Germany leading the way in Europe’s virus battle

Germany leading the way in Europe’s virus battle

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Medical staff take preliminary data from people lining up for a coronavirus test in Dresden, Germany, March 16, 2020. (Reuters)

For some 20 years now, many European countries have experienced a populist trend built on people’s disillusionment and lack of affection for the idea of the EU and its institutions. One of the major reasons for this is that Europe has suffered many crises on the economic, unemployment, immigration, and security fronts. With every crisis, feelings spread among many Europeans that the EU is not up to meeting these challenges.

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide, is a new crisis for the EU that ranks among the most important the continent has ever faced. This crisis has deepened the differences between European countries. It has also demonstrated that Germany is doing better than its neighbors in managing the pandemic.

Germany is experiencing about 76 deaths per 1 million people due to the virus, compared to 452 in Italy, 509 in Spain and 353 in France. So why has Germany fared far better than its neighbors? Firstly, it was fast to launch a massive screening policy for anyone returning from the high-risk areas of China and Italy. Tests have also been carried out on any person presenting symptoms of COVID-19, even mild ones, or anybody who had been in contact with a patient. About 500,000 tests are carried out every week free of charge in hospitals, medical offices and even car parks, with an objective of 200,000 per day.

These tests explain why Germany has reported more than 160,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but fewer deaths than France, Italy, Spain and the UK. The number of tests enabled the introduction of quarantine measures, confining infected people to prevent the spread of the virus.

Before the epidemic, Germany had 28,000 intensive care beds — 23,000 more than France — and it quickly increased its capacity, which is now estimated at 40,000 beds, three-quarters of which are equipped with respirators. The widespread availability of ventilators in Germany can be explained by the fact that two of the world’s largest manufacturers, Draeger and Lowenstein, are German.

Berlin was far better prepared for this pandemic than Paris. Its hospitals are still a long way from saturation point and Germany has even accepted patients from eastern France and Lombardy in Italy. In France, the rate of testing is much lower because of a shortage of nasal PCR kits — a type of test that allows for rapid detection of the virus. France needed to import these kits, as well as face masks, which were not available in sufficient quantities to protect even hospital staff at the beginning of the outbreak.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran wants to increase the country’s testing rate from 30,000 per day at the start of April to 100,000 by June. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe this week outlined the three main elements of the post-lockdown phase that will start on May 11; defining them as protect, test, and isolate. He promised that tests will be available in greater numbers, as well as masks for everybody. His promises, though, are often doubted by those critical of the government’s awkward communications at the beginning of the crisis. For instance, the French authorities started by saying that face masks were not really necessary in the fight against COVID-19 because there was a shortage, before later admitting their necessity and making them compulsory on public transport after May 11, when the lockdown will be eased.

France has seen very high pressure on its hospital capacity as a result of the virus, and its health service was already creaking due to budget cuts. The government has pledged to increase the number of intensive care beds from 5,000 to over 14,000.

The lack of investment of recent years has deteriorated France’s public hospital system tremendously.

Randa Takieddine

Germany is a world leader in research and development funding, with €90 billion ($97 billion) invested annually, compared to €50 billion in France. The Germans also have a reputation for good organization and discipline, which is often absent in Latin countries. The German authorities started their lockdown earlier than most other European countries.

France is generally less organized and disciplined than Germany, even though its health care system and its doctors are known as being among the best. Sadly, the lack of investment of recent years has deteriorated the public hospital system tremendously. Its workers are paid a miserly amount and there is a shortage of nurses and other health care staff, meaning they have to employ foreigners who accept lower salaries to work under great stress and in poor conditions. President Emmanuel Macron, while visiting the big public Pitie Salpetriere hospital in Paris at the beginning of the crisis, had promised a massive investment to drastically revamp the hospital system.

The COVID-19 crisis has also offered a big economic challenge — and a divisive one between the likes of France, Italy and Spain, which want a big recovery plan financed by collective EU borrowing, whereas countries like Germany and the Netherlands do not want to bear any of the weight because they consider themselves to have been the good pupils by balancing their budgets in recent years without accumulating crippling debts. The COVID-19 crisis is indeed what Macron asserted: The moment of truth for the EU.

  • Randa Takieddine is a Paris-based Lebanese journalist who headed Al-Hayat’s bureau in France for 30 years. She has covered France’s relations with the Middle East through the terms of four presidents.
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