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Where did it all go wrong for Germany?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a ceremony for Germany's victims of the coronavirus pandemic - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Germany’s reputation for ‘efficiency’ was always code for ‘thoroughness’. And Covid has shown that the two are not the same

Pity the poor Germans. The pandemic hasn’t just forced the closure of beer gardens just as the sun started to shine again, it has also given the country’s self-image a knocking.

For weeks now, local media has been going on about “the new German inefficiency”. At the beginning of the pandemic, Germany appeared to be doing well. But now, according to the latest local Deutschlandtrend poll, only one-third of Germans approve of how the federal government is handling coronavirus.

A year ago, it was exactly the opposite – two-thirds approved. And that anti-government attitude has been on the rise since around January this year.

Then again, can you blame the beleaguered German populace? There has been so much back-and-forth about rules, and so many exemptions, and so many meetings, that nobody really knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing anymore.

Should you be out past 10pm with your dog? Can you take a friend? What about a child? Can you get into Ikea with the virus self-test you just did at home? What about the hairdresser? Are you allowed to stop and drink a beer beside the river, or should you keep an eye out for the police?

The German love of rules and regulations has gone into warp drive so vigorously over the past year, with new decrees issued almost daily, that all the directives have melted into one confusing, indecisive sludge of prohibition. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the same opinion surveys now find that almost 50% of Germans are in favour of a harder lockdown. At least then, we’d know what we’re supposed to be doing.

And then of course there’s the much-cursed vaccine rollout, which has come in for much criticism. Of course, the pace of vaccination here isn’t all Germany’s fault – the various hiccups that accompanied the European Union’s purchase of vaccines are well documented elsewhere, and it is also true that the pace is now picking up significantly.

But you do hear stories like the one about the chemotherapy patient who, being in the high risk category, turned up to get her shot at one of the large vaccination centres in Berlin. She was sent home again because she had filled out a form incorrectly.

Or the one about the German general practice doctors who were happy to start immunising their own patients, but who then had to employ double the number of administrative staff in order to deal with the increased bureaucracy this required.

This included tracking down who was eligible for a jab, the completion of six pages of permission forms and daily notifications back to the authorities in Berlin. “Just over the top,” one of the doctors in Frankfurt complained.

This week, another report described a distinctly “German dilemma” that saw millions of doses of vaccine thrown away. Instead of using up their leftovers, vaccine remnants were being disposed of because clinicians would rather do that, than go against bureaucrats’ specifications about exactly how many doses each vial should contain.

Faulty or overly complex software for booking vaccinations, health authorities who were faxing (yes, faxing!) their Covid death count, hotlines that nobody answers, virus test results that just disappear: There are plenty more stories like this.

“With all these episodes, you don’t just see the usual annoyance in people’s faces,” wrote Lenz Jacobsen, a political reporter with German newspaper, Die Zeit, at the end of last month.

“You see a certain incomprehension: Could it really be true that the German state just can’t do better?” In mid-March, an entire issue of Spiegel magazine was devoted to “the new German incompetence”. “Shame and disgrace,” the normally staid and comparatively centrist current affairs magazine proclaimed. “Why can’t we get a handle on this coronavirus mess?” The editors noted that the pandemic was revealing Germany’s systemic weaknesses.

“The image of Germany internationally has turned 180 degrees,” a newsreader for another media outlet, Die Welt, announced. Elsewhere, it was duly noted that other countries were all starting to ask what had gone wrong with our nation of champion organisers.

“The world is laughing about Germany,” a headline in Munich-based paper, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, warned, noting that such merriment was “tearing at” Germans’ national self-image.

Of course, this is far from the first time the world has realised that the myth of German efficiency is just that. In 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, Newsweek magazines’ former Europe editor explained it like this: “Rules and regulations encumber German society. Efficiency, taken to an extreme, can become inefficiency. Anyone living in Germany quickly learns the drawbacks of excessive perfectionism. Few advanced countries make the mundane tasks of life so…inefficient,” he concluded.

That is true to this day. Almost 82% of the trains may have run on time last year and the auto engineers sure as hell know what they’re doing, but it’s also true that German bureaucracy has never had the best reputation.

Usually when it’s about renewing a passport or licensing your dog or your TV, you just sigh, print out the many forms required, sign them and post (or fax!) them off. Unlike in many other civilised countries in the world, it is still not possible to do many of these tasks online.

But during the pandemic, this kind of layer-upon-layer of permission-seeking, rule-abiding and multiple authenticating has become a matter of life and death.

So perhaps some of this self-flagellation could be a good thing. Perhaps it’s about time that the Germans themselves acknowledged a truth that every foreigner living in this country has long known: Germany is thorough – you can trust the thoroughness and yes, that’s nice – but it’s not necessarily speedy, agile or particularly efficient.

At one stage, it almost felt like even Angela Merkel, German chancellor and the woman they sometimes call the leader of the free world, was acknowledging that at a press conference. Announcing the latest batch of confusing rules and regulations, Merkel also addressed growing anger over the vaccine rollout. When it comes to vaccinations, these should be faster, she said. And “we want the proverbial – and also tried-and-tested – German thoroughness to be supplemented by more German flexibility”.

In every country, the coronavirus crisis has been like pouring water into already-existing cracks on the road before a freezing night. The water freezes, the cracks get deeper. In the end, the road might become impassable. And if that sounds too dramatic, then perhaps think of it this way: When was the last time you saw an actual fax machine faxing anything? Exactly.

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