In November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with an approval rating of 74% according to one opinion poll, wanted tighter rules on masks in schools and social contact. But many states were against it. The result was the national “hard lockdown” that began in Germany in mid-December.
Since authoritarian China extinguished the first wave of coronavirus in Hubei province with a disciplined approach impossible in the chaotically democratic West, the pandemic has been seen as something of a stress test for federal and more centralised systems of governance.
In a paper published before the second wave in Europe, organisational studies academics at Hamburg University argued that, in democracies, a centralised approach was most effective in “high-impact, sudden disasters like earthquakes and wildfires”, where clear chains of command and standard operating procedures were already in place. First responders tend of operate within strict, top-down hierarchies.
But extremely complex societal hazards like coronavirus require a more decentralised bottom-up approach. These, the report argues, are better suited to tackling crises with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, where there are few if any pre-existing, evidence-based solutions.
The over-involvement, in a more centralised system, of a small number of “outside” central actors, puts a major brake on local initiatives.
Fascinating. But from an Anglo perspective, and particularly an Anglo-American perspective, also rather abstract. Reading the erudition of German academics, one is reminded of the distance we’ve fallen in the Anglo bloc, since populists took the reins in the dominant English-language democracies.
Run by populists, the US and British governments’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic rank among the worst in the world. The pandemic was “politicised early”, as the report diplomatically put it. “In the absence of consensus on a united approach, the problem of self-interested political bargaining [has] remained unsolved”.
Still, the obvious problem with the German approach has come to the fore as the second wave has intensified. The much-vaunted flexibility of the system has, paradoxically, made it look less flexible.
With the creeping sense that the authorities may have lost control of the pandemic, the need has been for speed — for making centrally organised decisions, fast. All that “inter-agency”, all that horizontal power-sharing has, in the language of organisational theory, prevented the imposition of senior leaders’ “enlightened” umbrella view.
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So the German system, established in 1949 to avoid any ultimate power grab, is problematic. But it’s worth speaking up for currently. Not least because the virus in Germany, as just about everywhere, is decidedly local in colour. The dimension may be planetary, but the intensity and speed of its actual spread has varied, not only between but within individual states and regions.
But rather than Donald Trump’s brand of punitive federalism, based on coercion and threats, in Germany we’ve seen, in an essentially collegiate atmosphere, a fairly high degree of coordination between the national government and the states.
There’s been some inevitable self-aggrandising and rivalry among the state premiers (especially on the conservative side, positioning for Merkel’s departure) as well as some disagreement about policies such as curfews and “de-confinement”. But Munich University (LMU) researchers have also detected a considerable degree of mimicry, and eventual copying among the states, even as the system has left room for more-or-less nuanced regional responses.
In the legal sphere the system has essentially functioned as well. When citizens have disagreed about the imposition of regional measures, arguing their impingement of fundamental freedoms of movement, assembly or religion, they’ve tended to launch proceedings in the courts.
Most of these, according to an LMU paper, have ruled in favour of the government, but with notable exceptions (such as in the state of Saarland, where physical distancing measures were adjudged too restrictive).
In terms of political activity, too, there’s been significant regional variation. A website that keeps count, coronanet-project.org, has reported significant differences in the number of policies implemented by states, according to the depth and local hold of the virus.
Of course, Merkel herself is another difference between Germany, its European partners and the US. The chancellor’s grasp of the virus, her limpid “science for dummies”-type accounts, have set her apart amid the European political elite as a crisis-manager par excellence.
Back when no-mask populists were still vigorously shaking hands while claiming the virus would just disappear, Merkel called COVID-19 “the greatest challenge since German reunification; no, since the Second World War”.
When the jury finally returns on which governments, approaches and heath systems have most effectively dealt with coronavirus, the takeaways with regard to Germany, plucked from the jaws of the dictators, populists and grandiloquent duffers, will figure prominently in the general reckoning.
In a world currently determined by the virus, the German version of less hierarchical federalism, with credible, empathic and data-driven leadership, has looked flawed, but like a deeply democratic endeavour to account for all sides. To bring everyone along.
Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist and consultant in Munich.