A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 27, 2020

Germany's Good Covid Response Shows Value Of Science Communication

From the prime minister to prominent scientists, to school children watching popular tv - and to local primary care physicians, Germany offered an informed, consistent, fact-based and calm approach to which the entire population, however disparate their political beliefs, could relate and rely upon. JL 

Christina Farr reports in CNBC:

Germany, like other countries, had people who fought lockdowns and argued Covid-19 was a hoax. But it also had prominent scientists communicating regularly and openly with the public. That played a huge role in drowning out rumors and misinformation. Children got educated on the coronavirus via popular television shows. (Also), “there is low barrier to entry to see a high-quality doctor. Sick leave is easy, and you can take time off from work.” Because of that, citizens were able to access routine care and get advice. “If you have a set of rules communicated well, people don’t feel they’re on their own.”
Germany, like many other countries, had a contingent of people who fought lockdowns and argued that Covid-19 was a hoax. But it also had a handful of prominent scientists communicating regularly and openly with the public. That played a huge role in drowning out rumors and misinformation, locals tell CNBC.
“We have a great educational system and everyone has access to it,” said Dennis Traub, a tech worker in Hamburg, Germany. “So I believe that many people and the majority listened to both sides and one of those sides sounded much more reasonable.” On the side of science, virologist Christian Drosten grew his podcast, “Das Coronavirus-Update” to millions of followers in the early days of the pandemic. Drosten is now a cult icon in Germany akin to Dr. Tony Fauci in the United States. He doesn’t dumb down the science. Instead, he shares complex ideas in an accessible way and gets real with the public about aspects of the virus that are not well understood. In addition to that, the public regularly hears from the (now very well-known) Minister of Health Jens Spahn, as well as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In April, Merkel drew from her own science background by walking Germans through the basic reproductive number (the “R0”) -- a mathematical term that indicates how contagious a virus is -- as a way to instill confidence in lockdowns. 
Moreover, Germans say their children got educated on the coronavirus via popular television shows like “Die Sendung mit der Maus” (Germany’s equivalent to “Sesame Street”). 
Germans say the guidelines now are clear.
“If you have a set of rules that are communicated well, people don’t feel like they’re on their own,” said Florian Otto, a German health tech entrepreneur who co-founded the payments start-up Cedar. “And when people know what to do, they encourage each other.”
Hospitals weren’t overwhelmed
Hospitals in Germany were not overwhelmed by Covid-19. That meant doctors could even treat patients from neighboring countries, including Italy and Spain, where critically ill people were airlifted in. How did that happen? Well, in March, Germany’s hospital system started freeing up intensive care beds and pushing back elective surgeries to make space for a potential flood of Covid-19 patients. Many hospitals also shared data with a federal website to map out their supply chain needs relative to other facilities. “The website is (now) a live-dashboard of all available ICU beds in participating hospitals Germany wide,” said Niklas Rindtorff, a medical student in his final year of studies in Heidelberg, Germany, who also has a background in medical informatics.
Germany also built out extra intensive care facilities just in case.
“After the collapse of the hospitals in northern Italy, the German government built up additional capacities in the intensive care units,” said Uwe Frers, an entrepreneur based in Berlin. “This was the right step, even if the capacities were ultimately not needed.”
Some experts believe that Germany’s high-quality intensive care -- as well as its focus on testing -- helped reduce the mortality of the disease in the country. Germany has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases, but relatively few citizens died compared with other European nations. Some experts are even referring to the phenomenon as the “German anomaly.”
Mental health support 
After sheltering in place, many Germans were encouraged to exercise outdoors as long as they were able to keep their distance from others. There was also a concerted effort to encourage Germans to stay in contact via Skype or Zoom, so people wouldn’t feel lonely or isolated.
“There was a big campaign around mental health,” said Dr. Sandra Kamping, a psychologist based in Hamburg. 
“Here people could go outside even during lockdown for a walk or a bike ride,” added Carlos Barragan, an IT worker based in Germany.
Access to doctors
Germany is known for its strong network of family practitioners, who are typically the first point of contact for accessing health care.
“There is very low barrier to entry to see a high-quality doctor,” said Christian Dierks, a lawyer focused on medicine who runs an innovation consultancy firm in Berlin. “Sick leave is also very easy, and you can take time off from work to see your doctor.”
Because of that, some locals say, citizens were able to access some routine care and get advice if they were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19. In some cases, they were told to stay home while others with more serious symptoms were referred to the hospital. That might have helped Germans navigate to the right place.
Many Germans agreed that Merkel, whether they support her politics or not, had the right brand of leadership during the pandemic. A scientist by training, Merkel provided data-driven updates to the public and deferred wherever possible to those with more expertise than herself.
She isn’t exactly known for her empathy, which can be a hallmark of good science communicators, but she makes up for it in other ways. Rindtorff noted that she has a particular brand of what Germans refer to as “Sachlichkeit,” meaning objectivity. Rindtorff, who has lived in the United States, said that many Germans pride themselves on being extremely fact-based and cautious, so her approach resonated with them.


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