Germany is poised to pass 100,000 COVID-19 deaths with change leadership

Germany is poised to cross the mark with 100,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19 this week, a grim milestone that several of its neighbors crossed months ago but which Western Europe’s most populous nation had hoped to avoid.

Discipline, a robust health system and the proliferation of several vaccines – one of them home-grown – were intended to ward off a winter wave of the kind that hit Germany last year.

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

“No one had the courage to take the lead and announce unpopular measures,” said 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 why we are here now,” he said.

Doctors like Janssens are preparing for an influx of coronavirus patients, as confirmed cases hit new daily heights, which experts say are also being driven by vaccine skeptics.

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

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

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

Elderly people who were vaccinated early in 2021 are also experiencing their immunity disappearing, making them vulnerable to serious illness again, he said. As a response to problems seen during the initial vaccine rollout, authorities have struggled to meet the demand for boosters, even as they tried to encourage holdouts to get their first shot.

Possible vaccine mandate

Some German politicians suggest 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, announcing that COVID-19 shots will be mandatory for everyone from February after seeing a similar reluctance to get vaccinated fuel fresh outbreaks and hospitalizations.

Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel said in June that she was not in favor of such a measure. To signal a possible shift in position, Merkel convened leaders of the three parties negotiating to form the next government for talks Tuesday in the chancellery to discuss the pandemic.

Merkel’s likely 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 environmentalists Green and the pro-business-free Democrats, his party recently passed a law replacing the existing legal basis for pandemic restrictions with tighter measures, from Wednesday. These include a requirement for workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, cure or a negative test. But the change also makes it harder for Germany’s 16 governors to impose tough lockdowns without getting approval from state assemblies.

It can be particularly difficult to get these majorities in states where the number of cases is highest. A recent study showed that infection rates are higher in areas where the far right alternative for Germany, or AfD, is strongest. The party has campaigned against pandemic restrictions, and opinion polls show that its supporters have a sharply negative view of vaccine mandates compared to the rest of the voting population.

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

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

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

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

Germany’s disease control agency reported 66,884 new confirmed cases and 335 deaths on Wednesday. The total death toll from COVID-19 has stood at 99,768 since the start of the pandemic, the Robert Koch Institute said. The German weekly Die Zeit, which conducts its own census based on figures from local health authorities, said the 100,000 threshold had already been passed.

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