Europe’s lockdown lessons

Dr Oliver Hartwich
25 August, 2020

Unless you closely follow German politics, the name Karl Josef Laumann would mean nothing. And even if you are vaguely familiar with German federal politics, you also will not know much about the Health Minister in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW).

Still, Karl Josef Laumann just gave one of the best insights into the minds of European politicians regarding Covid-19 when he openly talked about his experiences dealing with the virus in his state.

For background, NRW is Germany’s most populous state. Its population of 18 million is almost four times larger than New Zealand, though by area it is almost ten times smaller.

Germany is a federal republic, which means individual states like NRW have played an important role in the pandemic. The Covid-19 response was run at the state-level, not in Berlin. It was state health ministers like Laumann, who belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, managing Germany’s Covid-19 response.

So, what did Laumann say? When asked about the recent rise of infections and fears of a second virus wave, he said on German TV, “I believe if we had known in mid-March what we know now, then we would not have done a lockdown as we did.”

The problem for Laumann, as for every other health minister then, was insufficient information. “Look,” he said, “back then, I really had no idea how many beds we really have in ICU. We had no statistics for that. Yes, we had a hospital management plan, but we did not know what was really happening on the ground.”

Months later, the state’s health minister is now told the exact number of available beds each morning. But that was only because the state created an information system – after Covid-19 emerged.

To add another example, Laumann talked about a decision he took early in the crisis. On March 16, he instructed all state hospitals to defer elective surgery. But the result surprised him because only three days later, a quarter of all ICU beds were empty – many more than Laumann and the ministerial bureaucracy had anticipated.

While in confession mode, Laumann freely admitted: “We did this lockdown because we, including myself, had a great anxiety given all the pictures of Italy that our ICU and ventilation capacity would not be sufficient.” The advice at the time was that his state would face the same triage question Italy faced, namely which patients could be saved and which would be left to die.

Almost in passing, Laumann mentioned how these early uncertainties affected European cooperation. The Dutch health minister, he revealed, called him in the early stages of the crisis to ask if NRW could take a few dozen Dutch Covid-19 patients and treat them in intensive care. Laumann agreed, knowing this would bind some of his hospital system’s capacity – but it was a risk he was willing to take. Others were not.

Today, Laumann said, we all know more. The German state has better information about the disease, hospital capacity and crisis management. And based on that, he explained that Germany’s politicians would not go for the kind of lockdown they implemented in mid-March. Instead of bringing the whole country to a standstill, they would have smaller, targeted and regional interventions. In particular, the reflex would no longer be to shut down schools and kindergartens.

Politicians are not always as self-reflective and self-critical as Laumann. His statements are even more remarkable given the trend of infection numbers. Germany’s daily Covid-19 cases are higher today than in mid-March when the country entered lockdown.

The state minister’s views, however, follow other changing views about the pandemic. The Germans, and most Europeans, are now used to dealing with Covid-19. The early panic, which resulted from a lack of information, has gone. In its stead, countries are making more informed decisions based on their health systems’ capacity.

The economic consequences of lockdown are the other side of the coin. Again, the change of tune is driven by a realisation of the economic and social costs of lockdown. These worries were most clearly expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

In an interview with Paris Match, Macron revealed he would not re-enact lockdown in a potential second wave of Covid-19. “We can’t shut the country down because the collateral damage of lockdown is considerable.”

After the experience of France’s lockdown earlier this year – one of the strictest in Europe – Macron now says: “Zero risk never exists in any society. We must respond to this anxiety without falling into the doctrine of zero risk.”

Laumann and Macron spoke as new infections in their countries rise rapidly. Yet their conclusions this time are different. Instead of trying to eliminate the virus, the aim is to manage it.

The calmer response is helped by lower death numbers. Despite rising infections, deaths are not surging at the same rate. Of course, deaths lag infections by a few weeks. But even adjusting for this time lag, it does not look like the virus is getting out of control in Europe.

Both the French President and the North Rhine-Westphalian health minister show how the Covid-19 debate and response have evolved since March.

European politicians are now better informed about their healthcare systems’ capacities. They better understand the costs and benefits linked to lockdown. They also realise this new wave of infections is not as deadly this time.

Europe has left the early stage of the pandemic behind. With more information at hand, European countries are managing Covid-19 in a controlled way. It is a step towards normality on a long road ahead.

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