Pandemic threatens to tarnish Angela Merkel's legacy

Angela Merkel removes her face mask at the start of a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin

Angela Merkel removes her face mask at the start of a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

TANIT KOCH on what the Germans are only just learning about their country under the long rule of Angela Merkel.

Most Germans (ven not engaged in ze race for pole pool positions) will have come across one phrase in those heady days when we could actually go on holiday: “You’re lucky, you’ve got Merkel.” 

Britons, says YouGov, rate only Barack Obama higher than Angela Merkel in their affections for foreign politicians, and the received wisdom from foreigners looking at Germany is that her 16 years as chancellor will go down in history as Europe’s “Merkel era”. 

That may well happen. But right now, as her era is coming to an end, the pandemic may get in the way of a glorious departure. 

For journalists like myself, the complete absence of any personal Merkel scandals has been quite a bore, but for German voters it has, of course, helped her overall approval ratings. They remain high because people cherish her calm, ego-free way of running things. 

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But lately her popularity started to decrease – albeit at the same speed as the German vaccination roll-out; very, very slowly. 

If you ever had the pleasure to live in Germany you will know how fast and efficient bureaucracy here can be. Within weeks of moving house, for example, service providers will bombard you with letters to collect the TV licence fee. They know where to find you because the law compels everyone to register their name, age, marital status, and address with the local registration office.

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However, what we are currently witnessing is the malfunctioning side of German administration. And nobody knows just how serious this malfunction is yet. 

Unlike the UK, it took months simply to inform citizens over the age of 80 about the vaccination schedule, let alone actually giving them the jab. Thousands still haven’t got an appointment. 

The reason? Too little digitisation and an abundance of data protection. In some parts of the country, names and addresses had to be purchased from the German postal services, which did indeed provide names and addresses, but in thousands of cases didn’t know the dates of birth. 

So, they took an educated guess based on the popularity of names in the years citizens were born: If you are a Fritz, a Sieglinde or an Adolf, then you have a very good chance you receive the vaccination letter. If you’re called Eva or Thomas you may fail the old-fashioned-name-threshold. 

The system, as you can imagine, is far from perfect. For instance, Franz and Xaver from Bavaria received vouchers to fetch their free facemasks only days after the government decided to provide them to the over 60s. Franz and Xaver are brothers aged three and five whose parents have a weakness for traditional Bavarian names. 

Is Angela Merkel to blame for this? Jein (German for Ja und nein). 

Many of the preventable errors and failures aren’t down to Berlin. Merkel can’t bully Germany’s federal states into obedience, and many have gone it alone in regard to lockdown-rules, vaccination, communication, home-schooling and software. 

But a year into Covid-19 it increasingly dawns on people – not the ones that have already been shouting “Merkel muss weg!” ('Merkel needs to go') since the refugee crisis – that maybe they aren’t so lucky to have had Angela Merkel for 16 years after all. 

Because the pandemic only brought to light long-existing and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that no-one bothered with for far too long. 

An entrepreneur recently told me Germany should be grateful for being a developed country already for if it weren’t, our sluggish and stifling bureaucratic structures would prevent us from ever advancing to the premier league of market economies. 

Of course, like most parts of Europe we haven’t had to cope with a pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Shortly after that pandemic, Rudolf Hell invented the fax (I know, it has many claimants, but he’s ours). So the problem for Germany is not coronavirus, which will be brought under control one day.

The real problem is that fax machines are still being used regularly in the state sector, and that 16 years of the Merkel era didn’t change this.

Tanit Koch is a former editor of the German newspaper Bild.

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