Almost a thousand deaths in 24 hours. Germany has gone from being the exemplary student to one of the worst hit countries in Europe in a matter of days. The death toll is the foam that emerges only at the end of a slow-digesting pandemic, in which drama brews weeks before in stores, residences and homes. Germany faces a nightmare before a Christmas that few expected. Since this Wednesday, the country is closed tight. Shops, schools, bars, restaurants, culture, all closed. The effects of the closure will take weeks to arrive. Meanwhile, a question arises strongly: What has happened?
After doing relatively well during the first wave and containing the second until well into autumn, the virus is now growing exponentially again in Germany. 27,728 infections in one day, 952 deaths. Figures never before seen in a country that in the first wave reached a maximum peak of about 6,000 infections. Since the beginning of the epidemic, Germany has added 23,427 deaths in a country of 83 million inhabitants, which continues to show a better balance than some of the neighboring countries, but the virulence of the infections in recent days has unleashed concern and has forced closure. With 341 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 14 days, the incidence in the country is higher than that of France (236) and Spain (218, according to the European Center for Disease Control), similar to that of the United Kingdom (348) and lower than that of Italy (428).
There are no conclusive causes that explain this new spread, as recognized by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Rather, it obeys a sum of factors, some of them to a certain extent elusive. On the one hand, there is a consensus that a closure of public life like the current one would have been necessary more than a month ago, when exponential growth began. But then, some federal states dragged their feet preventing federal consensus. The choreography was repeated. Chancellor Angela Merkel called for stronger measures and some countries they resisted. In the German system, the States are in charge of dictating and applying the measures, which have been different and have not helped to provide clarity in the eyes of the citizen.
But beyond concrete measures, the truth is that for some time there has been a feeling of false security, especially in some regions of the country. It is clearly seen in the East, where the first wave practically passed by and is now heavily affected. Saxony has an incidence of 400 cases in seven days for every 100,000 inhabitants. It is followed by Thuringia, also in the East, with 255. If during the first closing, last spring, the contacts were reduced by 60%, this time only 40%.
Braking and climbing
“The situation is really dangerous now. I would not say that it is out of control, but it is tense, ”describes Clemens Wendtner, chief medical officer of the Schwabing hospital in Munich, which at the end of January treated the first patients with COVID-19 in Germany. “They acted late, we have been warning for weeks,” says Wendtner, who assures that, in Munich, 96% of intensive care beds are occupied; 25% of them by patients with covid. In recent weeks, they have even transferred patients by helicopter to other hospitals in the region. “The problem is that the measures adopted in October were very soft. At the end of the summer, there were politicians who even believed that the second wave was not going to hit Germany, but in September we already knew that there would be exponential growth ”, explains this immunologist and infectologist.
Even so, public life was still open, with certain restrictions and forcing people to maintain a safe distance, wear a mask in closed places and ventilate. Only at the end of October, the heads of the 16 countries and the federal government managed to agree to impose more drastic measures. They agreed that for a month the bars and restaurants would be closed, contacts would be limited to two family units and schools and shops would remain open. Politicians then said that with a month of light restrictions in November there would be a chance to open the hand even more at Christmas. “It was probably the biggest political miscalculation of the year,” he wrote. The mirror weekend.
At first, growth was slowed and cases stabilized. But as the Christmas season approached and business activity increased, the escalation began again. Last Sunday, regional chiefs met with Merkel on an emergency basis and agreed to a near-total shutdown – not a house lockdown; there is freedom to go out to the streets – confirming to the Germans the worst fears: that this will be a Christmas difficult to forget.
Nothing from the traditional and usually very crowded Christmas markets. Even the street mulled wine stalls, turned into a meeting point this winter after the closure of the bars, are closing. The hotels are closed to tourism and the famous New Year’s Eve firecrackers are also prohibited. It is recommended not to travel abroad unless necessary and whoever returns to the country must keep quarantine for 10 days.
On Tuesday afternoon, children were saying goodbye at schools for an especially long vacation. In Berlin, for example, they go ahead three days and extend until January 10, instead of returning on the 4th. Children of parents with essential professions can take their children to school, where there will be a checkpoint. The Government has promised to extend paid days off for parents who have to take care of their children at home on these days.
This Wednesday, in the streets the sound of the radios was barely heard. The workers in reflective vests seemed to have taken over the city, because not many more people were seen first thing in the morning, when the employees move to the offices and the children go to school with their backpacks. The Government has recommended teleworking whenever possible. The tram runs half empty at rush hour. At the doors of the bakeries, some queues. Only essential shops such as pharmacies, supermarkets or gas stations remain open. Also the bookstores. Now you can see a lot of people on the street with a mask, despite the fact that it is only mandatory in the busiest arteries.
The children call their parents on the other side of the country to tell them that this year they will not go to see them, that later, after the holidays. Parents will not be able to meet their friends, also older, this year for fear of the damn virus. It is the loneliness of the pandemic that is preying on the elderly.
Nursing homes for the elderly are precisely one of the great sources of contagion, as the RKI repeats daily in its report. Private homes are another of the main places of contagion, but “for a large proportion of cases, the place of transmission is uncertain,” says the agency, which speaks of “an increasingly diffuse transmission.”
The shortage of qualified workers in Germany mainly affects hospitals, where there is a shortage of nurses – 100,000, according to the association of nursing professionals DBFK, and about 4,000 in intensive care – but especially caregivers in residences. “In hospitals we can control each patient who enters, but in nursing homes we cannot. There they have more problems to find personnel to do massive tests ”, assures Wendtner.
“There is an obvious problem in the residences. There has been no adequate containment strategy, ”says Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, from the Bernhard-Nocht Institute in Hamburg. “In recent months, not enough attention has been paid to people at higher risk”, believes Schmidt-Chanasit, who thinks that in Germany “community involvement has also failed. Merkel explains the problems, but it is not enough, it is necessary to get the communities involved and there are people who still do not follow the rules ”, he adds. This expert believes that the measures have proliferated, but that they were often unclear and complex. “It is better that there are few, but that people follow them.”
Each closure has been accompanied by a fine rain of millions for companies and freelancers affected by the covid in the largest European economy, but politicians have already warned that it will not be eternal. Saving like ants for years is now a blessing, but the emanation of the huge budget slack of years past will come to an end and the Germans well know that there is no zero deficit capable of withstanding months of closure. That the nightmare, despite the hopeful news of the early arrival of the vaccine, will not end after the harsh winter.
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