This week’s DER SPIEGEL is filled almost entirely with articles about one single issue. Ever since the first issue of the magazine came out in 1947, that has happened just three times. The first was when DER SPIEGEL owner and Editor-in-Chief Rudolf Augstein was arrested in 1962, the second was following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the third was in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. This time, it is for the coronavirus.
There are likely some readers wondering if we have perhaps become addled by fever. In general, the media has been accused of overwrought, alarmist coverage of the pandemic. And it is true that in the digital era, news coverage has frequently followed the belief that only overexcitement and hysteria can generate the desired attention from readers. We, too, haven’t always been good at shying away from hyperbole.
But in this case, the accusations miss their mark. “Corona hit us like a tsunami,” a doctor in a northern Italian hospital told a DER SPIEGEL reporter earlier this week. And just like a tsunami, this pandemic is a natural disaster. It’s not fiction, it’s not an exaggeration, it’s not hype and it’s not a conspiracy theory. Only those who understand that will be able to react appropriately, with the tools of logic and solidly rooted in scientific knowledge. It is time for realism. Time for the radical acceptance of reality.
We still don’t know enough about this virus. There still aren’t any drugs that can stop the course of the disease or decisively mitigate its symptoms. A vaccine has not yet been found. And nobody knows how long it will take. We have no choice but to learn to live with the epidemic.
We do know, however, that the virus spreads exponentially and that a fifth of all those infected become seriously or even critically ill. We don’t know precisely what the death rate is in a well-functioning health care system, but medical professionals believe it to be around 1 percent. It is primarily the elderly who are at risk. We also know that we cannot allow the virus to continue spreading unchecked, because an exponential rise in the number of infections would overwhelm our hospitals and increase the death rate.
That isn’t alarmism, it’s just the facts rooted in logic and mathematics. It is important to slow down the number of infections and spread them out over a longer timeframe, and there are ways to do that. It is easy to see from countries that are a few weeks, or even just a few days, ahead of Germany — places like China, South Korea and Italy — what is in store for us here: It starts with the cancellation of large events and the closure of schools and universities. It then continues with the sealing off of entire cities, regions and even countries — draconian quarantine measures affecting millions of people. Borders will be closed, public life will go into hibernation and shops will shut their doors for a time. At some point, production could slow down as a result of the plunge in consumption. The logic of the virus could mean that it won’t just paralyze individual countries, but the entire world. It would be a first in the history of humanity, which has grown closer together than ever before and has thus become more vulnerable.
In Germany, we are still in the early stages when it comes to the number of infections and the severity of the measures imposed to stem the spread. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet have been accused of doing too little, their reluctance to move quickly likely a function of the desire to limit damage to the economy. But the facts of the epidemic hardly allow for such an approach. The chances are high that Germany, too, will soon slow to a stop. That’s not panic. It’s logic.
The question is how long the standstill will last. The longer it lasts, the greater the disruption to the global economy will be. Stock exchanges have already had a brutal week.
We will have little choice but to withdraw into our private dens while governments do all they can to protect their populations. But the coronavirus itself and the consequences it will have for the global economy can only be addressed globally.
But it isn’t all bad news. Around the world, scientists are busy researching the coronavirus, outfitted with significant funding. That effort, too, is likely unprecedented in human history. It gives us cause for hope.