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OPINION: How the Covid-19 vaccine fiasco exposes the myth of German efficiency

OPINION: How the Covid-19 vaccine fiasco exposes the myth of German efficiency
A patient at a vaccination centre in Hamburg this month. Photo: DPA
To the world, Germany is lauded for its perceived ability to get things done. But those who live here see a more complicated relationship with efficiency. The bungled vaccine rollout shines a light on these issues, writes James Jackson.

Made in Germany. It’s not just a slogan- the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine was literally invented, developed and manufactured in Germany. So why is the supposedly efficient Germany vaccinating much slower than many other countries?

Although national politicians have been keen to blame the EU, that doesn’t explain why Germany hasn’t been able to give out the vaccines it actually received. The real answer is something foreigners in Germany will be familiar with: German inefficiency.

New arrivals are prone to gripe about a stubborn refusal to do things online, a largely cash-based society where you may have to walk miles for an ATM, taxes and official documents sent via postal service – or even fax.

Plus there’s a healthcare system that could by seen by some as a sick joke: I (and others I’ve spoken to) have had to deal with judgemental doctors who often prescribe you questionable homeopathic remedies. Don’t even get me started on massively delayed projects like the Berlin-Brandenburg airport.

READ ALSO: The real story behind BER airport’s nine year delay

Everywhere you look in Germany there seems to be waste: wasted paper from all the letters, wasted resources by having different health insurance companies offering the same product (or so many public broadcasters repeating the same news), wasted time from outdated workflows, software, and procedures. I know this from experience: in my first job in Germany they cancelled the newsletter I was hired to work on, leaving me with a salary but nothing to do. 

But the view from the rest of the world is almost the complete opposite.  Germany efficiency is so well-known that the efficient, robotic German is a well-worn joke. How many Germans does it take to change a lightbulb? One. German culture is punctual and professional, rarely chatting at work, and woe betide you if you try and book a train less than a week in advance. Even the beloved techno music is straight to the point and mechanical.

A vaccination centre worker in Husum in Schleswig-Holstein doing paperwork. Photo: DPA

Will the real Germany please stand up?

So which is the real Germany, a well-oiled machine or a slow bureaucratic nightmare? 

It’s indisputable that some sectors of Germany, like manufacturing and technology, work incredibly well. Not just BioNTech but other well-known companies like VW, Siemens and Audi show that Made in Germany is still a valuable brand, known for making high-quality and reliable products. And alongside these there is the so-called backbone of the German economy: the Mittelstand, making highly specialized products like washing machine parts or organs. 

But when it comes to the service industry or innovation, Germany is severely lacking. A rigid following of the rules might work well for engineering cars, but when you bring people into the equation, the equation doesn’t always add up. This will be familiar with anyone who has had to deal with German Beamte (civil servants). If you dare to forget one particular stamp or book something wrong in their byzantine appointment system it’s “computer says Nein,” leaving you to come back and do it all over again.

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

Sadly, this inflexible mentality seems to have hampered the vaccine rollout too. While Germany and other countries decided to go through all the proper EU bureaucratic procedures to approve vaccines, the UK appreciated that lives are saved by starting vaccination as early as possible and went for an emergency approval. And let’s be honest, if this isn’t an emergency, I really can’t imagine what is. 

The UK’s early approval was followed by a concerted, if unorthodox, national effort to recruit untrained volunteers to administer vaccinations, which has left it miles ahead of Germany on vaccinations.

German security expert Marcel Dirsus reacted with this tweet: “If a German politician proposed training flight attendants and retired bank tellers to administer vaccines he or she would be laughed out of the room.”

He went on to say: “As a culture we’ve become so obsessed with rules and regulations that we can be blind to pragmatic solutions even if they could produce vastly better outcomes. It’s sad. We could be doing so much better if we were a little more flexible”

Flexibility is key when dealing with people. After all, something that on paper looks like the most efficient way to do things isn’t always in practice. If someone abruptly shouts their order at a waiter without saying please, it may technically be faster than taking the time to be polite, but we know which person would get their order first. 

And while following the rules and leaving things to the authorities might be the natural Teutonic response, every single day the pandemic drags on costs hundreds of lives and huge sums of money.

Let’s hope Germany can be pragmatic, bend the rules, and come up with some creative solutions, like ignoring ludicrously strict data protection laws, giving out doses morning, noon and night (and weekends!), or even allowing other manufacturers to copy the vaccine formula. I’m not holding my breathe. 

READ ALSO: How can Germany speed up its vaccination campaign?


Member comments

  1. James Jackson YOU are a hero!! This article is the best representation of the current situation I’ve read anywhere! Bravo…all day!

  2. Can’t agree more. I’m now living in Berlin and sometimes I can’t help wondering if I’m really in the first world.

  3. Can’t agree more. I’m now living in Berlin and sometimes I can’t help wondering if I’m really in the first world.

  4. I shudder to o think how much time and energy I’ve spent trying to get an appointment at a Bürgeramt everytime I’ve moved into a new place. Then having to take time off work for said appointment and wait around in a sad room because they’re running late. If you extrapolate that out to the entire country, that’s a whole lot of productive hours lost for no positive gain. I guess it keeps some otherwise unemployable people employed but definitely not worth the cost.

  5. Yup – snail mail, fax, sign this sign that, no street view, privacy paranoia, and don’t get me started on supermarket home delivery NOT! My brother, who visits twice a year, summed Germany up well – quaint!

  6. Remember the Apollo 13 movie where the NASA guys were given a bunch of stuff and told to quickly cobble together some kind of filter for the Astronauts? My (German) husband said, “This is the part where German Astronauts would die.” It is a total lack of being able to think outside the box, and I see it often. I think the newer generations are slowly moving past that though, and that is why customer service is far better than it was 20 years ago. Every country and culture has it’s quirks, annoying habits and stereotypical behaviors, and that is what makes us unique and gives us our strengths as well as our weaknesses. So breathe deeply, and don’t hold your breath!

  7. What kills me is how rare it is to find a way to communicate with any kind of service provider via email or web forms. In the US you can never find a phone number to contact a company and talk to a real person. Here in Germany everyone wants to talk on the phone. This is a real PITA while I’m still trying to learn the language. It’s hard enough in person.

  8. From my point of view (working for the public service myself), the problem is that Germans, also in public administration, know well how to be efficient, but are afraid of not keeping some of the rigorous standards that exist in every regard – so they prefer not to change anything before being blamed for mistakes. And, as unclfuzzy had pointed out, the “customer behaviour” also plays a role. Two examples: I managed to register a new car in Berlin (!) online within one (!) day in the middle of the pandemy, just completely using their online procedure – while a personal appointment can only be booked around six weeks in advance. Yes, that online procedure exists; you have to get the plates by yourself from a manufacturer (which can be ordered online from plenty of them), and get the official labels mailed. Payment is possible online, as well. What was the reaction of Germans in this regard: “But they do not check your identity in person, that leaves it open to criminaliy” (what the do is you upload a copy of your ID, and they check it with the data they have on the register). Or: “I prefer to talk to a person”, or: “This is unfair to elderly people who cannot handle a computer and are thus disadvanatged.” Therefore, an efficient system which might fail in 2% of the cases is frowned upon, and people would prefer a 100% failure-proof system instead, even if it means a waste of time and money of 98% of applicants. Another example: Within a week, in March 2020, Berlin had set up a system where self-employed persons could get an emergency payment of 5000 Euros just following an online procedure on a “first come first serve” basis. They had to wait in an online “waiting room”, and it could be that their “window” for applying was open at three at night. The money was paid out after some very few checks (like if the business is known to the tax authorities under the number and name given) – the real assessments if the help was needed would (and do) follow later on. That scheme helped ten thousands of businesses, and of course had been abused, and had later been condemned as “prone to criminals”, “Berlin ATM on taxpayers cost” (Der Spiegel), “unfair” (because some people had to be up in the middle of the night) – simply too efficient for “Besserwisser” journalists. Therefore, the system which had been designed to fail in some instances, but help the many, had never been set up again, but replaced by extremely bureaucratic application procedures. The mere fact that the money to help is often paid out too late is responded by the notion that taxpayers’ money is protected from abuse with an almost 100% efficiency. To add to this, I remember receiving a three-page letter from some authority explaining why they paid me around 2 Euros less that I had applied for in a certain context. That letter had been individually drafted, so someone might have spent half an hour for explaining this 2 Euros difference. I called the number indicated on the letter, and got the explanation: “I get rigorously checked, and if I do not duly calculate the difference and explain it, the auditors would tell me that this is a matter of principle.”

  9. Weeks later and vaccine rollout is still woefully behind and mismanaged. Its telling that my friends my age in the USA (mid 30s) already have their vaccines and cant believe that I still have not gotten mine. When I tell them it will realistically be end of summer/fall when I can get one, it simply blows their mind. I will probably travel back to the USA just for the shot, which is already being given out at pharmacies, dr. offices, emergency facilities…. wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon starts doing “Prime Vaccine” by next month.

  10. Well, hopefully things will start to improve with a new chancellor. I do not envy the person who will take it after Merkel but positive changes are possible…

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