There Are Limits To What ‘Leadership’ Can Do

We All Wish The President Took COVID Seriously, But Ultimately It Matters Who Listens Anyway

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is getting the viral treatment on Twitter again. A video of her desperately pleading with the German people to adhere to COVID guidelines has made its rounds this week. In the video, she apologizes to the Germans for ruining their Christmas traditions, but says the amount of death and sickness that could result in a normal holiday season would be “unacceptable.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made news this week after making an emotional and impassionate plea to her people to adhere to COVID guidelines this holiday season after Europe’s most populated country has seen a month of five-digit case numbers. Video: DW

The appeal to empathy, the acceptance of blame and emphasis on the importance of the guidelines, has given Americans a taste of what it lacks in our current leadership, and what it hopes to gain when the executive changes in 40 days. It has awaken the belief in many that if America had leadership like Merkel’s, we would not be in the current predicament we are in regarding COVID-19. Responses like “this is what leadership looks like” and “I wish we had this in America” popped up with the viral video.

Her pleas, however, did not come out of nowhere. They are the words of an exasperated head of government trying hard to control and increasingly out of control situation. Germany, which up until now has been seen as a model to how other countries should respond or should have responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic, is seeing its worst days in terms of case numbers and deaths. Increasingly, Germans are defying guidelines and restrictions and a growing number of Germans are adopting anti-mask and anti-COVID beliefs and that ideology is seemingly spreading through the nation.

For the past month, Germany has been logging anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 cases per day, well ahead of the 6,000-7,000 cases per day the country logged back in the Spring. Back then, Germany was heralded for avoiding the strict lockdowns and mass death other European countries like Italy, Spain, Belgium, France and the UK endured.

Germany’s case rate has stabilized at a very high rate for the last month, causing concern that the country’s early success in combating COVID-19 will be erased. Chart: Worldometer

If you’ve been to Germany around the holidays (I was there in December 2014), you know that it’s a popular time period for people to gather, perhaps the most popular of the year. There are Christmas markets, sporting events, family gatherings and it’s not a surprise that for many there, these long-held traditions are non-negotiable. The last three months of the year, starting with Oktoberfest and ending with New Years, is like one giant party. While that atmosphere is definitely subdued this year, and many official events and gatherings cancelled, it is not surprising that there are underground gatherings going on. Without a really hard China-style or Melbourne-style lockdown, people will still gather and the virus will still spread, especially during the holiday season, nine months into this after people have been isolated all year.

If German mentality around #COVID restrictions is similar to what I hear from Italy, Denmark and the UK, there’s likely a lot of people feeling; “we’ve done it right, we took it seriously, how are we still being asked to sacrifice? Is this even working?” In the same way that we in America look at Australia and New Zealand and wonder “we could’ve been them,” many Europeans look at them and say “Why aren’t we them? We did the same things.” There’s a growing sense that leadership has failed, that guidelines aren’t working and that Christmas traditions are non-negotiable and the government and medical community should have prepared in a way that would have allowed a somewhat normal Christmas to happen.

That’s on top of the fact that Germany has one of the most active anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements in Europe, and the protests in Berlin and other cities have only been growing.

A Christmas market in Cologne, Germany in 2014. In Europe, the December holidays are often time for the type of gatherings which makes COVID-19 spread easily,

This isn’t to say that America doesn’t deserve criticism for how its handled the pandemic. The second wave has hit in a particularly bad time in this country. A defeated lame-duck president, who never really cared about the pandemic anyway, and who has completely checked out, is still in office for another five weeks (and is trying his absolute best to stay longer). A hodgepodge of restrictions nationwide with some states (Florida, South Dakota) having none and others (California) going back into lockdown mode, make fighting COVID-19 into a rigged game of whack-a-mole There is zero federal leadership, zero help financially from Republicans in Congress, who are reinvigorated after over-performing in last month’s elections. Americans have no other options than to ride it out.

But the Germans have Merkel, and many are still choosing to ignore guidelines anyway. Merkel shows the limits of leadership. It’s refreshing for Americans to hear a head of government urge and plea with her citizens to follow the rules, since ours isn’t and hasn’t, but the key here is…it doesn’t appear to be working. She’s resorted to begging because they’re not listening.

While it is comforting for many who want to see leadership take this seriously to hear President-elect Joe Biden talk about the important of mask wearing and social distancing, and make appeals to patriotism, none of it matters if people won’t listen. He is limited to what and where he can mandate restrictions and mitigation efforts, and governors are free to defy him. Much like Merkel, he’ll be resorting to using the bully pulpit.

And with one third of Americans believing Biden wasn’t legitimately elected, and over 100 House Republicans gleefully joining in on that chorus, it is even more unlikely tens of millions of Americans will respond to his appeals. That’s a lot of hosts for COVID-19 to infect.

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