Germany is ready to pass 100,000 deaths in COVID-19

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Germany is ready to pass 100,000 deaths as a result of covid-19 this week, a gloomy milestone that several of its neighbors passed months ago but which Western Europe’s most populous nation had hoped to avoid.

Discipline, a robust healthcare system and the expansion of several vaccines – one of them self-grown – were intended to avert a winter wave of the kind that hit Germany last year.

In practice, the Germans faced a confusing amount of pandemic rules, lax enforcement and a national election – followed by a protracted change of government during which senior politicians dangled with the prospect of further lifting restrictions even as the frequency of infection rose.

“No one had the courage to take the lead and announce unpopular measures,” says Uwe Janssens, who heads the intensive care unit at St. Antonius Hospital in Eschweiler, west of Cologne.

“Lack of leadership”

“This lack of leadership is the reason we are here now,” he said.

Doctors like Janssens are preparing for an influx of coronavirus patients when confirmed cases reach new daily peaks, as experts say are also driven by vaccine skeptics.

Opposition to the shot – including that developed by the German company BioNTech together with the American partner Pfizer – is still strong among a significant minority in the country. The vaccination rate has remained at 68 percent of the population, well below the 75 percent or higher that the government had targeted.

People stand in line in front of a test station for covid-19 today in Berlin. (John MacDougall / AFP / Getty Images)

“We have more and more younger people in intensive care,” says Janssens. “The amount of time they are treated is significantly longer and it blocks intensive care beds for an extended period.”

Older people who were vaccinated in early 2021 also see that their immunity is weakened, making them vulnerable to serious diseases again, he said. As an echo of problems seen during the first vaccine rollout, the authorities have struggled to meet the demand for boosters even as they tried to encourage perseverance to get their first shot.

Possible vaccine assignment

Some German politicians believe that it is time to consider a vaccine mandate, either for specific occupations or for the population as a whole. Austria took that step last week and announced that covid-19 shots will be mandatory for everyone from February after seeing a similar aversion to getting vaccinated fuel new outbreaks and hospital stays.

Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel said in June that she did not advocate such a measure. Merkel signaled a possible shift in position and convened leaders from the three parties negotiating to form the next government for talks on Tuesday in the chancellery to discuss the pandemic situation.

Merkel’s apparent successor, current finance minister Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, has refused to be drawn on whether he would support mandatory covid-19 shots.

Together with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, his party recently passed a law replacing the existing legal bases for pandemic restrictions with tighter measures, starting on Wednesday. These include a requirement for workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. But the change also makes it more difficult for Germany’s 16 governors to impose hard locks without the approval of state assemblies.

Getting these majorities can be especially difficult in states where the number of cases is highest. A recent study found that the infection rate is higher in areas where the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is strongest. The party has campaigned against pandemic restrictions and surveys show that its supporters have a strong negative view of the vaccine mandate, compared to the rest of the voting population.

Although the AfD is not expected to win any of Germany’s four regional elections next year, experts say political campaigns can distract from tough topics such as tackling the pandemic.

Police check the covid-19 protocol in a store in Dresden, Germany, on Tuesday. (Mattthias Rietschel / Reuters)

“Often the focus is on things that will drive voting, rather than unpopular decisions,” said Catherine Smallwood, a coronavirus expert at the World Health Organization’s Office for Europe.

“It can help spread the virus if action and decision-making are not taken in time and … the concrete way they must be,” Smallwood said in a recent interview.

Germany’s disease control agency reported a record 66,884 new confirmed cases on Wednesday and 335 deaths. The total death toll from covid-19 was 99,768 since the pandemic began, said the Robert Koch Institute. The German weekly Die Zeit, which makes its own calculation based on local health authorities, said that the threshold of 100,000 had already been exceeded.

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