During March 2020, both the United Kingdom and Germany were hit by the Coronavirus pandemic. In both countries, schools and offices were closed and their economies were slowing rapidly. Undoubtedly, both countries have been strongly affected by the growing pandemic in similar ways. There was however, one large discrepancy between these two countries. While they both had similar numbers of confirmed cases at the time, the death toll in the UK. was staggeringly high in comparison. If the UK. is going to get its proverbial act together, it is vital to understand why this discrepancy exists.
A country’s reaction to crisis will always be defined by its leaders. When looking at the differing reaction to the pandemic within Germany, the UK and the United States, the differences in policy reflect the differences between leaders to a staggering degree. The personalities of President Donald Trump, an ex-reality TV show star and Boris Johnson, a bumbling, comedic caricature of a Prime Minister, reflect the lacklustre organisation and fumbling of valuable time which defined their responses to the crisis. As Trump closed borders and ridiculed the “Chinese virus” and Boris braggadiciously championed himself “shaking all hands”, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave sombre speeches rallying the country around the need for calm, quick, and collective action. Germany was the first of these countries to go into a tight lockdown, or “Ausgangssperre”, while the UK kept society running for as long as possible, probably because they knew that they were about to be hit by not only the economic crises of a Covid-infested world, but soon by the reality of Brexit, when it finally comes into effect. While now, the lockdown is easing, it is fair to say that the UK will be facing the consequences of its delayed action for a much longer time than Germany.
How do countries count?
As we have learned in the past few months, the way that each country counts its Covid cases can impact how many cases that country has.
While the death toll appears much lower in Germany, it is likely that the true number of Covid deaths is unknown. This is because those who die without being a confirmed Covid case are not counted towards the death toll, even though they might have died directly from coronavirus.
The story is entirely different in the UK. As a source from the Department of Health and Social Care put it, “You could have been tested positive in February, have no symptoms, then be hit by a bus in July and you’d be recorded as a Covid death.” Through these differing attitudes, we are able to see how the discrepancy between these countries emerged. In one, you could die of Covid and not be counted, in the other, you could die of a different cause, and yet still be counted in the death toll.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Germany and the UK is the types of healthcare systems they employ. During the pandemic, I read articles praising the German healthcare system for handling the pandemic better. Broadsheet opinion pieces would boldly claim that “if we only had a healthcare system like Germany”, the pandemic would have been handled far better. Something none of these articles discussed, however, was the uncomfortable truth that a good healthcare system costs a lot of money. This is something Germans are intimately familiar with. Germans pay 20% of their income towards health insurance as a fixed contribution. The biggest difference here is that German healthcare is not free at point of access. Visit a doctor in Germany, and the first question they will ask you is how you’re going to pay for it. These health insurance costs ensure that Germany has an over-provision, rather than a shortage of, medical resources. Hospitals practically compete for patients during calm periods. This effectively means that during a pandemic, the German healthcare system is well equipped to deal with a rapid influx of patients, something which has proved very useful in recent months. This also means that Germany has been able to take in patients from Italy and elsewhere, and is another reason for the much lower death toll compared to the UK.
Masks are a huge topic of discussion at the moment. I only recently learned how rare it was to see masks in England after having discussions with my friends who stayed in Sheffield. I was surprised. Once the “Maskenpflicht”, or mask obligation, came into effect in Germany, practically everyone was wearing one without much backlash. While there were large protests across the country against the masks, some going so far as to hold up signs proclaiming that citizens should “Give Gates no chance”, as they believed he invented the virus in order to profit from the subsequent vaccine, the vast majority of citizens observed the mask obligation on public transport and in shops. Extra security guards were hired to deny entry to those not wearing a mask. This is likely another reason why Germany has handled the crisis so much more effectively than the UK At the moment, many Germans are complaining that their neighbor, Austria, has effectively removed the mask obligation, and think their government should do the same. Sadly, Austria is actually beginning to re-introduce mask restrictions as cases once again rise slightly.
Attitudes and their Unforeseen Consequences
Every country has its fair share of those who do not take the virus seriously and do not realise the damage it can do. This is exemplified by those gathering across Bournemouth beach, hosting large barbecues while sharing cups and drinks, while rumours circled the internet of so-called “corona parties”, where people attempt to get sick on purpose.It is, however, fair to say that the Germans began to adopt a laxer attitude to the virus as time went on and they saw their government handling the pandemic effectively. From speaking to those I know in the UK, it seems that many still take the virus more seriously. While Germany did handle the initial spike in cases better, this has led many in the country not to take the precautions seriously anymore. The logic is that since Germany is doing better, one does not need to worry about safety as much. This is dangerous, as it could, and most likely will, lead to another spike in cases as young people socialise and flout social distancing rules. At the same time that masks are being introduced in the UK, and people are reminded that the virus is still deadly serious, Germans are flinging themselves head-first into the summer barbecue and vacation season, unaware of the dire consequences that await them should they continue to over-trust in the actions of their government.
So while the UK should look to Germany and emulate their stricter social distancing and mask regulations which were in place, for once they should be thankful of the distrust many UK citizens have in their government. It will save lives.
Image Credit: Angela Merkel image – Armin Linnartz. Image Modifications by Ella Craig.