When the first case of COVID-19 reached Germany in January 2020, the country’s world-class medical and scientific institutions snapped into action to contain—and learn from—an outbreak in Bavaria. As the pandemic escalated, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a scientist by training, based the government’s response on epidemiological models and expert advice. But Germany’s strictly federalized political system reserved power for the 16 states, not the central government. To coordinate the kind of nationwide response needed to curb the spread of the virus, Merkel’s government developed new coordination bodies that harmonized physical-distancing policies across the country. After a nationwide lockdown slowed the initial spread, a response model of federal government guidance and support but with decentralized, local implementation enabled Germany to quickly ramp up both testing and contact-tracing capacities. As a result, from January through October 2020, Germany contained the virus more effectively than any large country in Europe or North America. At year’s end, however, political consensus about how to respond to the virus broke down. With a vaccine on the horizon and the public tired of lockdowns, states hesitated to reimpose restrictions, and new infections surged.
Gordon LaForge drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in February 2021. Case published October 2021.