A Lockdown Alone Does Not Make a Successful Crisis Management


Opinion Piece by ZEW President Professor Achim Wambach

One year ago, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan. Since then, more than 65 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, the death toll has passed 1.5 million, and the global economy is experiencing its biggest slump since the end of World War II.

Modern society has become enormously complex as people, businesses and states are increasingly interconnected. The coronavirus has unleashed an unexpected and unwanted side effect on these interconnections. Since the beginning of the crisis, efforts have been made around the world to minimise the spread of the virus without unduly diminishing the educational opportunities of students and imposing too many restrictions on the economy. It requires great wisdom to strike the right balance of measures. So far, the German government has fared relatively well compared to other European countries.

If we take the number of deaths related to COVID-19 as a variable to measure the severity of the pandemic, we can say that as of today Germany – with less than 250 deaths per million inhabitants – is far less affected than other EU countries with over 600 deaths per million inhabitants. At the same time, the expected 5.1 per cent slump in Germany’s GDP growth is less severe than the 7.0 per cent slump expected for the eurozone.

These results cannot solely be attributed to the choice of policy measures. For example, countries where tourism plays a larger role in the national economy, such as Italy and Spain, have been hit harder by the crisis. Also, an important factor contributing to the containment of the virus is the social capital of a region. Social capital refers to the willingness of people to act in a socially responsible manner and to contribute to the community through their individual behaviour. Social capital is measured, for example, in terms of voter participation in regional elections or the proportion of the population that regularly donates blood. ZEW researchers have investigated the relationship between social capital and the spread of the virus. For Italy, Germany and the UK, it has been shown that COVID-19 spread significantly slower in regions with higher social capital than in those with lower social capital. Studies for the USA have come to a similar conclusion.

Trust in government measures plays an essential role in this context. With the help of mobile phone data, researchers observed a greater decline in mobility in regions where trust in policies is higher. In this respect, it is both a consequence and a constitutive element of success that since March the approval of the government’s coronavirus crisis management among the German population has largely been between 60 and 70 per cent, however with a downwards trend. By comparison, approval ratings in France and Great Britain are below 40 per cent. In containing the spread of the virus, Germany is yet to make difficult decisions in the winter months.

The success of crisis policies also depends on factors that cannot be imposed by policymakers. The effectiveness of measures is determined by the people themselves, and they are all the more successful the higher the social capital and the greater the trust in politics. Federal and state governments can have a positive influence on this, for example by communicating more clearly the criteria according to which restrictions are made.

A German version of this piece initially appeared on 16 December 2020 in the “Tagesspiegel”.