March 11, 2020
While Italy is in lockdown, Germany allows football matches
We have had false dawns on the spread of Covid-19 before, so we merely take note of the slowdown of new cases in Italy yesterday.
The lock-down measures cannot have had an effect on the numbers yet, but the available evidence from Asia shows that those measures will ultimately work. We agree with Yascha Mounk's analysis in the Atlantic magazine that extreme social distancing is the only instrument available in a situation like this. He cites the case of the health commissioner of Philadelphia in 1918, who allowed a large march to take place in the middle of influenza epidemic. The consequence was a disproportionate rise in deadly infections in the city relative to the rest of the US.
In Italy, the degree of social distancing is going up, but it is nowhere near the scale of that in China. In Lombardy, the local government is now seeking the closure of most shops and factories, but people are still free to roam the streets and buy food, for example.
Like other governments, Italy’s took a complacent view of the crisis in the early phases, but has since woken up. But, like China, Italy got a few things right. One country that won’t be able to order a lock-down is Germany, which is at an earlier stage of the infection cycle but where the number of cases are also rising. The reason is that the German constitution has left the states, not the federal government, in charge of disease prevention. Some are treating the Covid-19 as another opportunity to seek a competitive advantage over one another.
The problem became urgent yesterday when the state government of Berlin refused to ban public gatherings, fearing that event organisers would decamp to neighbouring Brandenburg. A district mayor has allowed this Saturday’s football match between Union Berlin and Bayern Munich to go ahead with 22,000 expected visitors. He said he would only consider a ban if the federal government were to recommend that BMW ceases all car production.
Germany’s so-called infection law reduces the role of the health minister to that of a co-ordinator. Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein will follow Jens Spahn’s advice to cancel all events with more than 1000 visitors. But Berlin and the state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, won’t.
If the most effective tool is social distancing, as we believe it is on the basis of available evidence, then surely Germany is not as well-placed as Italy. Yesterday morning we followed a press conference by the head of the Robert-Koch institute, the federal agency responsible for disease control and prevention. We were taken aback by his confident assertion that the virus was under control except in one specific locality. While the number of total cases would rise, there was no need for concern. That level of insouciance is also reflected in the German media.
All this is telling us that Germany will struggle to organise a crisis-response on a scale of Italy once infections hit a certain critical level. As we have argued before, it is far more effective to take social distancing measures early. The relative low rate of spread of the disease in Japan, South Korea and Singapore is evidence that early action is highly effective.