Countdown to Lockdown

Germany Is Faring Poorly in the Second Wave of the Coronavirus

Germany has squandered the gains it made this spring in dealing with the coronavirus. A series of miscalculations by politicians in the fall has contributed to a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections in recent days. A second lockdown is coming.

By Lukas Eberle, Markus Feldenkirchen, Milena Hassenkamp, Martin Knobbe, Veit Medick, Marcel Rosenbach, Lydia Rosenfelder und Gerald Traufetter

The intensive care unit at Essen's university hospital: It's increasingly looking like Germany's "lockdown light" in November was lost time. Foto: Fabian Strauch / dpa

Three headlines from recent days: The Collm Hospital in the town of Oschatz in northern Saxony is filling up. It is only admitting patients who fall into the triage category "red,” meaning people whose lives are acutely threatened.

At the Arberlandklinik hospital in the Bavarian town of Zwiesel, dozens of nursing staff are infected. The hospital had to stop admitting patients into emergency care.

Meanwhile, hospitals in the district of Görlitz in the state of Saxony, the morgue was overflowing due to the high number of coronavirus deaths this week. A provisional room has been set up for people to bid farewell to the deceased as an emergency solution.

This is Germany in December 2020, a country where a "wave-breaking shutdown” was meant to allow for a relaxed Christmas holiday. Now politicians are discussing a second shutdown, but this time a much firmer one, with closed shops and extended school holidays to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Only a few weeks ago, the situation looked a lot different. When Germany’s state governors and the chancellor agreed to a four-week "shutdown light” on Oct. 28, they were all pleased with the solution. It looked as though the state and federal governments had a plan.

Even Karl Lauterbach of the center-left Social Democrats, a widely respected health expert in parliament for whom few containment measures go far enough, was pleased with a decision that he had championed. 

He said the lockdown would "break the second heavy wave.” 

He said the containment measures adopted were "a great success,” indeed "a milestone.”

Of course, hindsight is always 20-20. But looking back, the determination and confidence with which the country’s leading politicians praised their plan to combat the second wave of the coronavirus at the end of October seems downright absurd.

"Today was a decisive day,” announced Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. A member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), he noted that a clear timetable had been set for the restrictions. "We won’t need to discuss afterward what to reopen or what to close,” he said.

"The measures that have now been decided are due to end on Nov. 30,” insisted Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. He spoke of a "four-week therapy” and added: "We understand all the concerns. But we would rather be resolute now than get stuck in an endless cycle later.” 

His colleague from Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party, announced that the "emergency brake" would give us the chance "to ease the situation and celebrate Christmas together with our families." Even Merkel, who is said to have pressed for a more decisive approach, left no doubt that the decisions made were the right ones. 

"This all serves the purpose of enabling us to improve public life again in December," Merkel said at the time.

It was probably the biggest political miscalculation of the year. Politicians made a promise to the people that they couldn’t keep. They raised hopes that will now be dashed. 

More than that, the false optimism will now make it difficult to get public acceptance for the more drastic measures that are now needed – because in order to save the health system from collapse and prevent more deaths, Germany is likely going to have to go back into full lockdown. 

Lauterbach is now calling for the closure of everything, including shops and schools. Merkel has similar ideas, as do many of the state governors.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn: Many who use the country's coronavirus warning app aren't registering their positive test results. Foto: Sven Darmer / Davids

On Wednesday, the daily death toll in Germany reached a sad new record of 590. Since Wednesday of last week, more people have died from COVID-19 than in traffic-related accidents during all of 2019. 

On Friday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s center for disease control, reported a record 29,875 new infections. Of the 412 districts in RKI’s daily situation report, 386 are now considered hotspots. More than 4,000 patients with the coronavirus are currently in intensive care units, considerably more than during the first wave in the spring.

As recently as just a few months ago, Germany was still being praised worldwide as a model pupil in the fight to contain the pandemic, but the country has failed to live up to that reputation this fall. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU says he is furious. 

He says the advantage that Germany gained in the pandemic in the spring has been squandered, adding that it’s not due to a lack of discipline among the population, "but above all to inadequate measures.” 

He says he already had the feeling at the end of October that not all of Germany’s governors had recognized the seriousness of the situation. "I slept badly after that," he says.

November will go down in pandemic history as a wasted month. An evaluation conducted by the authorities shows that the 7-day incidence has only decreased in six German states since Nov. 2, including Bremen, Saarland and North Rhine-Westphalia. 

The greatest increase, by contrast, was in Saxony, where over 200 more people per 100,000 inhabitants were infected over seven days compared to the beginning of November. In the state of Thuringia, it was 126 people, and 49 in Bavaria. The evaluation is based on figures published by the RKI on Dec. 9.

But it’s not only the number of infections that has increased. The government has also failed to make progress in key areas of containing the spread of the coronavirus. "The opportunity was missed in the summer to bring the disease under control,” epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization says, critically.

PCR and rapid antigen tests are scarce, and there is no meaningful test strategy. The state of Bavaria overwhelmed its public health offices when it offered to provide all residents with a test free of charge. 

In the state of Hesse, there are tests for teachers, but not enough for hospital staff and it's a similar story elsewhere. And that’s precisely what is so disastrous. For weeks, the virus has been spreading in senior homes and convalescent hospitals. Experts agree that mass rapid tests of nursing staffs would have minimized the risk of SARS-CoV-2 slipping into homes undetected.

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller is the current chair of the national conference of German state governors. Foto: Markus Schreiber / ap

When it comes to the protection of risk groups, the German government is still far too lax. Still, there have been some successful approaches. The university town of Tübingen has had very few COVID-19 cases in retirement and nursing homes. 

Mayor Boris Palmer, a member of the Green Party, is relying on mass testing and also helps protect risk groups by providing taxi rides for the cost of a bus fare, special shop opening hours and free masks. 

Even fellow party members who normally find Palmer to be a thorn in the side have been impressed. "Better protection and more measures for the elderly saves lives,” says Dieter Janecek, a Green Party member of the federal parliament from Bavaria. "Why aren’t we doing much more of this?”

The coronavirus warning app, which is supposed to alert users if they have been exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19, has also fallen well short of expectations. It was supposed to become a central element in the fight against the pandemic, but it still isn’t playing a critical role. 

Although another 5 million people have downloaded the app to their smartphones since the beginning of October, the total number of downloads is still only 23.5 million. And the app includes only a fraction of the new daily infections. 

Even those who are already using the app seldom report that they have tested positive. Recently, it has been estimated that a little more than half of people who test positive are reporting their tests in the app.

The problem has been known for months. And potential solutions have been under discussion for just as long. The government officials responsible could have modified the app such that test results would automatically be reported – a move that the Association of Laboratory Physicians (BLD) called for as far back as September. 

Under that system, anyone who explicitly didn’t want their positive test to be included in the app could opt out. The proposal was discussed, but was ultimately rejected.

Furthermore, Germany’s public health departments aren’t even connected to the app. 

They’re also lacking in technology in general. Work is often still done with pen, paper and a fax machine. Hybrid teaching in schools isn’t feasible in many places because the technology is lacking to provide pupils with digital instruction at home.

But the biggest mistake was not making the November shutdown, which has since been extended, tougher. Voices in the scientific community were calling for stricter measures at the time. Earlier this autumn, researchers recommended Germany should take its cue from New Zealand and many countries in east Asia that succeeded in containing the virus through tough measure. 

Experts like Viola Priesemann of the Max Planck Institute called early on for a "hard lockdown” for three weeks in order to get infections back down below the threshold of 50 infections per 100,000 people, an upper ceiling after which point contact tracing becomes extremely difficult.

Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer: "We underestimated this virus." Foto: Martin Lengemann / Welt / ullstein bild

Even the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina started calling for "effective rules for autumn and winter” in late September. The scientists there considered November to be the decisive month to still stop the second wave. 

A further statement, issued together with five other research organizations, pushed for more stringent restrictions. They argued that social contacts needed to be reduced by 75 percent. 

But the rules approved by politicians didn’t go far enough to ensure that happened. People only reduced their range of movement by just over 10 percent. During the first lockdown in March, mobility fell by around 40 percent.

What shocked the scientists a Leopoldina even more was the spirited discussions among governors over how to relax coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas holidays. 

"The developments in the pandemic don’t even really allow for such considerations,” says Leopoldina President Gerald Haug. If people were to meet with their families on Christmas and friends on New Year’s Eve as they normally would, the number of new infections would go through the roof again, he argued.

Chancellor Merkel’s office has also had its own share of failures in recent weeks. 

Through mistakes in communication and strategy, Merkel and Helge Braun, the head of the Chancellery, have even managed to alienate governors who would normally support them. 

That was quite apparent in mid-November. Merkel and Braun were urgent in their warnings to the governors in a video conference call about the rising number of infections. They also pointed out the danger of infection in schools. But the governors stalled.

A number of governors were upset because Braun’s office had sent the draft notes for the meeting too late. Furthermore, they included new rules that had not been discussed with anyone in advance. Among them was a rule that schoolchildren could only meet up with one friend in their free time. 

Merkel and Braun also wanted to impose a quarantine for people who had common cold symptoms. Some of the governors were angered by the proposals. Sources say the chancellor defended herself and emphasized that the quarantine for colds was a recommendation made by the Robert Koch Institute.

North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Laschet then held an RKI diagram on his iPad up to the camera and pointed out that this wasn’t true. He said the recommendation was to follow instructions from your doctor if you have the sniffles. 

In the end, Merkel’s proposal was deleted, like most of the others she made. What was left were minimal compromises.

North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet: "We won’t need to discuss afterward what to reopen or what to close." Foto: Niels Starnick / Bild am Sonntag

There were different reasons for the failure. They included differing interests of the different governors in the group, but also growing fatigue among the populace for the corona measures. Merkel and the governors feared that taking action that was too drastic would further undermine trust. 

Now, though, Germany's politicians are likely looking much worse than they would have. And it has become a question of whether they will acknowledge their failures and draw the right conclusions.

Bavarian Governor Markus Söder was one of the first to admit failure. Last Sunday, he convened a special session of his cabinet in Bavaria. The aim of the meeting was to pivot the state’s policies for containing COVID-19. November’s "soft lockdown,” the governor said afterward, had unfortunately only had a "modest” effect. 

"It's just not enough. We need to do more. We must act." Söder then declared a state of emergency for Bavaria. He doesn’t want people to leave their homes without a good reason - and not at all after 9 p.m., especially in the state's hardest-hit regions.

"We underestimated this virus, all of us together,” acknowledges Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer of the CDU. With infection numbers particularly bad in his state, Kretschmer has begun moving to impose a stricter lockdown. 

He wants to close schools and daycare centers starting next week. Söder and Kretschmer triggered a dynamic that was further fueled by the chancellor’s emotional appearance earlier this week before the federal parliament. 

There is no longer any question about whether the country is going into another lockdown. The only question is about what will still be allowed to remain open.

The state governors are nervous because they are fully aware that the course correction that is now imminent also has to work. But they are facing a dilemma: If the situation is really so dramatic, then shouldn’t action be taken immediately? 

But a hard shutdown before Christmas is a difficult sell to many families and especially the retail industry.

If, however, they wait until after the holiday, they could also be creating a virus risk, because it would be difficult to control the run on shops that would happen in the run-up to Christmas. 

"The only chance we have of getting the situation under control again is a lockdown, but this would have to be done immediately,” says Interior Minister Seehofer. "If we wait until Christmas, we will have to struggle with the high numbers for months to come."

A conflict is also brewing over the question of compensation for the retail industry. One idea from the states is that shops could be closed from after Christmas until Jan. 10. This would mean closing ships during one of the busiest times of the year. 

The government could cover operating and fixed costs, but leading CDU politicians, in particular, want to avoid new injections of billions of euros from the federal government beyond the January aid that has already been agreed – in part for tactical partisan reasons. 

For the past several months, the crisis has offered Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is also the SPD’s chancellor candidate, the chance to position himself as the savior of the economy. Sources within the Christian Democrats say they would like to put an end to that.

It seems to be clear to everyone involved that a hard shutdown will only bring relief for a short time. After the November failure, it would be difficult to face the public again and have to note with regret that there is no leeway for loosening the rules. 

As such, politicians really need to step up to the plate and clarify now how things are going to be looking between now and spring. There is an urgent need for studies, figures and insights: Which areas are the real drivers of infections?

When politicians don’t get the job done, then others need to step in. A few days ago, the Niederlausitz Hospital in the town of Senftenberg in Brandenburg issued a call for help because of an acute shortage of staff. 

The resonance created by that call was "overwhelming,” a spokeswoman said. She said around 90 volunteers have already answered the call.  


The end of the embarrassment

The assumption that Republicans will remain in thrall to Donald Trump could be misplaced

Appalling as it has been to witness an American president try to steal an election, Donald Trump’s efforts have amounted to less than the best-informed prognosticators feared. 

Back in June a bipartisan group of over 100 political operatives and scholars, gathered by the Election Integrity Project, war-gamed the aftermath of four scenarios: an unclear result, a narrow win for Joe Biden, a clear victory for Mr Trump and the same for Mr Biden. 

Only in the last simulation was America spared authoritarianism by Mr Trump, a constitutional crisis and street battles.

Mr Biden’s actual winning margin was at the outer edge of a “clear victory”. And the president’s response to it has been even wilder than the war-gamers envisaged. (They did not imagine, in such an event, that he would try to coerce Republican state legislators to overthrow the results.) 

Yet none of the other features of the Trump coups they envisioned has materialised. 

Attorney-General Bill Barr has gone to ground. High-powered conservative lawyers have taken a pass on the president’s bogus fraud claims.

Hence the ridiculous Rudy Giuliani, dripping sweat and hair dye and ranting about George Soros and Hugo Chávez, has been the spear-point of Mr Trump’s attempted heist. 

It has been laughable, a shambles. It has also illustrated—yet again—Mr Trump’s iron grip on his party, to the extent that most commentators seem to think the Republican nomination for the 2024 election is already his for the taking. They could be right. 

But Lexington is sceptical.

That is not to deny the president’s success in fast-tracking the myth of his stolen re-election to the pantheon of right-wing grievances. 

The same livid Trump superfans who have been rallying all year against mask-wearing and the scourge of devil-worshipping Democratic paedophiles have gathered, outside state legislatures from Arizona to Pennsylvania, to demand that state lawmakers “stop the steal”. 

Right-wing conspiracy theorists have been spitting out explanations—involving shadowy Biden-Harris vans crammed with ballots in Nevada, vanishing sharpie signatures in Arizona and so forth—for how the steal took place. A large majority of Republican voters say Mr Biden’s victory was illegitimate.

A bigger majority of Republican politicians are afraid to disabuse them. Three weeks after Mr Biden’s victory, only a few Republican senators had dared acknowledge it. 

The damage this has done to their party, and American democracy, could be profound. 

The next Republican loser to cry fraud will be preaching to the converted. Still, the assumption that Mr Trump will continue to preside over the mess he has made of the right is premature.

There is a reason why Grover Cleveland, in 1892, is the only one-term president to have been given another crack of the whip by his party. Voters want winners. And it is not obvious why Mr Trump—a politician whose pitch is based on his claimed inability to lose—should be a second exception to that rule. 

Once the smoke of the 2020 battle has cleared, many of his supporters may see him as he is: a loser whose deranged loss-denialism encapsulates why he ran behind down-ballot Republicans all across the country. 

There are even signs that one or two of his cheerleaders are already chewing on that pill. “You announce massive bombshells, then you better have some bombshells…,” said Rush Limbaugh, puzzling over Mr Giuliani’s performance.

The argument for Mr Trump bucking history rests on an assumption that he will shift his bully-pulpit to the disaggregated conservative media. With Twitter growing less tolerant of his disinformation, his offspring and supporters are migrating to Parler, which takes a laxer view of it. 

By becoming a staple on the ultra-Trumpist oan or Newsmax channels—which Mr Trump recommended his followers switch to after Fox News called the election for Mr Biden—he could access 50m conservative homes. That would constitute a powerful foghorn. 

But Mr Trump’s ability to dictate terms to the Republican Party does not rest on his ability to entertain its voters. It relates to his power to terrorise Republican lawmakers with a possible primary challenge. 

And it is not clear that, once out of day-to-day politics, he will be able to do that.

oan viewers are divorced from reality in more ways than one. Where Fox’s heavyweight newsgathering and polling operations help it to influence the political debate, the hard-right channels are comparatively irrelevant. Almost no one watches Newsmax on Capitol Hill. 

It is notable that the Tea Party movement, a Trump progenitor, was inspired by an anti-government rant on cnbc. For all his millions of listeners, Mr Limbaugh could not have had the same mobilising effect; such rants are expected of him.

It is not hard to imagine Mr Trump, without the ballast of his office, drifting into a state of lucrative but ever-more irrelevant bloviation. He might not have to resort to singing “Baby Got Back” in a bear costume to get an audience, as Sarah Palin recently did on Fox. 

But his wilderness years could resemble those of John McCain’s embarrassing running-mate more than most commentators imagine. “There is only so long you can live outside the maelstrom of the American news cycle and maintain relevance,” notes Jerry Taylor, founder of the Niskanen Centre and an astute observer of the right. 

Mr Trump’s campaign against the Murdoch channel is probably raising his chances of learning that lesson by the day. 

It has all the makings of a showdown between machine-tooled corporate competence and his own raging ineptitude.

Dances with bears

It is possible to imagine other scenarios. 

If the Trump clan captures the Republican National Committee (a prize Donald Trump junior is eyeing), Mr Trump would have a more than adequate platform. Yet take this as a caution. 

The Trump-bruised commentariat is exaggerating his prospects. When a poll this week suggested 53% of Republicans want him to be their nominee in 2024, it was reported as a testament to his strength. 

An alternative reading is that almost half of Republicans already want to see the back of him.

A Land in Decay

Where Did America Go Wrong?

Despite Donald Trump's defeat, the United States still appears to be in a state of moral decay. A DER SPIEGEL correspondent reflects on his five years in America.

By Philipp Oehmke

Joe Biden supporters in New York celebrate his election victory. Foto: Stephanie Keith / GETTY IMAGES

During the opening of the recent "Saturday Night Live” he hosted, comedian Dave Chappelle, asked if anyone could still remember what life was like before COVID-19. Joe Biden had addressed the nation two hours earlier for the first time as president-elect. People were celebrating in the streets of cities and Biden wanted to spread a sense of optimism.

Then came Chappelle.

It probably says something about the country that the most important political commentators at the moment are late-night presenters and stand-up comedians. In Germany, comedians tend to occupy a niche, but in the United States, they are among the most important voices in society – and Dave Chappelle has been one of the biggest, loudest and and most acerbic of them for years running.

In his opening monologue, Chappelle recalled life back in pre-COVID-19 times. "You guys remember what life was like before COVID? I do,” he said. "There was a mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank God for COVID. Someone had to lock these murderous whites up and keep them in the house.”

America has survived Donald Trump for now. And it will also likely survive the pandemic. Once it does, though, it will be time for a reckoning: The country will again find itself facing the problems that have clouded the "American experience” for quite some time.

Trump and COVID-19 – especially the toxic combination of the two – have only made these problems more visible. Biden's optimism, his emphasis on community, are important. But words alone won’t be enough to save the nation.

Biden says that among the four main problems he intends to address first is systemic racism. No newly elected president has ever said such a thing. The economy, health insurance, jobs, taxes: Those are the kinds of things political leaders speak about in the moment of victory. But systemic racism?

America knows it is sick. It is showing all the symptoms. There are doubts about the legitimacy of elections, and confidence in political institutions has crumbled. The media have abandoned or lost their role as impartial observers. The country's predominantly white police force continues to deploy misguided violence against a disillusioned and outraged Black population. 

There are armed militias on the streets and it's become almost impossible to voice an opinion without getting overwhelmed by hateful comments on social media. To top it all off is a president who refuses to concede defeat, a society that has been battered by a pandemic that can only be contained by way of solidarity.

It will all still be there after Donald Trump leaves office – even Donald Trump himself will remain. And the next authoritarian-minded leader to come along is almost certain to be less dim-witted, less childish and less incompetent - in the best-case scenario.

Comedian Chappelle: Late-night presenters and stand-up comedians are among the most important voices in American society. Foto: Danny Clinch

David Brooks, the moderate conservative commentator, recently asked in an essay in The Atlantic whether these symptoms of the disease really do mean the end of a historical era. Whether America has experienced the kind of critical convulsion in the past six years that will trigger a kind of molting and herald a new morality.

In the essay, Brooks cites Samuel P. Huntington, one of the great political thinkers of the late 20th century, who concluded that such "moral convulsions” happen every 60 years in American history. And that they are always accompanied by the same symptoms: a loss of trust in institutions; widespread moral indignation; contempt for the elite; a moralistic young generation with new means of communication dominating the debate; and marginalized groups that had previously been excluded taking control.

Huntington wrote that at the end of the last century, but it reads like a description of the current state of America.

"You guys remember what life was like before COVID? I do. There was a mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank God for COVID."

Dave Chappelle

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so stunned by the mysterious decline of this cultural space - one that has been so vital for Germans over the past several decades. Perhaps we should have seen it coming. But the catalysts weren't easy to identify because they weren’t of a pragmatic, political nature. It was an internal state of mind that shifted. 

Or, as Brooks describes it, social trust.

This, Brooks writes, "is a measure of the moral quality of a society – of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or their trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”

Evan Osnos, who has just published a biography of Joe Biden, wrote recently in the New Yorker about the Fund for Peace, which analyzes "cohesion indicators” inside many countries. The factors studied include the level of popular discontent, trust in the security apparatus and the entrenchment of political factions. The United States recorded the largest drop in cohesion of all the countries surveyed and came in last place, behind Bahrain, Mali and even Libya.

What triggered this crisis of confidence? Where did society, politics and culture take a turn so wrong that it ultimately wound up with Trump, 20,000 lies and street battles in a pandemic?

        Author Vance: A Trump in almost every family Foto: Andrew Spear

The first time I moved to the U.S., Bill Clinton, a member of Baby Boomer generation, was president. The most visible representatives of the Baby Boomers were white males who had been politically and culturally influenced by the emancipation movements of the late 1960s. 

Upward mobility was a fact of life for them. Everything seemed to be within reach, prosperity was seen as a given and it was accepted as fact that their children would automatically be better off than their parents.

They didn’t need security, which gave them time to pursue greater freedoms. They wore jeans to the office, cheated on their wives relatively brazenly and continued listening to rock music, even as they grew older. 

Their rise culminated in the late 1990s, when I arrived in New York. The size of their generation meant that by then, they had taken over the leading roles in society, with Bill Clinton at the helm.

Their boundless optimism seems almost naive today. Clinton’s campaign slogan in 1992 was, "It’s the economy, stupid,” if the economy would just continue to grow, things would continue to get better for everyone. The markets regulated themselves, and it seemed inconceivable that the Dow Jones or the Nasdaq could ever fall.

Although he is, unlike Clinton, a rather atypical Boomer, this is also the climate that molded Donald Trump. It wasn’t just about economic freedom, but also societal morals. It was a matter of faith that the sum of all self-fulfilling individuals would amount to a happy society.

Today's generation of young Americans is perplexed by that worldview, if not contemptuous of it. They grew up in a world in which "institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile,” Brooks writes. 

He believes the values of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations that will dominate in the years ahead are the opposite of Boomer values: "Not liberation, but security; not freedom, but equality; not individualism, but the safety of the collective; not sink-or-swim meritocracy, but promotion on the basis of social justice.”

"People no longer believe they can make a difference."

"The Wire" creator David Simon

It should be noted that Baby Boomer Clinton actually exacerbated some of what Biden is referring to when he speaks of systemic racism. To keep the Republicans quiet, Clinton - with considerable support from a senator by the name of Joe Biden - passed tougher laws for fighting crime. In retrospect, today's overcrowded prisons can be traced back to that bill - as well as a prison population that is disproportionately black.

Still, when Clinton inaugurated his new office in Harlem in 2001 right after his tenure in the White House came to an end, the streets were still lined with cheering African American fans. "You will always be our president!" they shouted. The devastating effects of Clinton’s law, which was already seven years old at the time, obviously wasn’t yet clear to them.

Protesters in New York: a disillusioned and irritable Black population Foto: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The first, broadly perceived wake-up call regarding the decay of the U.S. came a year later, in 2002, when former police reporter David Simon wrote and produced a television series about his hometown of Baltimore. Simon’s series ran on the pay-TV channel HBO, the station that seemed to broadcast all the shows the cultural elite were talking about at the time, including "The Sopranos” and "Sex in the City.”

Simon's series was called "The Wire,” and over the course of five seasons, it showed how and why a city like Baltimore could have sunk to "failed state” status by the early 2000s. There was the city’s uncontrollable drug trade, which seeped into both business and politics. There were the streets full of boarded-up houses and controlled by Black gangs. 

There was the port where white workers were losing their jobs. Schools in the bad neighborhoods were so overcrowded that even the children who did want to learn eventually chose to join a drug gang instead. There were also disillusioned cops and corrupt, attention-seeking politicians. In brief: Any of the trust that Brooks is now writing about had already long since been exhausted.

When I walked through Baltimore with Simon a few years after the series’ release, I asked him about the reasons for the collapse of public life. By then, the shocking reality of the series had entered the collective consciousness and had become a much discussed issue. "People no longer believe they can make a difference," Simon said at the time - which essentially is just another way of expressing the loss of trust.

Simon’s series primarily shed light almost 20 years ago on a Black underclass in the big cities that had become isolated and abandoned. In rural areas, meanwhile, in states like Ohio and West Virginia, a white underclass was emerging - relatively unnoticed at the time - that felt just as emotionally excluded as parts of the Black population, although for different reasons.

In his recent monologue on "Saturday Night Live,” comedian Chappelle suggested that the white, Trump underclass could learn from the Black population (though he used the N-word to refer to them). "The rest of the country is trying to move forward,” he told the whites, but you keep holding us back with your "stimulus checks, the heroin.” 

But now "you need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.” Chappelle was alluding to traits – unemployment and drug addiction – frequently associated with Black people in America.

In 2012, three years before Trump began trying his hand at politics, political scientist Charles Murray became the first to write about this social class for a wider public. Interestingly, their distinguishing characteristics weren’t economic, but had more to do with psychology, morals and habit. 

The problem of underclasses in the past was primarily a lack of wealth – a difficulty that could be alleviated relatively easily. The government could fill their bank accounts, but getting into their heads was a different matter altogether.

In his book "Coming Apart,” Murray describes a fictional place he calls Fishtown, a post-industrial city where morale sank as unemployment rose. He assembles Fishtown from statistical data and draws a vivid picture.

There is less political cohesion in the United States than in Mali or Libya.

Increasingly, the men of Fishtown began reporting that they were unfit for work, while only about a quarter to a third of the children grew up with both parents. Plus, people stopped going to church, which had previously served as an important stabilizer of the community.

Author J.D. Vance didn’t need Murray’s statistics to have a clear understanding of the problem. He grew up in a real-life Fishtown, a place called Middletown, Ohio. His father had abandoned the family and his mother was a junkie. He grew up with his grandparents and made it out of Middletown to the East Coast by joining the Marines. 

He ultimately graduated with a law degree from Yale University. At one of his first dinners there, he was asked whether he wanted still or sparkling water. Vance laughed nervously. He had never before heard of water with bubbles. He thought the question was a joke.

"Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance’s memoir about the conditions and people he grew up with, came out in the U.S. in the summer of 2016, a few months before Donald Trump was elected president.

In New York, we all rushed out to get the book for the background it provided on these backwaters. According to those who read the book, Trump could only have been elected because he attracted millions of voters who hadn’t even been identified as a voting block previously. 

The book shined a spotlight on a white middle and lower class in the Rust Belt states that, in addition to having lost all trust over the last 20 years, had also grown incredibly angry.

I traveled to West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to take a look for myself. It was quite some time before it became widely known, but these areas have been steadily destroyed since the 2000s by opioids - painkillers in pill form that have a heroin-like effect. 

The pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue had flooded the market with the drug 15 years earlier. There are doctor’s offices in small towns in the region whose business model consisted exclusively of selling prescriptions for Oxycontin, the most famous opioid, for $250 each to millions of new, white junkies.

Whereas crack was still the drug of choice for Blacks in the big cities in the 1990s, "Oxys” had become the drug that whites in rural areas had become addicted to. The victims were fathers and housewives, like Vance’s mother. Entire families, including grandparents, parents and children, grew addicted to opioids. 

When the authorities moved in to close the pill clinics, as they were called, and the pills became more difficult to find, most people just switched to cheap heroin. In Huntington, West Virginia, I visited a slum full of white, drugged-out zombies. In Ashland, Kentucky, I went on a ride-along with paramedics whose work consisted almost entirely of helping addicts who had overdosed.

I met with J.D. Vance in Ohio, and he explained to me why members of his family and his friends had become so culturally disconnected. How, over the years, they had developed their own behavior, their own view of the world, of truth and morality, and how they had grown alienated from the rest of the country. 

The people Vance wrote about almost all voted for Trump. In Trump - in his aggressive, predatory behavior and his constant focus on personal gain - they recognized what they were used to at home. Everybody, says Vance, had someone like that in their family.

Oddly, he said, his old friends back in Middletown consistently claimed that they worked hard, even though most of them didn’t have jobs. They believed the world was against them, that someone was trying to trick them. It was, essentially, the same feeling espoused by their president, who insists the election was stolen from him.

Is the system working? Nope.

In recent years, these tensions could also be felt in New York in those situations when strata of the population that had been separated for decades somehow collided. At the checkout counter of the organic supermarket Whole Foods, absurd psychological battles would break out pitting well-off customers against the almost exclusively Black cashiers with face tattoos. 

The more the mostly enlightened, liberal customers tried to treat the cashiers with excessive politeness, the more the workers would frequently see this as an incentive to be even more contemptuous of the obviously privileged. As if a little feigned kindness could make up for hundreds of years of oppression.

That, at least, is how Ta-Nehisi Coates explained it to me when we met at New York University in the spring. It was shortly before the pandemic struck and three months before the police murder of George Floyd that triggered racial unrest across the country. All that checkout-counter friendliness at the supermarket proved to be of little help - friendliness, by the way, that was partly due to Coates himself. 

Five years earlier, in his book "Between the World and Me,” he explained to white elites in shocking detail just how it feels to be a Black man in the second decade of 21st-century America. Not great, he wrote, because you have to fear for your physical safety every single day. You're not worth as much as the others, he wrote.

Weeks after the election, Trump has allowed the transition to the Biden presidency to begin, but he still hasn’t conceded defeat and continues to challenge the election results. 

A large part of the Republican Party, a centuries-old institution at the heart of American society, has supported him in his effort. And more than 71 million Americans voted for Trump. 

A majority of them likely believe Trump’s lies about election fraud. Trust? 

Faith in the system? 

That others are doing the right thing, as David Brooks has called for? 

Nope. At best, there is hope.

As I leave this country, I am at a loss. 

Philipp Oehmke was DER SPIEGEL's New York correspondent from 2015 to 2020. 

Joe Biden needs to break the market’s codependency with White House

Trump’s approach widened the disconnect between traders and the real economy

Mohamed El-Erian

© AP

As US president-elect Joe Biden contemplates his first 100 days in office, he should consider what can be done over time to reduce the extreme codependency that developed between his predecessor and the US stock market.

Mr Biden is unlikely to put this very high up on the list of challenges he faces. However, the longer he delays in deciding and communicating his approach, the greater the likelihood that he will confront the same dilemma the current leaders of the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank faced early in their tenures. He might wish to do one thing and be forced into the opposite course of action.

Donald Trump believed, and repeatedly stated publicly that the stock market validated his policies as president. The more the market rose, the greater the affirmation of his “Make America Great Again” agenda.

The president’s approach was music to investors’ ears. They saw it as supporting, both directly and indirectly, the notion that policymakers needed asset prices to head ever higher. 

It reinforced the longstanding belief of a “Fed put” — shorthand for the view that the Fed will always step in to rescue the markets — to such an extent that investor conditioning changed markedly.

With so much political backing and Fed support for rising markets, pullbacks became a buying opportunity regardless of their cause. The more often this scenario played out, the deeper the Fomo — the fear of missing out on yet another remunerative opportunity — and the more market participants it affected. 

The result was a notable and widening disconnect between markets and the real economy.

This has led to collateral damage risks and unintended consequences. The pattern encourages excessive and increasingly irresponsible risk taking, fuelling the risk of future financial instability. It encourages the misallocation of resources throughout the economy. 

By aggravating inequality, it amplifies the “Wall Street versus Main Street” divide that slowly but surely eats away the integrity and credibility of economic and financial institutions.

Concerned about this disconnect, Jay Powell as Federal Reserve chairman and Christine Lagarde as European Central Bank president each tried to draw a line early in their tenures by putting limits on how much they would support the markets. In both cases, they were forced quickly into highly-visible U-turns.

The “Powell Put” has become the latest iteration of one of the market’s favourite beliefs. It started with Alan Greenspan and was also inadvertently deepened by Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. Over in Europe, Ms Lagarde has now shouldered her predecessor Mario Draghi’s burden of having promised to do “whatever it takes”.

The path of least resistance for Mr Biden is keep following the path set by central bankers that was taken to an extreme by Mr Trump. He would avoid having to deal with financial volatility in addition to a health crisis, social divisions, a slowing economy, and the worrisome surge in inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity.

However, this easy path would also be the wrong one. Right at the outset of his presidency, Mr Biden needs to establish that he will not be held hostage by stock markets that have already drifted too far away from their original purpose of efficiently mobilising and allocating investible funds to spur growth.

On regulatory matters, he should signal his administration’s determination to better understand and supervise the migration of risk from the banking system to other financial institutions that as yet are not comprehensively regulated.

In his approach to Fed appointments — and he has some to make before deciding next year whether to give Mr Powell a second term — he should favour people willing to restore the central bank’s traditional role as a leader of financial markets and not a follower.

None of this is easy, nor is it risk free. But, over his entire tenure this approach would be less problematic than continuing to enable and empower markets that are too reliant on policy support.

As vice-president, Mr Biden dealt with the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis. 

He knows all too well how hard it is to protect living standards and the economy when financially unsustainable practices reach the breaking point as a result of financial accidents due to irresponsible risk-taking.

Mr Biden needs to pivot rapidly away from Mr Trump’s approach. This change would also be in the longer-term interest of investors and well-functioning markets.

The writer is president of Queens’ College, Cambridge university, and adviser to Allianz and Gramercy

Successful Immigration and the New German Vaccine

BioNTech's new-model RNA-based vaccine has emerged as the leading contender to bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly within the coming year. Pioneered by a Turkish-German couple whose parents immigrated to Germany in the 1960s, the breakthrough's symbolic importance matches its practical value.

Hans-Werner Sinn

MUNICH – The world took note when the German start-up BioNTech announced its breakthrough in the development of a new type of vaccine to combat COVID-19. After testing tens of thousands of people, BioNTech’s vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective in providing protection for those who would otherwise have been infected. 

The company was the first to apply for emergency use authorization for a coronavirus vaccine in the United States, and it has announced that it will soon take similar steps in Europe.

President Donald Trump’s recent election defeat is a necessary step toward restoring sanity to American politics. But it is only the first of many steps that will be required to convince the world that the US no longer poses a threat to itself or others.

Anti-viral vaccines are usually made with devitalized viral materials fabricated outside the body, but BioNTech has pursued a new method of injecting genetically modified RNA into the patient. 

This prompts the patient’s cells to produce a characteristic protein of the relevant SARS-CoV-2 virus themselves, enabling the body’s immune system to build up an effective response before it encounters the real virus.

The great advantage of this approach is that it allows for the production of more than one billion vaccine doses within the space of just a few months. It is also highly safe, because the modified RNA can survive only at a very low temperature, and quickly degrades in the body once it has performed its job. Any subsequent damage to the body is therefore extremely unlikely.

In close cooperation with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, BioNTech’s success augurs a rapid uptake of widespread vaccination in Europe and the United States. 

Indeed, delivery contracts for millions of doses of the vaccine are already in place. And it is encouraging that the US drug-maker Moderna has also announced quantitatively similar results in its trials, using a closely related process involving a slightly more stable RNA variant.

More broadly, many other companies are advancing the frontier of next-generation RNA-based vaccines. Among these is CureVac, a company based in the German town of Tübingen, which has invented a new rapid-programming process for RNA that promises to be widely applicable.

Thanks to these new technologies, the world will likely be freed from the scourge of COVID-19 sometime in 2021 or 2022. Once again, we will be able to eat out and go to the theater without worries; private weddings and parties will no longer be cause for concern. The airline and travel industries will quickly return to normal, and the global economy will be revitalized after a long period of lockdown-induced paralysis.

A major difference is that we will emerge with a completely new pharmaceutical industry, one that promises to deliver extremely effective vaccines against numerous other infectious diseases. 

Moreover, RNA can, in principle, be programmed in such a way as to produce antibodies against specific types of cancer, promising forms of treatment that are far gentler than chemotherapy.

At BioNTech, the pioneers of the new RNA-based approach to drug development are Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a couple specializing in oncology and genetic research. Şahin, who holds a chair in experimental oncology at the University of Mainz, is one of the world’s top researchers in the study of personalized vaccines for cancer immunotherapy. 

Both are German citizens born to Turkish immigrants who came to the country decades ago.

Şahin and Türeci are prime examples of the successful integration of immigrants – including those from Turkey – into German society. They managed not only to gain a foothold in Germany but to thrive, thanks to hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit, and strong cultural traditions.

BioNTech’s story shows that successful immigration is about more than welfare magnetism. Managed properly, immigration is a key source of new blood and fresh ideas for an aging society.

It is worth recalling that Germany’s pharmaceutical industry was one of the earliest manufacturers of the contraceptive pill, starting in the 1960s. No other country embraced this method of contraception more comprehensively. 

As a consequence, however, the German fertility rate had fallen sharply by the early 1970s – six years before Italy experienced a similar decline, ten years before Spain did, and 20 years before Poland did.

Germany has been paying the price for this early pharmaceutical success. Its largest population cohort comprises people in their mid-50s, who were born just before the pill-induced drop in birthrates. All of the subsequent generational cohorts have steadily shrunk. 

Under these demographic conditions, stagnation and decline would be inevitable without immigration. In fact, Germany now needs a continuous inflow of migrants just to fill the population gap that its earlier pharmaceutical successes has caused. 

Fittingly, Germany’s pharmaceutical industry is achieving international acclaim thanks to the innovative work of two children of immigrants who were lured to the country by the demographic vacuum to which the industry itself contributed. 

Şahin and Türeci are pioneers in an area of genetic research that now promises to give a new breath of life to the pharmaceutical industry, the European economy, and the entire world.

Hans-Werner Sinn, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Munich, is a former president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research and serves on the German economy ministry’s Advisory Council. He is the author, most recently, of The Euro Trap: On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets, and Beliefs.