Government crisis management: “Like driven people, not like drivers”

At the beginning of the Corona crisis, the government still got a lot right, says crisis researcher Roselieb. In the meantime, however, there is no recognizable timetable. In an interview, he explains what politics can do better.

tagesschau.de: In March, when the pandemic in Germany was just getting started, you gave the federal government a pretty good grade for your crisis communication. Do you see it differently now?

Frank Roselieb: There were several phases of the pandemic. The federal government managed the first of the early lockdowns very well overall. In the summer there was a bit of laissez-faire. You didn’t really want to admit that it could get worse again, and you also ignored the facts. Because with the Spanish flu there was a slight first wave, a very massive second wave and a middle third wave. So you could have guessed that we are far from done.

In the autumn, the Chancellor appealed and spoke of 20,000 infections at Christmas. She was more than right. The prime ministers were not so easy to convince, so they might have had to argue a little harder.

And in the current phase, in terms of communication, you have the feeling that the map has been lost. But even in such a situation, especially in the case of a long-running pandemic, citizens expect that a timetable is recognizable and that they know how things will go next. And that’s missing at the moment. Those in charge react like driven people and not like drivers.

To person:

Frank Roselieb is the managing director of the Institute for Crisis Research, a “spin-off” from Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel. The institute has been documenting all crises in Germany retrospectively since 1984. The institute also advises state and federal authorities as well as companies in matters of crisis management and communication.

“Citizens must know the goal”

tagesschau.de: What could such a timetable look like?

Roselieb: Like in Great Britain, for example. There it is said in a sense: “Now the grand finale is coming, now we all have to work hard again. We vaccinate like the world champions. And then everything will be fine in summer.” That is a very bold forecast. But it gives hope to people.

The federal government, on the other hand, apparently does not yet know which way it would like to find the goal. But citizens need to know that. Otherwise, at some point, they won’t keep up. Medium-term planning based on the “when-what-applies” principle would be helpful. For example, at an incidence of 50, the catering trade is allowed to reopen.

tagesschau.de: It was said that the November lockdown was necessary so that we can all celebrate Christmas. Then there were severe restrictions. Then it was said that the schools should remain open, now they are closed. How are people supposed to have trust there?

Roselieb: A pandemic like this is a real balancing act for a government in terms of communication. The citizens are at a loss and therefore depend on politics and science. On the other hand, politicians and scientists don’t know everything either. On the one hand, they have to admit this ignorance and say: This situation is new for us too. We get advice. But in the sum of science and politics, we still know more than the individual.

It’s like a student pilot. If the pilot suddenly fails and the trainee pilot is actually not even allowed to fly the machine, it is still better to bring it to the ground than any passenger.

“Classic lose-lose situation”

tagesschau.de: Sounds like the government just can’t get it right?

Roselieb: For politics it is a classic lose-lose situation. We have two terms for this in crisis research: the self-fulfilling and the self-destructive prophecy. If the Chancellor warns of high numbers at Christmas and the country leaders do not follow her, then this prophecy will come true.

But if one had taken very tough measures straight away, the prophecy would have been self-destructive. Then the numbers in Germany would probably not have shot up that high and people would have said: These tough measures were completely unnecessary.

tagesschau.de: Another example: Health Minister Spahn has ruled out compulsory vaccinations. Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder has nevertheless initiated a mandatory vaccination for nursing staff. Who should people believe?

Roselieb: What Mr Söder is doing is actually completely counterproductive. Something like this could be discussed if people do not respond to the vaccination invitation or let vaccination appointments pass. But right now we have the situation that there is not enough vaccine for the people who want to be vaccinated. So it is not the right time for such a debate at all. This jumble of topics really irritates people.

“Competition between systems is good”

tagesschau.de: In general, the federal and state governments rarely speak with one voice in this crisis. Isn’t that devastating?

Roselieb: In the event of a disaster, our crisis management is decentralized. The federal states or the mayors and district administrators decide. There is no “one” master plan for the pandemic and basically we have had very good experiences in Germany with a certain degree of competition between the systems. It is good that countries try different routes and then you can see which is the best.

In Schleswig-Holstein, for example, we had to decide in summer: should we let day tourists into the country or not? The opinions of the infection doctors in our country and those in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were obviously fundamentally different. We let them in because they usually want to go to the beach, where the risk of infection is quite low. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania did not let them in. There has now been a sharp drop in tourism there, while the number of infections was not higher here. One can learn from this now. Next summer we know: day tourists are not the problem.

“Drama, Seriousness, and a Silver Lining”

tagesschau.de: What do politicians have to do better now?

Roselieb: It depends on three points: First of all, of course, you have to inform. What applies to the individual? Second, they also have to explain a little more: For example, the question of how exactly 15 kilometers can be achieved with the movement restrictions. Or why was there this 800 square meter rule in stores in the first lockdown at the time?

Third, they need to advertise. These restrictions on fundamental rights are very massive, and you fall back on a kind of war rhetoric: At the beginning you need drama and seriousness and you have to show there is no alternative. But then you also need the silver lining to make it clear: It’s a tough time, but afterwards it gets better. And that’s missing at the moment. Other European countries now want to make that apparent. They want to say very clearly from which incidence values ​​what is again possible or not. Then there is at least one perspective.

The interview was conducted by Sandra Stalinski, tagesschau.de.

Deutschlandfunk reported on this topic on January 11, 2021 at 7:17 a.m.


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