Germany followed the playbook for saving lives. France didn’t.
France and Germany, Europe’s two most powerful countries, have been hit hard by the coronavirus, with each approaching 150,000 confirmed cases. But as of April 17, France has near 18,000 dead from the infection, while Germany’s death toll has passed 4,000.
Which raises the question: How did two similarly sized countries, located right next to each other and with comparable levels of wealth and resources, end up with such starkly different outcomes?
The answer has a lot to do with how their respective governments responded to the crisis.
France had the continent’s first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, but the French government failed for weeks to take decisive action to impose strict social distancing measures or promote large-scale testing. Germany, on the other hand, immediately began aggressively testing and tracking people with symptoms.
Now, France is under lockdown and has just extended it until at least May 11. Meanwhile, Germany plans to reopen part of its economy next week.
The experiences of these two countries show that just having substantial national wealth and high quality health care systems isn’t enough to keep citizens safe from the deadly coronavirus. Saving lives is also about how quickly, thoroughly, and effectively the government responds to the brewing crisis. Any delay, it seems, is very costly.
“Countries that were slow to respond have, so far, paid the price,” Thomas Bollyky, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told me last month.
If there’s a lesson for world governments, then, it’s to be more like Germany — not France.
How Germany kept its coronavirus death rate so low
It’s not surprising that Germany has the world’s fifth-largest coronavirus outbreak. It’s in the middle of Europe and nearly borders Italy, which early on in the crisis became the continent’s epicenter. If the disease was going to spread, Germany was always going to be a likely victim.
What wasn’t predetermined, though, was its low death rate. That result came from a combination of luck and the government’s quick action.
Let’s start with the luck part.
Marieke Degen, the deputy spokesperson of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, told me that the country’s earliest coronavirus carriers were skiers returning home from Austria and Italy. Health authorities say that older adults, especially those over 60, are at risk of severe complications. Most skiers, however, don’t fit that age demographic. While some still got sick, then, the chance they would die from the disease was low.
It also helped that the vast majority of early cases were clustered in the western region of Heinsberg. That just happens to be near top German hospitals in Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and other cities, which means those patients were able to access the best care.
But young carriers in the area, even if they were asymptomatic, could spread the disease around the country to more vulnerable people. Why didn’t that happen on a wide scale?
Two words: testing and tracking.
“The reason why we in Germany have so few deaths at the moment compared to the number of infected can be largely explained by the fact that we are doing an extremely large number of lab diagnoses,” Christian Drosten, the chief virologist at the Charité hospital in Berlin, told the New York Times this month.
Germany has Europe’s best pharmaceutical industry, allowing it to respond quickly to disease outbreaks. In the case of Covid-19, German laboratories started accumulating testing kits as signs of a global spread became more real in early 2020. These labs were well stocked ahead of Germany’s first confirmed coronavirus case in February.