Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Boring Politics is Good Politics – Especially in a Pandemic

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

What’s the German word for, “I live in the richest country in the world, but when a pandemic hits, it seems stupid to have stayed here?”

Perhaps it is Fernweh: “far-sickness,” the longing to be somewhere else, the opposite of homesickness.

Or maybe Heimweh: homesickness.

For me, Germany is neither a far-away place nor my home; it is both. I was born in the United States to a German mother. I have two passports – one blue and one red. For most of my life, I’ve lived in the United States and I’ve held that blue passport close to my heart. America has always had its problems – and until recently, I’ve been able to convince myself that the pros outweigh the cons. But now, in the midst of a pandemic, I find myself questioning my choice to stay here.

As the U.S. federal government continues to bungle this crisis, from President Trump’s clown show press briefings to the inability of Congress to pass a relief package that would make up for our utterly failing social safety net, Germany’s promise of a level-headed social democracy and fact-driven leadership is compelling — maybe even a matter of life and death. I yearn for a politics devoid of showmanship and filled instead with boring facts and common sense. To put it bluntly: I am grateful that my mother, who is healthy but 61, is not in this country — and I wish I wasn’t either.

The crisis responses of the two countries could not be more disparate. While the U.S. has the most coronavirus cases in the world, and is currently on track to see more deaths than even Italy and China, the coronavirus death rate in Germany is the lowest in the world. With 63,000 confirmed cases and only 560 deaths as of March 30, Germany has a death rate of 0.9%, only half the current US mortality of 1.8%. My mother tells me that patients from other parts of Europe are seeking care there, and as of now, there is still capacity in their ICUs.

The likely reason for this is Germany’s early, persistent, and widespread testing. And what enables that widespread testing is obvious: we’re talking about a country with a functioning healthcare system. Even if its citizens complain about some aspects – long-ish wait times, the option of private insurance that creates a tiered system of access to the best doctors – it functions. Maybe not perfect, but functional, covering the basic needs which our system ignores: everyone is insured; hospitals are accessible and staffed. In a pandemic, functional is preparedness. And Chancellor Angela Merkel is nothing if not prepared.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare deep flaws in American society that go beyond an inadequate healthcare system. Our safety net is virtually invisible — unemployment and benefits programs are gutted, states have refused to expand Medicaid, widespread reliance on the contractor and gig economy bars many from benefits and unemployment insurance — and an invisible net will not catch us. Twelve hundred Trump dollars will not catch us.

My stomach dropped when I saw that Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had extended their Rückholprogramm – a program for Germans to return home from crisis-stricken countries  – to citizens currently in the United States. It’s unprecedented to make such a recommendation for another first-world country – but it’s also unprecedented to be a first-world country without universal healthcare. Germany has issued warning to its citizens: Get out while you can.

Of course, the brokenness of America’s infrastructure is not a new revelation. Just as the 2016 presidential election of an outlandish reality TV show host was the result of a slowly simmering pot of societal stew, so the coronavirus outbreak has only reflected the fragments in a system that has evolved that way over time — by valuing entertainment over truth, fiction over fact, “likeability” over policy. Maybe if we didn’t view politics as entertainment, we could escape the sick reality show nightmare this country has fallen into.

It’s hard to remember now but we’re still technically in the middle of a two-year election cycle that has spawned almost as much petty drama on the Democratic side as a typical Trump rally.

Concurrently, the Trump administration continues the buffoonery at briefings that some major media outlets, such as NPR, refuse to air due to the rampant falsehoods.

On March 18, in between several of Trump’s mind-boggling circus events, Angela Merkel sat down, alone in front of a screen showing the Bundestag, and gave her first nationally-televised address since her 2005 election. Viewing her speech from this frenzied side of the Atlantic, Merkel’s measured, calm cadence seemed to come from an alien otherworld. And to the American psyche, perhaps she is somewhat of an alien. We call America polarized, but the Chancellor grew up in a country not just polarized but physically divided; this temporary period of lockdown pales in comparison to the controlled existence of Merkel’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain.

Even in her monotone, the message Merkel delivered to her people was one of leadership: Together, we will get through this. It was a balance of facts and reassurances. She emphasized that, perhaps even more so than in other countries, placing Germany under strict, draconian government control is a decision not to take lightly. “Es ist Ernst,” she said – this is serious.

Lassen Sie mich versichern,” she said — let me assure you. “For somebody like me, for whom travel and free movement were hard-fought rights, these restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity.” (Translation mine).

When Merkel offers her nation reassurance, I trust her in a way that is anathema to the current landscape of U.S. politics. I trust her without falling into a cult of personality; I’m able to take personal opinion and partisanship out of the equation and to believe what she says at face value. It’s refreshing.

The point is not that I approve of all her policies, or would necessarily even vote for her. The point is that in this moment, Merkel’s particular style of fact-driven composure is exactly what we need from the leader of the free world. And exactly what we are missing here in the U.S., where facts fall by the wayside to make room for white lies meant to mask the grimness of our current reality. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor with a PhD in quantum chemistry, Merkel has always been cool, calculated, and scientific —  sometimes even awkward and uncharismatic, known for her dry speeches and frumpy hair. With her awkward lilt and straightforward manner, Merkel is the anti-Trump.

If she sought office in America, the headlines would label Merkel as “unlikeable” long before she’d ever get the chance to unceremoniously pick at a Bratwurst at the Iowa State Fair. Not only is she a woman, she’s a boring — and highly intelligent —  woman. She is calculated and resolute, trained in data and untrained in showmanship. The story goes that on the day the Berlin Wall fell, Merkel wandered over the border from her chemistry lab in East Berlin for a quick look, and then went back to get back to work.

I asked my mother what she thought of Merkel’s speech, which was making headlines here.

“No big deal,” she said. Politics are not a big deal there, at least to her.  My mother amuses herself from afar with the Washington Post coverage of our American political pony show, but finds the Bundesregierung humdrum. Dull, but reassuring.

“But do you feel safe there?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.

“Aren’t you glad you are there, and not here?”

“Oh, definitely.”

I wish I were too. Oh, how I long for leadership that is dull. That’s what I feel fernweh for: boring, folded-hands parliamentary politics; speeches that contain straight facts; healthcare as a right; a society where electing and reelecting an “unlikeable,” “unfeminine” woman to the highest office is routine. What a relief that would be.

There are no “Make America Great Again” hats in Germany. But on the website of the CDU, the party Merkel leads, you can buy a small orange heating pad with the words “keep cool” for ninety cents. And that, I think, is the point.

Serafina Smith is a NYU graduate journalism student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling program.



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