Monday, March 30, 2020

Germany is looking for an exit strategy – what options are there?

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Berlin It could be ready after Easter. The drastic constraints imposed on society and the economy in the corona crisis could be eased. The federal government is working on an “overall concept” for an exit from the collective standstill, said Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) on Thursday.

The prerequisite, however, was that the requirements of the authorities were “consistently” complied with, he warned. And whether the measures taken will not be reflected in the infection statistics until a few days from now. So there is hope for a cautious return to normalcy. There is no guarantee for that.

The federal and state governments avoid concrete statements about their exit strategy; they don’t want to raise too many expectations too soon. But one thing is certain: When politics opens Germany again, it will happen in stages.

In addition, the framework conditions for a controlled dismantling of the freedom barriers must be right: This includes extensive testing options as well as more personnel in the health authorities and digital solutions to track contacts of infected people.

The intensive capacities in hospitals have to be increased significantly in order to keep alive those patients in whom the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus takes a severe course.

“There will also be a time after Corona,” said Spahn. “And there will be a time when we will continue to fight the virus but gradually normalize ourselves.” But the big question is when is the right time to start this process.

The answer also hides the macabre trade-off that everyone currently wants to avoid: How high must the risk to human life be so that further economic damage and the risk of social strife are justified?

Citizens stay calm

The unprecedented restrictions on personal freedom in the Federal Republic still meet with widespread approval. In a survey by the YouGov opinion research institute for the German Press Agency, 88 percent of those surveyed agreed to the measures. Every third person wants even tougher restrictions. And almost two thirds of the respondents also expect the rules to be tightened again.

But in the past few days there have been increasing demands to find a way out of the state of emergency. The Association of Cities and Towns warned that one should not “paralyze the entire country in the long term”. This mainly concerns the question of whether schools and kindergartens can reopen after the Easter holidays.

Germany’s top economists also want a perspective. The economist Volker Wieland told the Handelsblatt: “An exit strategy from the shutdown can not only be determined according to economic criteria, but above all also according to epidemiological criteria. You have to balance that carefully. “

Union parliamentary group deputy Carsten Linnemann called for the economy in Germany to be “gradually” started up again after Easter at the latest.

On the other hand, Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) does not believe in loosening the strict restrictions on going out early. “As long as the virus rages like this, there is no alternative to protecting people,” said Seehofer of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also warned against taking measures too soon: “The last thing countries need now is that schools and businesses open only to be forced to close again because of the virus’s resurgence.”

Do not completely prevent infections

Even science cannot give a clear compass on this difficult question. A much-cited study by the Imperial College in London suggests that there will still be drastic restrictions for many months to stop spreading until a vaccine is developed. But is that conceivable?

The director of the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn, Hendrik Streeck, on the other hand, says: “Many people will be infected with the virus and will develop Covid-19, but we do not want to completely prevent the infections and a broad immunity in society to reach.”

Otherwise the problems would only be postponed, and then there would be a new outbreak at some point. “So far, there are no concrete statements from the federal government regarding this exit strategy.”

However, a path is emerging that Germany could take. Spahn said this week in a “Zeit” interview: “I’m thinking about accelerating and braking, about a careful balance between personal responsibility and state control.” Depending on the regional situation, there may always be time-limited exit restrictions.

Public life could start again carefully, but not for everyone. For risk groups such as old and chronically ill people, there may be a “possibly over several months” requirement to limit their contacts severely and, if in doubt, to stay at home. Chancellor-in-Office Helge Braun (CDU) also said: “The next phase is of course: Young people who are not at risk are allowed to take more streets again.”

The federal government is also looking to South Korea, which has managed to control the outbreak of the corona virus without curfews. According to the virologist Streeck, the country’s success is based on four pillars: “The authorities have extensively tested the virus for the population, quickly isolated the infected people, found potential contact persons and treated those affected early.”

The head of the business operations, Lars Feld, also told the Handelsblatt: “It would be good if we were able to test nationwide, as in South Korea, and to design the tracking of contacts of infected people in accordance with data protection regulations.”

Spahn wanted to have a legislative amendment passed this week in order to be able to access movement profiles of mobile phone users for tracking risk contacts. In view of data protection concerns, he backed off and would first like to have a new regulation discussed more broadly.

On Thursday, he said it was about using cell phone data “like in South Korea” to break chains of infection. This could enable citizens to “get back certain freedoms of everyday life more easily”.

An app should help

State Minister for Digital Affairs Dorothee Bär told the Handelsblatt that there are considerations in the federal government for a “corona tracking app”. “Such a digital application would make sense to contain the virus in a targeted manner.”

There is nothing against data protection law, “since the user agrees to the data usage by downloading the app”. The Federal Data Protection Officer Ulrich Kelber also considers an anti-corona app possible. “If the users of an app give their voluntary consent to data processing, a technical solution for identifying infection chains could certainly make a meaningful contribution to coping with the crisis,” Kelber told Handelsblatt.

The federal and state governments are already coordinating to create the conditions for gradual opening. In a conference call, Chancellor Braun and representatives of the state governments agreed to significantly increase the capacity, which is currently a good 300,000 corona tests per week.

For example, laboratories from the field of veterinary medicine could also be used for this, according to an internal memorandum available to the Handelsblatt.

In addition, the health departments are to be strengthened, with volunteers and employees from other areas of public administration: “The goal must be to gradually deploy at least one contact tracking team consisting of five people per 20,000 residents at short notice.”

The Federal Ministry of Research, meanwhile, wants to link university hospitals in Germany more closely so that they can exchange information better and faster in the fight against Covid-19. Research Minister Anja Karliczek is providing a total of 150 million euros for 2020 and 2021. The virologist Christian Drosten from the Berlin Charité is in charge.

The federal and state governments face difficult decisions. The RWI Leibniz Institute for Economic Research has analyzed various scenarios: If all contact bans in Germany were to be lifted and the virus spread unchecked, 80 percent of people with intensive care needs in hospitals would have to be turned away within six to seven weeks. Several hundred thousand deaths would then be unavoidable.

If current measures were taken to slow down the spread of the virus so that anyone who needed it could be treated in hospitals, 200,000 deaths would still be expected. The shutdown would have to last at least half a year. According to RWI, the only way out that avoids recession and hospital overload is only the South Korea strategy.

More: The Bundestag has adopted an unprecedented aid program – with short-term changes. However, handicrafts and restaurants are afraid of going empty-handed.

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