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Germany stays streamlined in a crisis as its widespread testing regime and level-headedness help keep it ahead of the curve


Widely respected: German virologist Christian Drosten

Widely respected: German virologist Christian Drosten


Widely respected: German virologist Christian Drosten

Like everywhere else, Germany is reeling from the effects of the coronavirus crisis. It has the fifth-highest number of Covid-19 infections, the economy is slowing down and people are afraid of what the future holds. However, while it's a cliché to say the German reaction has been solid and responsible, it is a comforting truth.

The country's fatality rate, so far, is just 0.5pc. This puts it among the world's lowest, slightly lower than Ireland's 0.6pc rate. The low mortality rate is chiefly down to widespread testing, health experts say, but also because of a level-headed response, underscored by a shrewd public health policy and judicious leadership. There is even talk of the factorial rise in new cases starting to flatten out.

Walking through the chilly Berlin sunshine, there were plenty of folks out and about.

Germany has not implemented the nationwide lockdown seen elsewhere, but has banned gatherings of more than two people and imposed strict social distancing rules.

Germans can go to work and exercise outside, provided they maintain at least a 1.5-metre distance from others. Schools are closed until the Easter holidays end on April 24. Non-­essential shops and services have been ordered to shut and restaurants and cafés can offer only delivery or take away.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coronavirus speech on national television resonated across Germany. Ms Merkel is seen as a great woman in a crisis - and she delivered.

"This is serious. Take it seriously. Not since German reunification… no, not since World War II has our country faced a challenge so dependent on our collective solidarity," she said.

She warned against panic-­buying of toilet paper and noodles, something the Germans call "hamsterkauf" in reference to the rodent's eagerness to store as much food as they can in their cheeks. Hours later the chancellor was photographed in her local supermarket, buying just two rolls of toilet paper.

She then went into quarantine, after her doctor was diagnosed with Covid-19, again a model of responsibility and guidance. The four bottles of wine in her trolley barely got a mention in the media.

German nerves were also eased when the Bundestag lower house approved a €750bn aid package aimed at cushioning Europe's biggest economy from the direct impact of the outbreak. In order to fund the emergency measures, the government is planning to take on new debt for the first time since 2013.

The Germans dislike debt with a passion that appears too cautious in Ireland or the US, but these are weird times.

Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charité hospital, is a national hero. When Mr Drosten speaks, the nation listens.

Indeed, he is something of a global hero. The Charité was instrumental in developing the test currently recommended by the World Health Organisation, and it was able to issue these tests to its colleagues throughout Germany in January.

"The reason why Germany has so few deaths compared to the number of infected people is because we carry out an extremely large number of laboratory diagnostic tests," said Mr Drosten.

"Estimates from the last days show that we are carrying out half a million tests a week."

Germany can be a frustratingly bureaucratic place, but in a crisis it is surprisingly streamlined. One of those areas is in the medical system.

The Robert Koch Institute - the German version of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - can make recommendations, but does not control the testing system.

The 16 federal states make their own decisions on testing because each is responsible for their own healthcare systems.

This meant no delay in choosing labs and extensive testing as early as mid-February.

The actual number of cases is probably much higher, but many other possible cases may not have been tested because they show only mild symptoms or have not been in contact with a known case.

In Germany, most of the early infection cases were in young and healthy people. The majority of German infections have been in the 35-59 age range. Compare that to Italy, where nearly one in five of the infected are over 80 years old. More than 20pc of Italians between the ages of 30 and 49 live with their folks, more than double the rate for Germans in the same age bracket. The rate is also high in Ireland.

Generally, Germans are hunkering down to ride out the coronavirus. Online booksellers are doing a roaring trade. A best-seller is French existentialist author Albert Camus's 1947 classic 'The Plague'.

Irish Independent