'd be happy to see a little European Union solidarity. 

Melina Zachria enjoys an evening at a Berlin nightclub that's reopened as a beer garden, but says she does worry about a second wave of coronavirus infections. (Evangelo Sipsas for CBC)

"I think they have to stick together," said Niklas, the student. "In my opinion, also, Italy was hit very, very hard and didn't get the proper support. Also from Germany." 

As for the lockdown and the debate over whether it's being eased too fast or not fast enough, many Germans say they expect a second spike in infections. 

"I think there's going to be a second wave and we have to be aware. But I think we might be a bit more prepared for it," said Melina Zachria, a German journalist at the beer garden. 

Video producer Antonia Becht says it's too soon to say. 

"At the moment it goes well and everybody's happy, everyone is going out. You see smiles under the masks. Let's see."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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