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COVID-19

Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Coronavirus lessons: How South Korea got face masks for everyone and Germany kept fatalities down

By Trudy Rubin Tribune News Service

As U.S. fatalities from COVID-19 rise, Germany’s death rate from the virus is roughly half that of America’s.

As America’s front-line health workers still struggle to obtain face masks, South Korea has a smooth system to distribute masks to its health workers and its entire population.

Both countries are democracies and U.S. allies, not authoritarian regimes like China. So shouldn’t we be looking at what these countries are doing right, and whether their methods are applicable here?

The German case is particularly interesting because relatively few people seem to be dying. Their fatality rate from virus cases as of early this week stood at less than half the nearly 3% rate in this country.

Three key factors deserve the credit: strong leadership, early and persistent testing and a robust health system that works.

“Germany is doing more testing than other countries, but still not enough,” I was told by Anna Sauerbrey, deputy editor-in-chief of Der Tagesspiegel, by phone from Berlin.

Despite President Donald Trump’s false claim that the United States is doing more per capita tests than any other country, several countries are doing better. Germany, as of late last week, was testing one in 90 citizens, compared with one in every 273 people in the United States.

These numbers enable German officials to find infections early, even among asymptomatic patients, isolate them and contain the disease from spreading.

And only widespread testing will permit scientists to amass the data required to get a clear picture of the disease, including how many people have had it and shown no symptoms, which means they can return to work.

Moreover, widespread testing is vital to figuring out the real death rate from COVID-19, and for finding a response to blunt the virus if it returns in a second wave.

So here are the two key important reasons Germany has been able to conduct widespread testing – while the United States has faltered until now.

First, political leadership. “Germany and the United States both have federal systems,” Sauerbrey said, “but the polarization is not that great here.” Germany’s minister presidents (the equivalent of elected state governors) come from different parties, but were “able to cooperate and create a common set of rules,” she explains. Despite upcoming state elections, they dropped partisan rhetoric.

“They didn’t use this for political show,” Sauerbrey adds.

Equally important, Chancellor Angela Merkel – who had appeared to be fading before the crisis – rose to the challenge, inspiring the public and working with state governments. “She did a great job communicating to the public how dangerous the virus was and how important solidarity is,” Sauerbrey said. “Her first speech was intense and emotional, and people understood the need to change their behavior.”

But lastly, Germany was able to administer tests and avoid overwhelming its health system because that system is so solid. “What can really drive death rates is if you don’t have enough intensive care beds,” Sauerbrey said, and Germany had them. Germans have a universal health care system, but with private doctors and a dual public-private system that guarantees coverage to all. “In Germany, you don’t have to be afraid to call in sick,” Sauerbrey said.

National and state leadership, a solid health system and widespread ongoing testing – unburdened by shortages, partisan politics and a chaotic health system.

Need I say more?

And then there is the case of South Korea, which has become the global gold standard on testing and keeping COVID-19 in check. But what I want to write about here is Seoul’s success at solving its face mask shortage.

After an initial mask crisis, the central government decided to intervene in production and distribution, E. Tammy Kim writes in the New York Times. By early March, the government was purchasing 80% of the national production of KF-94 masks, the equivalent of the American N95, from the nation’s 130 or so manufacturers (for comparison, think how the U.S. mask crisis might have been avoided if Trump had made robust use of the Defense Production Act).

The masks were shipped at a discounted price, first to hospitals and health providers, and then to pharmacies all over the country. No first responders washing masks or improvising bandanas in Seoul. No long queues at pharmacies, and everyone on the street wearing masks (as CDC guidance now recommends for the U.S.).

I asked Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and distinguished visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, what were the keys to this process.

“In South Korea,” he replied, there is close trust between the government and the chaebols (business conglomerates). Businesses are more mindful of the national interest, so they worked together to bend regulations on tests, and compete to produce the best tests and accelerate production.

“There was much more of a consensus on what needed to be done, and almost a worship of science and innovation. An educated public understood that a science-based approach was needed.”

What Germany and South Korea have done is totally within the capacity of this country. In theory. If this crisis forces Americans to face up to why we are falling behind.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at trubin@phillynews.com.

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