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Germany Is Expected To Centralize Its COVID-19 Response. Some Fear It May Be Too Late

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To Germany now, where hospitals say they are about to run out of intensive care beds, even as many state leaders continue to relax coronavirus restrictions. Chancellor Angela Merkel is being called upon to take personal control of the situation. But Esme Nicholson reports, with a third wave raging, some worry it may be already too late.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: A year ago, Germany was weathering the pandemic relatively well. And Merkel's coronavirus response, attributed to her understanding of the science behind it, was praised far and wide. But a slow start to the vaccine rollout combined with an increasingly confusing patchwork of regional lockdown regulations has left the country in epidemiological disarray and sent Merkel's party plummeting in the polls.

MELANIE AMANN: All in all, it has been a bit of a rude awakening for us Germans to realize that we're not the masters of organization.

NICHOLSON: Melanie Amann, who heads the Berlin bureau of the news weekly Der Spiegel, says while the myth about German efficiency has been well and truly debunked, unfortunately the same cannot be said of another cliche - the love of red tape.

AMANN: In fact, our ability to create complex systems and bureaucracy have pretty much stopped us from effectively fighting a pandemic.

NICHOLSON: Severin Opel agrees. He just got a rapid coronavirus test. While his result, which was negative, was available in 15 minutes, he had to wait several days to get the appointment.

SEVERIN OPEL: (Through interpreter) Paperwork is getting in the way of this pandemic. There's so much focus on minutiae and documenting every step to the nth degree, guidelines end up contradicting each other, and nothing makes sense.

NICHOLSON: Even Merkel, who's known for her careful, measured responses, admits there's devil in all this detail.

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CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) Perhaps we're overly perfectionist sometimes. We always want to do everything right because whoever makes a mistake gets it in the neck publicly. But in a pandemic, there needs to be more flexibility. We Germans need to learn to let go.

NICHOLSON: Janosch Dahmen, a frontline doctor and health spokesperson for the Green Party, which is rivaling Merkel's conservatives in the polls, says the government's overly cautious approach is actually reckless.

JANOSCH DAHMEN: (Through interpreter) A strategy or intervention without risks doesn't exist. Waiting for the perfect, flawless game plan is a recipe for failure, especially in the face of this virus, which is mutating insanely fast.

NICHOLSON: And yet, Merkel's prudent crisis management style is not entirely to blame. In fact, she has little say in the country's vaccination and lockdown strategies, of which there are no fewer than 16, one for each German state. Melanie Amann argues it's high time that Merkel, who leaves office this fall, used her considerable political capital to take charge.

AMANN: Because her term is ending, she theoretically has all the freedom and all the independence she wants to take bold steps in the corona management. Nobody could run her out of office. And she's not using this. She's just working as if she were at the beginning of her first term.

NICHOLSON: But after weeks of frustration with state leaders who've refused to adhere to the agreed strategy, Merkel looks like most Germans feel - namely mutend, a new mashed-up pandemic term that means both tired and angry. Perhaps as a result, Parliament is expected to pass a measure this week that would allow Merkel to finally take the reins.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.