Ross Clark

Is this why Germany has escaped lightly from coronavirus?

Is this why Germany has escaped lightly from coronavirus?
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To the question why has Germany had so many fewer deaths from Covid-19 compared with Britain, the Observer usually has only one answer. As the title to an investigation in today’s paper puts it: 'How a decade of privatisation and cuts exposed England to coronavirus'. Yet buried deep down in an interview in the very same paper, comes an alternative insight, and one which, remarkably, does not involve the Tories in any way.

The paper carries an interview with Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at UCL who has been advising SAGE, the government’s scientific committee. In it, he explains how he has been using dynamic casual modelling – a mathematical technique developed to predict activity in the brain – to analyse the Covid-19 epidemic. He says how his method predicted that hospital admissions would peak on 5 April and deaths on 10 April, within a couple of days of what they really did peak.

But then, at the very end of the interview, he strays into the issue of why some countries have been doing better than others, in particular why Germany has had relatively so few deaths – 103 per million compared with 567 in Britain. It is not to do Germany’s superior testing capacity, he says. 'There are various possible explanations, but one that looks increasingly likely is that Germany has more immunological 'dark matter' – people who are impervious to infection, perhaps because they are geographically isolated or have some kind of natural resistance.'

As is becoming clear, it is hard to explain different death rates simply by the different approaches taken by governments. Countries with the most severe lockdown – such as Spain and Italy – have gone on to have some of the highest deaths. Low death rates in South Korea (five deaths per million) and Taiwan have been attributed to extensive test, track and trace systems in place. 

Yet Japan, which at seven deaths per million has almost as good a record, has neither done much testing nor has imposed a full lockdown. There must be something else behind the wide variation is death rates. Genetic susceptibility? Evolution of the virus itself? Climate? Whatever it is, you can’t explain the global patterns of infection and death by Tory cuts, or even neoliberalism, alone.