- - Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The greatest challenge presented by coronavirus is its end game. Experts tell us that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. There are no silver bullets that will make it go away. Instead, we have to worry about second and third waves. We wonder whether we are emotionally equipped to handle what appears to be a permanent crisis.

Germany has decided on its solution: Declare victory and “Leben mit Corona” or “Live with Corona.”

Let’s pay attention to the German case. It may be our own future.

After contentious negotiations between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 States (Bundeslaender), Germany has agreed on a plan to “return to normal” in the age of coronavirus. The plan is based on the principles of decentralization and federalism. It is a clear rejection of the one-size-fits-all favored by the Berlin establishment. The German plan avoids the pitfalls of a nationwide stop-and-go of restrictive measures as cases grow and wane. Each district  bears responsibility for its local COVID-19 program subject to an upper limit on new cases per week.

Here are some details:

From hence forth, the virus is the responsibility of the 19 states and almost 300 districts (Landeskreis). Each can proceed with their own return-to-normal  programs as long as they do not exceed an increase of 50 per 100,000 new cases in the course of the week. (At the time of the agreement, only two districts failed to meet this criterion). If a locality exceeds the limit, it may order a local lockdown, which is accompanied by contact tracing.

The state and district programs are to be executed by the 400 or so local public-health departments (Gesundheitsamt) spread over Germany.

Germany has decided not to engage in high-tech tracing via Smartphones or other means. Instead, each public-health department will hire “Corona scouts” to trace the contacts of newly confirmed cases. If a district exceeds the limit, quarantine measures will be reinstated but only for that district or even part of that district.

German health officials reject the notion that their district offices will game the new rules in order to avoid reinstatement of measures. Fudging the numbers, they claim, is not the way Germans do things.

The Corona agreement has been accompanied by what appear to be orchestrated signals of a return to normality. The twice weekly briefings of the Robert Koch Institute, which has played the same role of President Trump’s task force, have been cancelled, After hectoring in favor of national standards, the Koch Institute is now on board with the decentralized program. As further signs of a return to normality, German state television has begun to run segments on summer vacations, and the Bundeliga season has been scheduled to resume on May 16 in “phantom games” with no audience.

The United States offers ideal conditions for a German-like Corona recovery program. We have 50 states, 3,007 counties, and some 3,000 local health departments. The statistics confirm that the disease varies by locality and state and speak against one-size-fits-all programs. What is lacking is the ability to muster public support and to build public confidence in any chosen program, at least not in an election year. How many lives will we one day classify as “death by politics?”

• Paul R. Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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