Having grown up in Germany, I am skeptical of the popular notion that life is so much more rational and efficient in the country than it is anywhere else. Those who believe that Germans are incapable of irrationality should suggest imposing a speed limit on the country’s highways. And those who believe that Germans are incapable of inefficiency should learn how much time and money were spent to build Berlin’s new airport.
And yet I have, since returning to Germany about a month ago, been struck by how much more rational, efficient, and pragmatic the country’s handling of the late stages of the coronavirus pandemic has been. While the American response to COVID-19 has barely gone beyond the measures that were first adopted in the spring of 2020, Germany has phased in a series of additional policies over the past 18 months. None of them adds serious disruptions to daily life, and yet they collectively put the country in a much better position to contain the virus.
Partly as a result of these measures, the latest wave of the pandemic, brought on by the Delta variant, was much less severe in Germany than in the United States. And though the number of cases per capita has, of late, started to creep up—as adherence to these policies has, even in famously rule-following Germany, gotten more lax—the seven-day average remains significantly lower than in the United States, and deaths remain far lower. Germany’s response to the pandemic puts America’s ongoing failure into stark relief. But it also points to a big opportunity.
At the moment, much of America’s acrimonious debate about COVID centers on the most difficult trade-offs that the country faces as it grapples with the drawn-out and still-deadly twilight of the pandemic. Should children in schools be required to wear masks? Should employees be fired if they refuse to get vaccinated? How do the benefits of vaccinating the young stack up against the risks?
There may not be a way around those important questions. But instead of focusing exclusively on the most contentious restrictions, which have serious drawbacks as well as significant benefits, the country’s political officials and health authorities should adopt four measures that can slow the spread of the virus—and reduce the risk of yet another winter wave—without much of a downside.
1. Ensure That Mass Events Don’t Facilitate Mass Transmission
I recently enjoyed the latest James Bond movie in a packed theater. I am writing these lines in a crowded coffee shop. Over the course of the next few weeks, I have plans to go to the opera and a soccer game.
Life in Germany has mostly gone back to normal. But though the regulations governing public gatherings vary in their details from state to state, the same basic rule applies practically everywhere: Anybody who wants to dine indoors, go to the theater, or attend a large sporting event has to be vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 within the past six months. Those who don’t have such immunity can also participate—but only if they’ve tested negative for the disease within the past 24 hours.
The goal of the rule is to allow normal life to resume as much as possible without increasing the number of infections. And by and large, it is working.
In the United States, by contrast, the organizers of mass events aren’t required to ensure that attendees have little risk of spreading COVID. Many restaurateurs and sports teams are voluntarily asking their patrons to prove that they are vaccinated. And some municipalities do require that businesses adopt such policies to stay open. But many others don’t.
2. Make Testing Cheap and Easy
Germany usually makes it very hard for people to start a new business or change the use of a commercial building. So I have, over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, been astounded by how many brand-new testing centers have sprung up in unusual locations. Berliners can get themselves tested for COVID-19 in a Greek restaurant, in a historic church, and in the foyer of an opera house.
As a result, the majority of people in German cities now live within walking distance of a testing center. They don’t need an appointment, and they get their results by email in less than 15 minutes. Until recently, they did not pay a cent for these “citizens’ tests.” (With most Germans fully vaccinated, eligibility for free tests has been rolled back over the past few weeks—which might be contributing to the recent uptick in cases.)
There’s more. Because German medical authorities have authorized a wide variety of different tests, cheap at-home kits have been readily available for months. So even if somebody is unable to get to an official testing center, they can ensure that they are not contagious from the comfort of their own home.
Cheap and easy testing not only helps prevent transmission of the virus and makes people feel safe mixing in public. It is also one of the reasons that a great majority of Germans accept the requirement to prove they are not at risk of transmitting COVID-19 to others.
In the United States, testing continues to be comparatively expensive and inaccessible. The CDC has long prioritized slow and costly PCR tests over quick and cheap antigen tests. It has been very slow to authorize at-home tests, green-lighting many antigen tests months after they were already in wide use in Europe. And though some municipalities and health providers are offering free tests, others are sending sky-high bills to unsuspecting patients.
3. Throw Out Those Cloth Masks
When I boarded my Lufthansa flight to Germany in September, I was sporting a stylish cloth mask embroidered with the logo of one of my favorite organizations. As I entered the plane, a flight attendant politely stopped me. Handing me a surgical FFP2 mask (which is similar to those marketed as a KN95 in the United States), she told me that cloth masks were not approved for use aboard the airplane. The same rule, it turns out, applies to most public spaces in Germany.
At the beginning of the pandemic, every country in the world faced a desperate shortage of high-quality masks. With doctors’ offices and hospitals running short on personal protective equipment, improvised cloth masks helped keep millions of people safe. Their rapid adoption was a great feat of human ingenuity.
But studies soon suggested that cloth masks are less effective than surgical masks at stopping the spread of COVID-19. And so once FFP2 masks became widely available, Germany encouraged its citizens to wear them instead. They are now so ubiquitous that I don’t recall having seen a single cloth mask since arriving in the country a month ago.
In the United States, meanwhile, use of KN95s and other surgical masks continues to be rare. Outside of hospitals and doctors’ offices, a lot of people—including many who evangelize the importance of masking—wear pieces of porous fabric that do comparatively little to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
4. Figure Out Contact Tracing
At the beginning of October, Berlin’s most storied club, Berghain, reopened its doors. Despite precautions, the first night of clubbing at Berghain seems to have resulted in 19 transmissions of the virus. The German press is treating the event as a serious failure of the country’s health policies.
But effective contact tracing is likely to reduce the impact of that failure. Because visitors needed to provide their contact details to enter the club—as patrons do when they visit restaurants, cinemas, and other indoor spaces—health authorities have been able to identify those who might have been exposed. All in all, they’ve contacted more than 2,500 people in connection with the event.
This makes it far less likely that this one night will generate a long chain of transmissions. And, with the consequences of failure less severe than they might have been without contact tracing, Berghain has been able to keep its doors open.
The United States, by contrast, has completely given up on any serious attempt at contact tracing. Although every pandemic playbook written by the CDC and the White House over the past decades has called for tracing the contacts of anyone who may have been exposed to a dangerous pathogen, health authorities abandoned this ambition a few weeks into the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. And though health authorities at the federal, state, and municipal levels have, by now, had more than a year and a half to put such a system into place, virtually none of them has made a real effort to do so.
To escape the winter in the northeastern U.S., I spent January and February of this year in a small pandemic bubble in Jacksonville, Florida. My friends and I were very careful to avoid exposure to COVID. But when we would go out for lunch, about once a week, eating outside in the mild sunshine and overlooking a lovely canal, we were stunned to see dozens of people in their 70s and 80s crowding the restaurant’s interior. Perhaps, we wondered, the weather was just too cold for elderly Floridians to sit outside?
A month later, the weather had warmed up. The temperature was now about 10 degrees higher, in the mid-70s. But the local septuagenarians and octogenarians were still crowding the inside of our favorite restaurant. Perhaps, we wondered, the weather had gotten too hot for elderly Floridians?
By the summer, much had changed. I returned to the Northeast. Most people were now vaccinated. With the Delta variant not yet as prevalent, cases of COVID-19 were relatively rare. I went to see my niece play soccer in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I had a similar experience to the one I’d had in Florida—but in reverse.
A few months earlier, in Jacksonville, I had been stunned by the cavalier attitude of so many people. Now, in Philadelphia, I was taken aback by the extreme precautions people were taking. Though the families of the kids playing soccer were sitting far away from one another in the open air, a lot of people—including young children—were wearing masks.
Spending time in Germany, where most people wear masks indoors and virtually nobody wears them outside, has driven home to me just how strongly political polarization is now shaping the actions of many Americans. In red Florida, some were risking their lives to prove their devotion to their political tribe. In blue Pennsylvania, others were taking precaution to an extreme to prove their devotion to the opposite political tribe.
This politicization of everyday behavior helps explain many of the ways in which America’s response to the pandemic has been even worse than that of other Western democracies. And it makes me skeptical that the United States will ever manage to implement the simple measures that are enabling other countries to get through yet another pandemic winter. There’s no silver bullet for the coronavirus, as the recent rise in cases across the European continent indicates. But that only makes it all the more infuriating that America is prolonging the pandemic by refusing to take simple precautions like stepping up testing or upgrading to better masks.
Still, we should never allow pessimism to turn into fatalism. The fundamental fact is that America still has time to put in place additional policies that would help the country deal with COVID-19 without serious drawbacks. And after nearly two years of this grueling pandemic, we all could really do with a few easy wins.