Learning from the Pandemic
Director of Programs and Grants
Susanne Dieper is the Director of Programs and Grants at AICGS. She oversees the Institute’s programs and projects within the three AICGS program areas, manages all AICGS fellowships, and is in charge of grant writing. Her current focus is on issues related to transatlantic relations, immigration and integration, diversity, the next generation of leaders, workforce education, and reconciliation. She develops programs that align with the mission of AICGS to better understand the challenges and choices facing Germany and the United States in a broader global arena.
Previously, Ms. Dieper was in charge of organizational and project management at AICGS as well as human resource development and board of trustees relations. Prior to joining AICGS, she worked in transatlantic exchange programs, language acquisition, as well as the insurance industry in Germany.
Ms. Dieper holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University with a concentration in International Business and an MA in English Linguistics and Literature, History, and Spanish from the University of Cologne. She has completed course work in nonprofit management at Johns Hopkins University.
Transatlantic Solutions to Global Crises
The AGI project “Transatlantic Cooperation in Times of Global Crises – Opportunity and Imperative for Cooperation” took an expanded look at how Germany and the United States were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath and how the two governments responded. The project set out to explore which existing structures and institutions proved pertinent during the pandemic, which policy tools were applied to mitigate the effects on the two societies and economies, and what lessons can be drawn from the experience that will shape the responses to future crises. A group of stellar scholars and experts from Germany and the United States focused on three topic areas that are of particular relevance to each country and for the German-American partnership:
- A nation’s foremost concern during a global public health crisis should be the well-being of its citizens. Both Germany and the United States boast excellent healthcare systems which, nevertheless, exposed significant faults and shortages during different phases of the pandemic. The project analyzed similarities and differences in the two systems, areas of needed reforms and success stories, as well as the possibilities of transatlantic coalition building between different actors amid a health crisis.
- Transatlantic communities have witnessed the proliferation of false and misleading information as well as conspiracy theories in the past several years, only to accelerate as a direct consequence of the pandemic. Experts discussed the extent to which false information and conspiracies have infiltrated every corner of society and evaluated different approaches to stem the adverse consequences for democracies, their people, and institutions.
- As the United States and Germany tried to rebuild their economies during and after the pandemic, the project considered the varying elements of the transatlantic economic systems and the means and mechanisms that each country implemented with the goal to help populations weather unemployment and financial strain.
Transatlantic experts examined these topics in a series of webinars, articles, and podcasts. The following paper summarizes the most prominent issues and solutions that were discussed and put forth over eighteen months in 2021 and 2022. AGI is grateful to the project contributors for their research and thoughtful exploration of the issues and the solutions they offered. This publication supports AGI’ss endeavor to strengthen the partnership between the two countries through transatlantic cooperation during times of crises. With this project, AGI has managed to further expand the transatlantic network of experts and organizations that, on a daily basis, deal with important matters that impact the two countries’ democracies. AGI is particularly pleased to welcome new voices to the German-American exchange and the AGI network of transatlantic expertise.
The paper, under each of the three topic areas, first describes the most prominent issues that arose in both countries during the pandemic and then offers solutions and potential for transatlantic cooperation. Unless otherwise noted, references and further details on the particular issues can be found on the project website.
The next global crises are already underway, prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022; the ensuing energy crisis and high rates of inflation, affecting ordinary citizens in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere; and, above all, the global climate crisis, which will have implications for all societies for decades to come. The need for transatlantic cooperation to address these issues is as urgent as ever, also due to the significant threat posed to our democracies. AGI hopes to make a small contribution to the effort of finding ways to mitigate the consequences of these crises.
COVID-19 and the German and U.S. Healthcare Systems
Viruses do not stop at borders, and the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has affected the global population to varying degrees. The COVID-19 pandemic has followed a similar trajectory in Germany and the United States but has had somewhat different outcomes in terms of numbers. While the United States has seen fewer cases of infections, the death rate attributable to the coronavirus is much higher. The per capita death rate in the United States is seven times higher than in Germany. This development may be the result of poorer public health in the United States in general. Life expectancy in the United States in 2019 was 78.8 years compared to 81.35 in Germany. In addition, unlike in Germany, the distribution of medical insurance and medical care is not uniform. Health insurance in the United States that is provided to citizens through private employer plans cover 61 percent of the population; Medicare and Medicaid, the vehicles for federally funded healthcare insurance, cover 30 percent, leaving 9 percent of Americans uninsured. Coverage is not the same across the board; e.g., Medicaid, for those who are poor, is a state-run initiative, with the result that coverage differs from state to state.
Not surprisingly, those segments of society that were hit hardest by the pandemic in terms of deaths were older people as well as people of color, who died at a much faster rate than white Americans. This phenomenon was also noticeable in Germany, albeit at a lower level, and gives further credence to the significance of the Social Determinants of Health (SDH) as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). These determinants include the conditions of age and where people are born, grow, work, and live and greatly influence people’s health over their lifetimes.
A health perspective should be based in social justice and equitable resource allocation.
In both Germany and the United States, healthcare is a federalized system. While in Germany the same approach applies to all sixteen states, the U.S. federal system allows for different approaches and innovative applications at the state level. This has undoubtedly resulted in a split in the impact of the pandemic as well as its politicization. When a majority of Republican politicians and voters by and large opposed the federally-imposed vaccine and masking mandates, these decisions were reflected in the devastating consequences for some Republican-dominated districts in the United States. At the same time, guidance from federal healthcare actors, like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Medicare, the federal health insurance (mostly) for older people, have been adopted more or less universally by a plurality of states, regardless of political affiliation, which has led most hospitals to adopt an incident command system and follow a standardized way of distributing healthcare, two important healthcare structures that proved crucial during the pandemic.
The pandemic has revealed certain bottlenecks and weaknesses in the German healthcare system as well. While these problems could have been compensated for during normal times, they came to the fore and caused significant constraints during the pandemic. Coordinated hospital planning has been neglected in Germany for decades and the overburdening of hospital workers was partly a result of a lack of increased outpatient care. The situation for nurses in Germany has been particularly disastrous, revealing a nurse-to-patient ratio of about one to thirteen. This shortage of nurses and caretakers in nursing homes is expected to increase even further in the coming months and years unless remedies are found.
In addition to the devastating effect the pandemic has had on patients’ physical and mental health, it has also drastically affected the healthcare system and its workers in general. In the United States, the physical and emotional toll the virus has had on the workforce has been immeasurable. The risk of medical providers contracting the virus is higher as their exposure to COVID-19 patients increases. The burden of the pandemic clearly has been placed on healthcare workers in both countries. The United States struggled to confront this issue with frontline workers, who often belong to marginalized groups themselves and who are putting their lives and those of their families, in particular during the early stages of the pandemic, at risk. Workers have routinely faced new stress levels impacting their own lives and safety, they have been forced to adapt to rapidly changing work procedures, have been put off-balance by new challenges and procedures, and have been confronted with never seen before conflicts brought to them by patients, their family members, and other hospital visitors. Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, when many healthcare workers themselves became sick and/or died, the mental and physical effects on the care staff led to anger, frustration, and exhaustion that were followed by burnout and anxiety, depression and distress, prompting many to leave the profession. As a result, the healthcare provider-patient ratio in the United States has suffered, and with it the healthcare system. The pandemic has demonstrated that the mental health of the provider plays an increasingly important role in caring for the ill.
The pandemic has also demonstrated that trust in government and experts in both countries is crucial and that governments must work hard to retain the trust of their citizens in a public health crisis. The governments in both countries were responsible for several missteps regarding the implementation of regulations that resulted in a loss of trust among the population. For example, mask wearing was not clearly articulated across the board, and in Germany, early missteps regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine led to the withdrawal of the vaccine from distribution, even though it was generally believed that the vaccine’s efficacy outweighed any risks. This also led to a hesitant acceptance of the other available vaccines. Germany faced the challenge of combining clear regulations from the federal government with more decentralized applications that took local situations into account. Different states in Germany experienced varying rates of infections and as a result, implemented different rules during lockdown periods. States were able to implement COVID-19 protection laws as they saw fit. This patchwork of laws and regulations in part prevented the government from launching a cohesive vaccination campaign. In the early stages of the pandemic, the vaccine rollout in Germany lagged behind that in the United States quite dramatically. The absence of an effective strategy to increase vaccination rates in Germany led to hospitals reaching capacity in several regions across the country.
In addition, Germany, after it had experienced initial success in containing the virus, did not implement further restrictions to cope with subsequent variants. When infection rates fell in both countries, it was politically unattractive to re-implement prevention measures. This demonstrates that coping with a pandemic represents less of a healthcare system issue than a matter of decisive political action that aligns both individual and public interests. This is a balancing act that both countries have faced. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians were much more inclined to listen to the voices of a loud minority, which not only drove up infections but also influenced policy. There have also been very few consequences for those who do not want to get vaccinated and do not want to contribute to the public good of ‘herd immunity.’
In contrast to the United States, the lack of digitization is a considerable and widely recognized problem in the German system even without a global crisis, which will have negative consequences for treatment as well as the prevention of illnesses in the future. The high workload of personnel in hospitals and long-term care facilities points to the underfunding of hospitals by the federal states, and it can only be ameliorated through efficient workforce planning based on a digitized system.
Increased digitization of hospitals could also lead to better staff planning and thus relieve the workload of nursing staff, which in turn could increase the attractiveness of the profession and improve patient care. — Christine Arentz and Ines Läufer, “Challenges for the German Healthcare System in the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond“
Neither Germany nor the United States effectively handled data presentation and crisis communication related to the pandemic. The result was a drop in satisfaction with public health officials and the government. Mangled messages led to confusion and eventually caused a lack of trust. In the case of the Monkey Pox virus situation in the United States, it appears that health officials learned a lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic and tailored their warnings toward behavioral changes by the public. Only with clear messaging can a country adequately and effectively tackle a health crisis.
The United States by and large bungled its public policy response to the pandemic, especially compared to South Korea, which recorded its first cases of COVID-19 at the same time as the United States but has so far only lost .1 percent of its population to the disease as opposed to 1.1 percent in the United States. The health risks were not communicated appropriately in the United States. Although vaccination was implemented much faster in the United States than in Germany, its distribution was initially unequal. Both countries also observed that the public maintained trust in local hospitals and healthcare providers, while official experts face politically-motivated distrust. But because general practitioners are not perceived as being part of the expert advisory system, they cannot be the main actors who build trust among the German and U.S. publics.
Solutions and Lessons Learned
No healthcare system is or can be perfect and gaps inevitably exist, which will become particularly visible during a crisis. The gaps in the system in both countries that became obvious as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic need to be addressed immediately and certainly prior to the next crisis.
Effective communication during a crisis is key. A spokesperson like Anthony Fauci, chief member of the Coronavirus Task Force during the pandemic in the United States, who articulates what people should do in an understandable way is important. Having a national voice, like Dr. Fauci and the CDC in the United States and the Robert Koch Institut (RKI) and the federal minister of health in Germany, has proven to be key. During the pandemic, both countries learned the value of communication. This also speaks to the loss of trust both governments have witnessed. Transparency with the public and a straightforward, truthful, and impartial communication strategy is vital for the implementation of a cohesive healthcare strategy.
Even with an advanced healthcare system like in Germany, the best system cannot cope with high infection rates during a pandemic if the public does not follow issued guidelines. This leads back to effective communication, which in Germany was strong at the beginning of the pandemic but then leveled off. In both countries, it was not properly communicated that vaccines, while protecting individuals from severe symptoms and hospitalization, do not necessarily prevent infections. The public felt blindsided and lost trust in the efficacy of the vaccines and the government’s messaging. Going forward, both countries would be well advised to develop the field of public health communication. This type of communication strategy would ensure that during a public health crisis, effective measures are finding their way into people’s homes. Democratic societies need to empower their citizens with information, and health guidelines need to be properly articulated, supported, and updated by other institutions, including schools and public venues, like restaurants.
An agenda toward building a more robust public health communications infrastructure would involve collecting and formalizing this knowledge and supporting international collaboration to elevate public health communication as a distinct and valuable professional discipline. — Marjorie K. Connolly, “Transatlantic Pandemic Response Shortcomings Highlight Need for More Robust Public Health Communications Infrastructure“
The value of data and digitization of health records have proven advantageous during a crisis, and their value has been generally accepted. While the United States had invested heavily in digitizing health records and in its national and local vaccine registry even before the pandemic, Germany is lagging far behind in terms of digitization. When the early months of the pandemic had a devastating effect on minority populations in the United States, the country was able to use the available data to identify these disparities and implement tailored campaigns that targeted vulnerable populations in certain jurisdictions. The results show that infection and death rates for black, Latino, and white populations are largely the same now. In Germany, the experience during the pandemic may function as an accelerator for digitizing health records.
The importance of mental health has also been highlighted during the pandemic and become more prominent and less stigmatized. People acknowledge more readily now that everybody is anxious and nervous at times and in certain situations. The need for mental health services should be made a priority in both countries. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in September 2022 issued a recommendation that primary care physicians screen every adult for anxiety—clearly a nod to the mental health crisis the country is experiencing and which has worsened during the pandemic. The reframing of health is becoming increasingly important.
In addition, social determinants should be made part of the medical record of every patient. These include the patient’s level of education, access to healthcare services, economic stability, social and community context, as well as cell phone coverage availability. A health perspective should be based in social justice and equitable resource allocation. Both Germany and the United States can and should implement a holistic healthcare perspective and, as democracies, invest in proposing this not only at the national but also the global level.
In Germany, public health services had been neglected, and local public health departments are understaffed, underfunded, and non-digitized. Local departments played an important role in detecting and tracking infections during the pandemic, which demonstrates that all government departments need to include health as a priority. These departments received an increase in funding in late September 2020 through the Covenant for the Public Health Service (Pakt für den Öffentlichen Gesundheitsdienst), which is also in line with recommendations issued by the WHO. The severe floods that occurred in several German regions in July 2021 similarly demonstrated that public health departments depend on support from other policy areas.
Both countries must address the drastic shortage of healthcare workers. Working conditions in the healthcare profession in both countries are less than ideal, and demographic change, especially in Germany, will increase the need for nursing home and long-term care professionals in years to come. In addition to ensuring that both countries have enough healthcare providers, training of medical professionals needs to include recognizing and evaluating the social determinants that influence health risks. If the information is digitally available, medical providers can better assess their patients’ needs and vulnerabilities. Several measures can find application here: making the profession more attractive, publicly recognized, and better compensated. Given the shortage of workers across crucial industries in Germany in the future, immigration policies need to be adjusted to allow more foreign workers to join the workforce. However, the costs poorer countries pay when large numbers of their workforce leave need to be considered at the same time.
Considering the high cost of burnout among hospital workers during the current pandemic, it is more important now than perhaps ever before to implement approaches to improve the working conditions of our essential healthcare providers. — Rebecca Emeny, “Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic“
There is also a clear need to strengthen a strong scientific community that is uniformly trusted by the public. The effective use of data (a good example is the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard that was used in several countries outside of the United States, including Germany), better public health communication, as well as closer cooperation between institutions, also across the Atlantic and disciplines, are a few examples. The advisory system in both countries should be rebalanced, strategies and communication concepts to counter anti-science skepticism enhanced, and a cross-border exchange and evaluation of experiences, data, and strategies pursued. The public needs to understand that science is not perfect and develops continuously. Linking pandemic policies and the advice of health experts who became public experts provoked opposition and mistrust in both countries. During a pandemic, it is important that science is not pushed aside in favor of political gain and discredited as a result. Ways need to be found to effectively combine science-based expertise and efficient communication. The pandemic has clearly functioned as a stress test for political institutions in a democratic system and their ability to inform the public. Effective public health communication ought to be elevated, especially in times when the liberal international system is being challenged by autocratic leaders around the world looking to undermine and discredit democracies.
COVID-19, Fake News, and Conspiracy Theories
Although conspiracy theories and false information have always been used to influence people and have been spreading around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic and its universal impact on people, combined with around-the-clock accessibility to news and information in the 21st century, have elevated these movements and brought them into virtually every household. The proliferation of misinformation, disinformation, and false information, words that are used interchangeably and whose actual meanings likely elude the average person, lie at the heart of conspiracy theories. Our digitally-oriented news and information environment is full of incorrect and misleading information. The international community, in particular democratic institutions that care about truth, has been challenged by a pandemic and, as the United Nations (UN) has termed it, an infodemic. Much like the coronavirus, modern social and information conditions have made it possible for the infodemic to spread widely.
The world has paid increased attention to the issue of false information, in part because the information ecosystem has allowed false or misleading information to be shared faster and easier than ever before. The surge in attention has occurred at many levels: mainstream and social media, politics, and private homes. Unfortunately, increased attention does not automatically translate into recognition or awareness of false information or how it is weaponized. Generally, the average citizen has a weak understanding of how social media and the mainstream media work, and the public is largely misinformed when it comes to what is true and what is not. Black-and-white thinking prevails among the general public, and the distinction between a true fact, a fact that is intended to mislead, and a lie is often unrecognized. The pandemic has aggravated this situation, in no small part because there has been so much uncertainty surrounding the source and causes of and the tools against the coronavirus. For example, the efficacy of wearing a mask and what kind during a pandemic has been hotly debated in the United States and Germany, leading many people to spurn a mask altogether. Uncertainty regarding many pandemic-related issues persists and often breeds distrust in government among members of the public.
Complicating matters is the fact that high-quality, unbiased information does not necessarily lead to a better-informed citizen. People generally choose what to believe based on whether the information conforms to their deeply held identities and world views. Motivated reasoning leads people to explain things away and interpret information in a certain direction. And the fact that there is plenty of ‘other’ information available makes it easy to ignore honest and truthful details. Both countries have struggled with these developments.
We are operating in an information ecosystem where information is rapidly spread across the world much faster than we have ever seen and with much greater ease than we have ever seen before. This makes mis- and disinformation feel more powerful. — Rebekah Tromble, “Episode 63: Trust, Media Literacy, and Regulation“
The United States has had a long history of delegitimizing the press and one political party in particular has endeavored to pull people away from the mainstream media. The pandemic has seen a growing number of influencers on social media who talk about the pandemic, share their unhappiness with the way the government has handled the situation, and dole out advice, which is subsequently shared widely. Many different actors have a platform in the new information ecosystem. This has contributed to serious journalism being sidelined and its status in the public sphere has been gravely diminished. Because news organizations do not always think long-term and are concerned with, and often depend on, the bottom line, the way false information is amplified has largely not been properly addressed.
Conspiracy theories are part of the taxonomy of mis-, dis-, and mal-information. Although there is ongoing disagreement among practitioners and scholars about the best definition of bad information, there is no doubt that the confusion can worsen the problem, lead to politicization, and undermine trust among the public. In fact, the omnipresent reference to “fake news” is misleading because “news” is not necessarily incorrect but is being manipulated and presented in a way that can be harmful. There is a breadth of different types of conspiracy theories, routed in the degree of harm they can exert: at the extreme end they can represent a severe threat to democratic institutions or lead to violence, and sometimes they simply provide comic entertainment for people, as the example of “Birds aren’t real” demonstrates.
Because it is difficult to measure which information is false or what the intention behind spreading the information is, the extent to which the public is confronted with false information is impossible to comprehend. What is clear is that people’s identities are easily tied to certain ideologies and theories. Every human being subscribes to some misinformation because everybody conforms to a certain belief system and puts their trust in certain authorities. The more we are tied to an identity, the more likely we are to subscribe to a certain theory even if it is not true. Extremist actors use this to their advantage and pull more people into their orbit, which can have detrimental consequences for society and democracy.
The pandemic has been a boon for conspiracy theorists because all humans become vulnerable when something unbelievable, like the COVID-19 pandemic, happens that they cannot explain. When whole countries shut down because of a virus that is spreading rapidly, certain belief systems do not hold true anymore; people panic and feel out of control. The ensuing uncertainty and anxiety create a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Both Germany and the United States have had their unique experiences with tailored false news and conspiracy theories. The most prominent movements in Germany, the Querdenker, and the United States, the QAnon movement, have used the pandemic to instill doubt in democratic institutions and government measures. Their premise is that secret powers are controlling the countries’ politicians. Both movements existed before the pandemic and were able to draw on people’s vulnerabilities laid bare by the unusual circumstances the pandemic presented. Malignant actors recognize that their efforts to recruit people to their ranks are more successful in times of great uncertainties. Their intention is to give agency to people who have lost trust in their leaders to successfully cope with a crisis.
When whole countries shut down because of a virus that is spreading rapidly, certain belief systems do not hold true anymore; people panic and feel out of control. The ensuing uncertainty and anxiety create a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Both countries also have had experience with movements that engage in political resistance. The infringement on people’s freedom ranks at the top of the reasons for resistance and resonates with citizens, routinely in the United States, but also in Germany, particularly during extraordinary times. The potential for violence is dramatic and amplified by the liberal gun culture in the United States. Even Germany has seen an uptick in violence and the fact that conspiracy theories like QAnon spread across nations increases the urgency to address and counter these movements. In Germany, government regulations that target untruthful content have so far not been a priority; the focus has predominantly been on hate speech, not lies or misinformation. For historical reasons, Germany is more concerned with excessive influence exerted by its national government. The protection of human rights, and with it the freedom of expression, is generally considered paramount and makes any attempt at intervention precarious. For example, the German Federal Court of Justice has conferred the right to manage content to the media platforms, which includes the right to delete certain content and ban certain actors. However, even eliminating certain actors and qualifying content often serves to harden the beliefs of the consumers that they are being manipulated and lectured, with the result that questionable information is spread further.
Solutions and Lessons Learned
Mainstream and social media platforms in Germany and the United States, sometimes inadvertently, serve as multipliers for wrong or misleading information. Even when information is fact-checked and corrected, false ideas spread widely and become amplified. The press and social media outlets need to correct this. The information ecosystem should be more selective when publicizing certain claims. There are very few tools democratic governments can employ to counter or prevent false or misleading claims, because the concept of freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a free society. However, scrutinizing financial incentives of media outlets in publicizing certain claims can become an effective prevention tool.
The criminal law in Germany and the United States faces limitations as far as regulating lies or false information is concerned. Unless clear threats against individuals or the state are issued, criminal prosecution is extremely difficult. The European Union (EU) has employed a paralegal approach, as evident in its successful efforts against disinformation from Russia (EU vs. Disinfo). A strategic communication strategy employed by governments can also serve as an active informational self-defense mechanism and guard against illegal acts that threaten the sovereignty of democratic nations like Germany and the United States. Additionally, this strategy could include the establishment of a joint transatlantic task force.
When those who should be trusted sources of information, including politicians and the mainstream media, regularly fail to condemn conspiracy theories and misleading information, they contribute to the damaging effect these lies have on society and even lend a sense of legitimacy to conspiracy theories. These actors need to recognize the dangers that exist when condoning false information and conspiracy theories. Due to the already mentioned constraints to legally regulate false or misleading information, societies as a whole are therefore tasked with improving information literacy among the public so that information can easily be classified by the individual. The public needs to recognize that mass, social, and mainstream media outlets also bear responsibility for spreading falsehoods and are thus perpetuating them. Better norms are needed to stem this behavior.
We need more education on media and social literacy as well as prevention work against radicalization. — Constanze Jeitler, “Mainstreaming Extremism or Radicalizing the Center“
Accountability is a tool that has not been applied rigorously enough when it comes to false and misleading information. Political and economic actors who benefit from false information, do not correct wrong information, or themselves peddle conspiracy theories need to face consequences. This can only be accomplished through grassroots and community actions. The recent lawsuit launched by parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims in Connecticut in 2012 against Alex Jones, a well-known conspiracy theorist, who repeatedly claimed the massacre had been a hoax, was successful and has drawn attention to the devastating effects lies can have on families who experienced devastating violence and loss. Alex Jones has been ordered to pay close to $1 billion in restitution to the families of the Sandy Hook shooting.
In the United States, political leaders do not yet face the consequences at the polls for propagating conspiracy theories and false information. Regrettably, the opposite is the case given the fact that a majority of Republican party nominees for the 2022 midterm elections are either denying or questioning the legitimacy of President Biden’s election in 2020, and approximately 60 percent of candidates who have publicly cast doubts on the validity of the elections won their general midterm election. This needs to change and every citizen in the United States and Germany who is a consumer of news and instrumental in shaping our democratic societies is responsible for letting our elected leaders know that lies are unacceptable. Citizens are tasked with fixing the problem themselves. Citizen movements like Fridays For Future or Black Lives Matter, which have found global reach, may serve as a model for citizens to demand truthful and responsible action from their political and societal leaders. Both Germany and the United States would benefit from investing in citizen movements and could engage in transatlantic coordination in this regard. Germany and the United States already have some collaborative projects at the academic level that deal with false information and conspiracy theories. There is a lot of interest and a tremendous need in the United States to learn from Germany and the EU on intervention tools. There is also room for collaboration on truly transnational narratives at the EU level that need to be tackled jointly.
As Tobias Hopp in his research has pointed out, understanding the prominent definitions used for everything contained in the ‘infodemic’ represents an important first step in addressing the situation. Determining what is true and what is not remains largely ineffective and does not affect people’s belief systems. His use of the term ‘countermedia’ provides a framework that sheds light on how and why problematic information spreads through the news and information ecosystem. Since in Germany the English word “fake news” is being widely used, a new and better term can and should find application there as well.
I typically define countermedia information as mediated content that combines produced and user-created information to generate informational narratives that seek to challenge (or counter) the depictions of reality found in traditional mainstream news content. — Tobias Hopp, “A Different Way of Thinking About ‘Fake News’“
Social media platforms are not built to include norms and regulations as we find in traditional media. Everybody can participate and be part of the discussion, and social norms and regulations are largely absent. A regulatory network similar to what exists for the German public broadcasters (ARD/ZDF) would likely aid in preventing the distribution of hate and false or misleading information that prevails on social media platforms. Unfortunately, the trust that is afforded to public broadcasters in Germany (approximately 70 percent of the population trusts ARD/ZDF) will be difficult to replicate on platforms like Facebook. Since the breakdown of social norms on these platforms does not necessarily move a majority of users into action, other rules need to find application. Nonetheless, platforms need to be taken to task and increase their efforts to diminish the proliferation of lies.
The Digital Services Act implemented in Europe will likely lead the way in the movement for platform accountability and transparency in the United States as well. Social media companies need to be transparent, just as governments are supposed to be, about what they are doing, how their algorithms work, and the effect they have on society. In the EU, social media platforms are already required to explain the logic behind their algorithms. Designing a strategy to better regulate these mechanisms depends on this information. Unfortunately, there is currently no political will or agreement among U.S. policymakers on both sides of the aisle to address this issue. A major challenge is also the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which makes any legal recourse against false and misleading information all but impossible. However, small steps are needed to increase media literacy in the United States and to support a robust media system and local journalism. Efforts to support journalism to become relevant in German and U.S. society again are key. Societies’ news literacy needs to be evaluated and the education systems redirected to support this endeavor.
There is (at least) one proven strategy to combat conspiracy theories, which includes, just as with the actual virus, inoculation of the individual consumer. Although the inoculation strategy is very effective, it has to be administered before someone has fallen into a conspiracy theory. Educating people on how to recognize the design of conspiracy theories in their news environment is crucial and gives people the tools to question certain claims, e.g., using an earlier example, how to investigate that birds are in fact real. Inoculation also educates people on the integrity of news sources, provides media literacy, and asks them to be more skeptical consumers of media. Once an individual has been exposed to a conspiracy theory or lies, disengagement is difficult to initiate, basically impossible to implement at scale, and resembles psychological therapy. Educating citizens about media literacy must therefore start early and be part of every school curriculum.
COVID-19 and the Economic Systems in the United States and Germany
The economies of the United States and Germany, like the rest of the world, were impacted dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic that started in early 2020. Significant parts of the economy came to a standstill, affecting businesses and workers alike. The year 2020 saw a dramatic drop in GDP and economic output in the United States and Germany, a development that necessitated drastic and unusual government action to allow companies and people to weather the pandemic storm.
Germany employed an already established policy of the so-called Kurzarbeit (short-time work), which allows employers to reduce their employees’ hours, and the employees receive additional pay from the government through unemployment benefits. The Kurzarbeit scheme allows employees to receive up to 67 percent of their regular salary. Prior to the pandemic, the tool had been created primarily for the manufacturing, export-oriented market, and the German government in 2020 not only extended its reach to other sectors, including the service sector but also extended the length of time workers were able to take advantage of the benefit. This tool helped both companies and employees to survive the effects of the pandemic, which shut down large segments of the economy.
The United States launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as the main response to the pandemic, which was used by small businesses to cover 100 percent of employees’ earnings (up to a certain amount). It also allowed businesses to cover operating costs. The program was less successful in reducing overall unemployment compared to the German scheme in part because it competed with another program that was launched simultaneously and extended unemployment benefits for U.S. workers.
There exists an increasing need for the global economy and international trade regime to deal more with concerns that touch upon values, national security, and climate change.
The German system was deemed more successful also because the infrastructure to administer it already existed and, unlike the United States, it did not rely on third parties (the private sector) to administer the loan. The involvement of a third party led to a delay in distributing the loan, forcing some businesses to lay off workers, and in some cases declare bankruptcy, before the payment was received. In Germany, however, large sections of society, predominantly those in marginal and low-income groups and women, were excluded from the Kurzarbeit scheme. As a result, unemployment for low-wage workers rose compared to middle- and high-income workers, leading to a perpetuation of social inequality that has been rising in Germany for some time.
Both countries passed additional stimulus packages, prompting Germany to suspend its otherwise strict fiscal policy of the “black zero” (schwarze Null), which refers to austerity and a balanced budget. The country also supported a Europe-wide recovery fund that extended to the EU’s poorer member countries, an effort that temporarily suspended the government’s insistence on austerity rules for other nations. However, structural problems in Germany persist, and the limited suspension of government spending will not have a lasting effect on correcting the shortcomings in areas like education and infrastructure investment. In addition, due to the limitations placed on federal states to spend funds, existing regional inequalities in Germany will likely continue.
The United States also experienced a largely unequal pandemic recovery period. While people in high income levels did reasonably well, those most negatively affected by the pandemic, workers in the low-income sector, people of color, and young people, continue to struggle to make ends meet. They also suffer the most from anxiety. This is a surprising result, given the fact that enormous amounts of money were spent on social policies. Those policies, including unemployment benefits and rent abatements, have since expired and many people are struggling again.
Nonetheless, the pandemic made governments aware of the fact that large segments of society need support. Protests for higher wages and better working conditions as well as efforts to unionize in the United States have also brought attention to social and economic imbalances. Both governments have been put on notice.
Solutions and Lessons Learned
The crisis could have been disastrous for Germany given its strict fiscal policies. Pragmatism, however, prevailed, and the constitutional debt brake was suspended. The new government, comprised of three parties, appears to continue the pragmatic policies and is investing in future-oriented sectors: climate and digitization. It will be important to continue to spend on crucial sectors; however, the next crisis, in the form of energy shortages and the Russian war in Ukraine, has complicated matters.
Both countries need to recognize that marginalized people should be included in policy thinking. Existing social and economic policies do not go far enough to address current inequities. Even though women are replacing men in earning college and university degrees, both economies are still favoring a male breadwinner model, at least in certain sectors. Structural changes, instead of temporary fixes, are needed in both countries. These include the awareness that the implementation of childcare provisions and parental leave policies need to be improved.
The pandemic highlighted poor working conditions in certain industries, particularly those that employ essential workers (in hospitals, services, and supply-related sectors), which provides governments and workers the opportunity to improve the working conditions in these areas. The voices of those who have suffered the most have somewhat been amplified. Social and economic policies need to follow up and invest in these workers. Both societies were made aware of the poor or difficult working conditions, especially in hospitals, nursing homes, and factories, which has led to the general consensus that those affected should be supported in their quest to improve the situation.
The pandemic has clearly affected the global economy, and Germany and the United States cannot operate in a national or bilateral vacuum. Both countries should coordinate their economic policies together with the G7 and G20 nations. The nationalization of economies was exacerbated by the pandemic, in particular regarding supply chains, protective medical equipment, and vaccine components. It will be important to build a democratic digital community that allows for the sharing of data in critical industries and during future crises. Solidarity building extends beyond Germany and the United States to other democratic nations.
We should build a democratic digital community, based on the sharing of sovereignty between like-minded governments. — Frances G. Burwell, “Do We Need a Digital Bretton Woods?“
The next crisis has arrived, and countries are trying to create measures to help households and businesses that are hit hard by increased energy prices and a lack of supplies. The pandemic has illustrated how countries are able to spend money, but the worsening inflationary situation demonstrates that spending oneself out of a crisis is not sustainable. A visionary program to invest in digitization and infrastructure, as demonstrated by the European Commission’s digital strategy and the United States through its Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, is needed across democratic countries.
Several industries in the United States have witnessed an extraordinary number of workers leaving their jobs, which has been termed the Great Resignation. This represents an incentive for policymakers to invest more in apprenticeship programs at community colleges across the country. There is bipartisan support for the enhancement of vocational education, but the U.S. Congress has not put in place a legal framework to make this happen. Germany with its dual vocational and educational training programs (VET) can provide valuable insight and experience for this purpose.
The geopolitical tensions that have arisen due to pandemic-induced supply chain restrictions and other external changes, involving Russia and China, will require that democratic countries like Germany and the United States reconfigure their bilateral economic engagements along with a general refocusing, also with other globally active organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), in order to adjust to the new reality of the digital economy.
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that trade is not just about economics; it is about shared values, democracy, free market capitalism, national security, and strong alliances between democratic societies in Europe and America. There exists an increasing need for the global economy and international trade regime to deal more with concerns that touch upon values, national security, and climate change. The search for trading partners by Germany and the United States, as well as other democratic nations, will not only be driven by economic concerns going forward. Trade relations and globalization will stay but must undergo some changes.
The United States under President Biden has been acknowledging that factors like democratic values, the environment, and labor standards are becoming extremely important as a framework for an expansion of globalization. As a result, the United States has stepped back from international trade partnerships. Future negotiations in the United States, Germany, and the EU will take these concerns into account.
Climate change represents the most existential threat that the world is facing, and Germany and the United States are tasked with implementing climate-appropriate policies, although no nation will step back from advancing living standards and economic well-being. There are available instruments that can be applied to tackle current and future crises, and the restoration of the transatlantic economic relationship provides a basis for joint action to tackle common challenges. Germany and the United States must do more for their citizens and the global community.
Public trust in government leaders and policies during a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic has been a key component for democratic nations like the United States and Germany to successfully weather the storm. When a breakdown of trust occurs, democratic policies are bound to fail or have very limited success at best. Hence, strategic, consistent, and honest communication on the part of democratic leaders plays a vital role in times of crises. While autocratic leaders rule by fear, democracies function through clear and truthful messaging. These key concepts emerged as vital in the three areas this project explored and will remain important for our nations’ leaders to consider during future calamities. Current inflationary developments across the globe, the energy crunch, increasing migration movements, and the ever-present climate change challenge are putting high demands on democratic countries by their citizens to alleviate the consequences. The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated what works and what does not, and both Germany and the United States need to employ the best tools and strategies at their disposal and continue to work together.
This paper is part of the AGI project “The Importance of the Transatlantic Partnership in Times of Global Crises” and is generously funded by the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).