Coronavirus: Fighting the virus and an infodemic, Germany encounters a new nervousness

Health Minister Jens Spahn now expects the virus to spread further.
Health Minister Jens Spahn now expects the virus to spread further.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN - German politicians were downplaying the possible impact of the coronavirus for weeks, with Health Minister Jens Spahn repeatedly assuring Germans that the situation was "under control" and that the country was well prepared.

But this assessment has been overturned - Germany is approaching 100 cases and has become one of the most infected countries in Europe.

Mr Spahn, of the conservative CDU party, now expects the virus to spread further: "We are at the beginning of a corona epidemic."

Critics are increasingly complaining that Germany is not doing enough to curb the disease.

Only 60 beds in hospital isolation wards are available nationwide, and it is also doubtful if there are enough medical personnel to cope with an epidemic.

The shifting mood is mirrored by the fact that many public events have been called off, most prominently the Berlin ITB, one of the world's largest travel shows that usually attracts 160,000 or so visitors.

Some supermarket shelves are empty, face masks and sanitisers are sold out and companies are advising employees to stay at home.

The consultancy firm Ernst & Young has been sending home all its 1,500 employees in Dusseldorf after one case was detected.

The rising nervousness is flanked by media coverage that too often rings an alarmist tone instead of providing sound information.

"The media is reporting too many facts that are actually unimportant," said Dr Markus Schafer, health expert at the University of Mainz. "Reporting every minute about every single suspicious case is not helpful."

In mid February Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), noted: "We're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic."

 
 
 

The Lancet medical journal commented a few days ago: "A global epidemic of misinformation - spreading rapidly through social media platforms and other outlets - poses a serious problem for public health."

It is hard for experts to cut through the noise when some in the press and social media continue to instill fear or distribute false information.

ARD and ZDF, the two main German public TV channels, are trying to give experts a platform.

One of them is Professor Christian Drosten, a virologist at the Charite hospital in Berlin, who has become a familiar face on German TV.

"In the next couple of days, we will see individual new cases as well as small groups of cases springing up like mushrooms," he said recently.

Germany will be one of the countries in Europe with the highest case numbers, "because our population is very fond of travelling", he added.

Professor Alexander Kekule, another well-known medic and biochemist, said on ARD: "Health authorities should no longer play the situation down. Timely briefings might have prevented the first corona cases in Germany."

Prof Kekule warned against taking the same measures as Italy: "If entire cities and regions are cordoned off, this will only result in people locked up infecting each other."

 
 

As much as the remarks by the experts are unsettling, they at least paint a realistic picture.

"It is likely that 60 to 70 per cent of the German population will become infected, but we do not know in what time," Prof Drosten. "This may well take two years or even longer."

WHO official Sylvie Briand, who is directing the organisation's strategy to counter false information, told The Lancet: "We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a tsunami of information, but also within this, you always have misinformation, rumours.

"We know that even in the Middle Ages, there was this phenomenon.

"But the difference now with social media is that this phenomenon goes faster and further, like the viruses that travel with people and go faster and further."