In May 2019 I posted an article on the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I situated her in three different contexts: in Germany, in Europe, and in a world in which women leaders were still strikingly scarce. (A link to the previous post is provided below.) To these three contexts must now be added a fourth: the coronavirus crisis. More precisely, the coronavirus crisis consists of two crises that are linked, though they are also separate and distinct. The first is a public health crisis unlike any the West has experienced in some one hundred years. The second is a financial crisis that some experts warn could be the most damaging since the Great Depression.
Several months into the first of these crises – which is of course responsible for the second – Germany is ranked among the best in the world in its response. According to several indicators, most dramatically death rates, Germany has performed at a high level. It has contained and mitigated Covid-19 to the point where the entire country is beginning to lift the restrictions the virus has imposed. To be clear, no German, least of all the Chancellor, is resting on their laurels or claiming the crisis is over. Rather, in keeping with her leadership style more generally, Merkel is providing a measured plan, a careful countrywide blueprint for reviving economic activity while continuing to fight the virus.
The reasons why Germany – along with other countries such as Taiwan, Israel, Singapore, and Iceland – has ranked high in its response to the crisis are of course multiple. Above all, Germany has an unusually robust public health care system which features, among its various virtues, enormous capacity. Germany has more spare beds in its intensive care units than Italy has altogether. In fact, Germany has so much excess capacity it is treating people with the virus from Italy, Spain, and France. Germany further has in place, and has had virtually from the start, the essentials for controlling contagion: widespread testing and tracing, in that order.
Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005. So, she must get considerable credit for Germany’s high level of readiness for a public health care crisis. She could not of course possibly have foreseen the coronavirus in its specifics. But she and her team obviously foretold that Germany might face a health care challenge of some sort, for which they concluded the country should be properly prepared.
This particular crisis also fed into this particular Chancellor’s particular strengths. This is, after all, above all a health care challenge. A challenge that only health care experts – scientists – will be able ultimately to meet. Merkel, then, met her moment. For in her original incarnation she was a scientist, a physicist, which has made her in an all-important way the perfect person to lead the German people through the thicket of Covid-19. Moreover, her famously laconic leadership style perfectly suits the temper of the time. Since the start of the crisis Merkel has been calm and considered, communicating regularly, reliably, and reasonably with her constituents.
Predictable then that in the wake of the pandemic Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval ratings have been extremely high. Fully 72 % of Germans recently surveyed said they were satisfied with the government’s handling of the virus crisis. This while at the same moment that President Donald Trump’s numbers dropped – significantly. In a new poll reported by Trump favorite, Fox News, his approval rating is rather a meager 43% while his disapproval number is 54%, up 9 points since March.
Politics can be a volatile profession, even in Germany, which during virtually the entire post World War II period has stood out for its political stability. There is, then, no guarantee that Merkel will remain in office to the end of her term, in 2021. But given the context of the crisis, it seems increasingly unlikely the German people will opt to change chancellors in other than the regular order.