It’s a bizarre distinction for Germany to hold. Once heralded as a role model for pandemic management, the central-European country now has the second-highest count of total Covid-19 cases in Europe—outdone only by the UK. Its case rates, however, are rapidly climbing and it appears it may have lost control over the pandemic.
This coincides with the largest shakeup to German politics in decades. In power since 2000, Angela Merkel has led Germany as chancellor for longer than many current undergraduates have been alive. Weathering many crises with her widely-held reputation for centrism, stability, and efficiency, Merkel has long had the intention to stand down – extending her tenure multiple times as not to leave Germany in the midst of newly-emerged crises.
Finally, however, Merkel officially stood down as chancellor in Germany’s September general election. She currently leads a caretaker government, awaiting the formation of a new coalition—expected within the coming days. This leaves Germany in uncharted waters—and the first test of its new ruling coalition will be to guide Germany out of this crisis.
Experts say that this wave is being driven – and hospitals being stretched to capacity – by the unvaccinated. Vaccine uptake in Germany is still below 70% for first doses—and the numbers do not look much better for second doses. This is due to pockets of vaccine resistance, particularly in the former parts of eastern Germany, where the far-right AfD are strong.
Many AfD politicians have stoked vaccine scepticism and have contributed to this low uptake. More worrying than the AfD, who are generally perceived to be an unwanted, but containable force in German politics is the rise of the ‘Querdenker’. Loosely translated as ‘Alternative Thinkers’, and heavily tied into spillover of the American ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theories, these conspiracy theorists have held multiple large demonstrations in the height of Covid-19. They are drawn in by various social media and are made up of an unlikely coalition of left-leaning natural-medicine advocates, neo-Nazis, and Reichsbürger (the imperial German version of ‘Sovereign Citizens’ or ‘Freemen of the Land’).
Such continued strong anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown stance is a thorn in Germany’s side. Their resolve has remained, even as Germany has introduced vaccine passports and begun charging for the LFT tests that provide an alternative way to get the pass.
What can Germany do, with its rocketing case rate and its entrenched ‘Impfgegner’ (anti-vaxxers)? Taking inspiration from its southerly neighbour, the idea of an Austrian-inspired ‘lockdown for the unvaccinated’ is gathering some steam in German political discourse. The recent Austrian policy, which forbade the unvaccinated from all-but-essential tasks, such as visiting supermarkets, was met by controversy both domestically and abroad. Opponents argued that vaccine effectiveness quickly wore off and painted the measures as disturbingly authoritarian – with some even describing it as a form of apartheid. Proponents put forth that it would be an unfair burden for the vaccinated to be locked down due to the irresponsible actions of others.
Reports suggest Austrian enforcement of such legislation was patchy—as many European governments simply do not have the experience of rigidly controlling movement in the comprehensive ways of countries like China—and as case levels continued to rise, the country switched around in just a few days to mandate a country-wide lockdown for all. Another possible measure, advocated by the German Greens, is mandatory vaccinations for specific high-risk professions—similar to the UK and others. Austria’s more recent attempt at getting a grip on Covid-19 by mandating all citizens be vaccinated by February is still seen as too extreme, but it may well be the only option if cases keep rising.
Ultimately, the new German government will find itself deep in the middle of a serious crisis. How they resolve this may be a defining moment for them—and the perception of them as continuers of Merkel’s legacy of calm competence—for years to come.
Image: Berthold Werner via Wikimedia Commons