When I reached prominent German journalist Anna Sauerbrey by phone in Berlin, she was picking up her son from elementary school.
German children started returning to school in July, and classes resumed full time in early August. All across Europe, schools are reopening after months of online learning due to the pandemic (with some countries having reopened in April or never shut down entirely).
So why do Germans feel safe sending their kids back to school? In large part, says Sauerbrey, because they trust their leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Ph.D. scientist, to give them the straight facts on the virus. Under her leadership, the country’s infection rate has fallen so low that its citizens believe any new spark is containable.
Contrast that with America under Donald Trump, where the president has been promoting magical fixes while refusing to coordinate any national strategy for testing and tracing. Pushing quack cures and unsafe therapies, downplaying masks, Trump is still trying to delude the American public.
But as Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, succinctly stated to reporters: “The virus doesn’t respond to spin.”
Yet about half of the U.S. public still approves of the president’s virus performance, perhaps because they’re still untouched by the virus (which has hit the elderly and minorities hardest), perhaps because they respond to Trump spin.
They’d do better to pay attention to Germany’s performance, which lays bare what we did wrong, and could still could do better — if we want to avoid tens of thousands more needless deaths.
Let’s start with some stats.
Germany, roughly one-fourth our size, had just over 9,300 deaths from COVID-19 as of last week. You can do the math: If we did as well as the Germans, we would now have around 37,000 dead from COVID-19 rather than 185,000 and counting.
Germany’s current death rate per 100,000 citizens is around 11, while the USA’s is around 57, the fourth worst in the world.
Last Thursday, the United States had 44,639 new cases, while Germany had 1,256.
“Leadership was vital,” says Sauerbrey, the deputy editor in chief of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. “This virus is something you can’t organize against from the bottom up.”
Merkel communicated the seriousness of the disease to her public in nonpartisan fashion. “There was testing and tracing at a very high level, which is still going on,” says Sauerbrey. With its excellent health system, the country was able to coordinate widespread, speedy testing and distribution of supplies, without overwhelming the system. Those who needed tests did not have to pay.
Despite some debate over how quickly to reopen, “overall trust in government is high,” says Sauerbrey, “and people do believe they are presented with facts.” (There have been scattered demonstrations against any virus closures, including some support for the dangerous QAnon cult that Trump has promoted.)
Of course, there is another glaring U.S. difference with Germany: its robust health insurance system.
Yet, even with our dysfunctional system, a leader who cared about the country could have, and still could, resolve the coronavirus mess — and not with a quack cure.
Speedy testing and tracing were key to Germany’s performance. Yet underfunded state public health departments in the United States cannot coordinate a mishmash of inefficient testing.
Despite Trump’s bragging about test numbers, getting a test is still far from easy in much of the country. The wait time for results makes many tests worthless. Insurers often won’t pay, even for frontline workers.
Add to that, a demoralized CDC is now recommending fewer tests, something Trump has been advocating. Yet reducing testing won’t reduce the number of infections or deaths, just make it harder to stop the virus from spreading. Every American has relatives who could pay for these tricks.
A Merkel-like leader would be linking together resources across states, hospitals, private and public labs, and test sites, into a grid that would mobilize capacity across state lines. In a recent piece, Atul Gawande, the brilliant medical writer for the New Yorker, spelled out how this could be done. The feds would then use the Defense Production Act as if it were wartime, mobilizing resources to fight this pandemic and the next one.
Instead, the White House sidelines its top virus experts, overstates dicey drug therapies and promises a vaccine before the election — even as it encourages anti-vaxxers just because they love Trump.
No wonder Germans find Trump’s virus policy mind-boggling.
“What most surprises Germans,” says Sauerbrey, “is that we wouldn’t have expected Trump to put the lives of people at risk for no reason at all. It is hard to understand how he would do that, would spread misinformation from the highest levels of government.”
That leaves Joe Biden with the huge responsibility of trying to get virus truths out there. If he fails, tens of thousands of Americans will pay with their lives.