BERLIN (AP) — Derided by many economists for years for insisting on a balanced budget and criticized for a health care system seen as bloated and overly expensive, Germany has found itself well equipped now to weather the coronavirus pandemic.
Already applauded for early actions such as social-distancing regulations and aggressive testing seen as helping keep the death toll comparatively low, Europe’s largest economy has had the financial flexibility to launch a massive rescue plan to help businesses and keep workers paid.
As the country moves this week to relax some restrictions, Chancellor Angela Merkel is pointing to South Korea, which has used its experience fighting a different coronavirus five years ago to track and stay ahead of COVID-19, as the way ahead.
Meantime in the U.S., protesters have taken to the streets — supported by President Donald Trump’s tweets — to demand an end to virus-related shutdowns to help the faltering economy, even if it could lead to an increase in deaths as the health care system struggles.
“This is a crisis which, on the one hand, has probably hit the U.S. where it is most vulnerable, namely health care,” said Carsten Brzeski, ING bank’s chief Eurozone economist. “While at the same time it has hit the German economy where it’s the strongest.”
Brzeski was among those who argued for Germany to spend more to stimulate the economy as growth ground toward stagnation, but concedes now the country is in a fortunate position.
For years, balanced budget proponents argued it was prudent during good economic times to bring Germany’s house in order to be prepared for a crisis. So in announcing a 1 trillion euro ($1.1 trillion) rescue plan for the country’s 83 million people last month, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz was able to assure there was more money available, if needed.
And while Italy and Spain were faced with having to decide whether to allocate precious ICU beds to elderly patients with the most urgent need or to younger patients with the greatest chance of survival, Germany has never had a shortage and has even taken in patients from other European countries.
Germany is now taking baby steps to ease restrictions, allowing smaller shops to reopen this week while sticking to strict social-distancing guidelines. The effect will be analyzed after two weeks to see whether infections have started to significantly climb.
Opening her Berlin toy store Wednesday for the first time in over a month, Galina Hooge said she had already received government aid and the process was “surprisingly quick and uncomplicated.”
She said it only covered the store’s rent and bills, but she felt relatively secure thanks to Germany’s universal health insurance and strong social safety net.
“The main thing is that everyone stays healthy and the situation doesn’t become like America,” she said, referring to the large number of cases and deaths in the United States.
Besides help for small businesses, Germany’s aid package is designed to keep the unemployment rate down and allow workers to return quickly when possible. While Washington is sending out one-time stimulus checks to Americans, the German government plan pays at least 60% of the salary of employees who are on reduced or no hours.
As restrictions are eased, Merkel has pointed to South Korea as an example of how Germany will have to improve measures to “get ahead” of the pandemic with more testing and tracking of cases.
Experts say one reason South Korea has managed to avoid lockdowns or business bans was because of its aggressive testing and contact-tracing program that draws from its experience of fighting a different coronavirus — MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — in 2015.
Following that outbreak, which killed 36 people and sickened around 200, South Korea rewrote its infectious disease law to allow health authorities quick access to a broad range of personal information to fight infectious diseases.
Amid criticism from privacy advocates, authorities have aggressively traced virus carriers’ contacts with tools such as smartphone GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance video. People’s movements before they were diagnosed are published on websites and relayed via smartphone alerts to inform others whether they have crossed paths with a carrier.
South Korea on Wednesday reported 11 new cases of the coronavirus, the 21st day in a row that the daily jump in infections came below 100.
In the U.S., there has been growing impatience over virus-related shutdowns that have led tens of millions to lose their jobs.
Trump’s administration has issued guidelines advising relaxation of restrictions only after prerequisites, like a two-week downward trajectory of cases, are met. Trump himself, however, has grumbled “our country wasn’t meant to be shut down” and has tweeted support for anti-shutdown protests, and some states are moving ahead with plans to begin reopening as early as this week.
The U.S. has registered more than 825,000 infections and 45,000 deaths so far, including some 15,000 fatalities in New York City alone.
Germany has registered some 150,000 infections, not far behind the worst-hit European countries of Italy, with more than 180,000 cases, and Spain with about 205,000. But whereas around 5,000 people have died in Germany, Spain’s toll is nearly 22,000 and Italy’s has passed 25,000.
With the numbers of new infections now stabilizing, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte confirmed Tuesday that Italy can start reopening on May 4, but he doused any hopes of a total loosening of some of the strictest lockdown measures in a Western democracy.
Spain, which has turned hotels into makeshift hospitals and converted a Madrid skating rink into a morgue, has not yet announced plans on relaxing restrictions, with Health Minister Salvador Illa saying it will hinge on advances made in treatment and vaccines to “ensure there’s no second wave.”
Frank Jordans in Berlin, Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and reporters around the world contributed.