The US was a world leader in vaccination. What went wrong?

“The United States started its vaccination drive with a structural advantage. It had the most generous supply of Covid vaccines, along with Israel, thanks to investments made to procure doses before the vaccines were approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.”

“Demographics may also be holding the US back to a degree. America has more young people than most Western European countries: About 16 percent of Germany’s population is under 18 versus about 22 percent of the US’s, to give one example. Children under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines in the US (or anywhere else), which may be partly depressing its vaccination share.
But there is more to the story than supply quirks or demographic trends.

Compared to a country like Portugal, now a world leader in Covid vaccinations, the United States’ vaccination rates for its eligible population are not particularly strong, either. In Portugal, 99 percent of people over age 65 are fully vaccinated; in the US, the share is closer to 80 percent. Those disparities persist in the younger age cohorts: 85 percent of Portuguese people ages 25 to 49 are fully vaccinated versus less than 70 percent of the Americans in the same age range.

Another big difference that explains that divergence is one of culture and politics. Covid vaccinations have become, like so much of America’s pandemic response, polarized along political lines. As of July, 86 percent of Democrats said they were vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while only 54 percent of Republicans said the same. One in five Republicans said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine.

“This political divide over vaccines has contributed to the US falling behind European countries when it comes to coverage levels,” Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me.

There are pockets of vaccine hesitancy in Europe, especially in Germany and France, but nothing on the scale of what we have seen in the United States. In Portugal, as reflected in its exemplary vaccination rate, skeptics have a very low public profile.

“We don’t need to convince people to get vaccinated,” Gonçalo Figueiredo Augusto, who studies public health at NOVA University Lisbon, told me over Zoom. “People want to.””

Germany’s (sort of) change elections

“German election officials released results for the parliamentary elections, putting the Social Democrats (SPD) ahead with 25.7 percent of the vote. They narrowly beat the conservatives Merkel had helmed for almost two decades, who won 24.1 percent.”

“The SPD’s slim victory showed a vote for change — of sorts. For the first time in 16 years, a center-left party will have the most seats in the Bundestag, or German parliament.”

Biden’s globe-spanning foreign policy problems awaken his GOP opponents

““Ted Cruz is making it very hard on him,” Murphy said bluntly of the Texas Republican senator. “Ted Cruz is holding up every single State Department nominee right now, so the Republican strategy is to try to make it as hard as possible for President Biden to manage crises around the world.”

Cruz, who is widely considered a possible candidate in the next presidential cycle, has held up Biden’s nominees to key national-security positions. He says it’s an effort to encourage the administration to fully implement congressionally mandated sanctions for the controversial Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream II.”

“Biden has declined to fully impose those sanctions — which could have crippled the pipeline — as the German government pushes for its completion. The president has said he wants to patch up U.S. alliances with European allies like Germany, which suffered under Trump.”

US and Germany have Nord Stream 2 deal, but lack authority to implement it

“A day after the U.S. and Germany announced a deal allowing the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, top officials conceded that neither the White House nor the Chancellery have the authority to implement some of its most crucial components.

As a huge outcry went up from opponents of the Russia-led pipeline project, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that her agreement with President Joe Biden hardly settled their political disagreements, and that much remained uncertain.

“The agreement with the U.S. government does not cement the differences, but it does not overcome all differences either,” Merkel said at a news conference. “The differences remain.” Of the deal, she added: “It is an attempt between the U.S. government and us to set certain conditions that also have to be implemented.

“I am glad that we have succeeded so far,” Merkel continued. “And we also have a lot of tasks ahead.”

Those tasks are hardly small and include overcoming fierce opposition from some members of the United States Congress, persuading some extremely dubious EU countries to get on board, and convincing Russia to liberalize its energy sector, divest itself of the €9.5 billion pipeline, and pay Ukraine some additional €20 billion through 2034 to make up for the loss of gas transit fees — which the new pipeline would effectively render unnecessary.

While some influential Germans — notably former chancellor and current Nord Stream 2 chairman of the board Gerhard Schröder — have been instrumental in securing the pipeline’s completion, Berlin may have little to no influence over Moscow once construction is done and gas is flowing.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat on the foreign relations committee who co-authored U.S. sanctions legislation targeting the pipeline, said she was “skeptical” of the deal given that “the key player at the table — Russia — refuses to play by the rules.””

Germany contained Covid-19. Politics brought it back.

“In the span of a few months, Germany has gone from a shining example of a country that rallied the public behind a Covid-19 strategy to a cautionary tale about what can happen when that strategy falls apart.”

“Unified, clear public health communication saved lives — but as the months dragged on, it was no match for shifting national politics, a fragmented system of government, and a public so tired of the pandemic that they came up with a word for the exhaustion: “coronamüde.”

Germany still reports about two-thirds the Covid-19 deaths per capita as the rest of the EU, and about half the per capita death toll of the US. But its lead has shrunk over time”

“In September, after Germany’s summer of freedom, Oktoberfest arrived. Munich’s iconic festival was canceled, but some beer halls around Germany held their own celebrations. Organizers claimed the gatherings were regulated with masking and social distancing requirements.
But in reality, many Germans came together, maskless, by the dozens in indoor spaces, sitting tightly across long tables as they drank beer, yelled, and laughed — spitting all over each other particles that can carry the coronavirus and transmit the disease.

It was emblematic of the kind of freedom, beyond Oktoberfest, that Germans embraced when they came back home from summer holidays, pouring into risky indoor spaces and disregarding some of the precautions recommended by experts and officials to contain Covid-19.”

“Officials seemed content to keep letting the virus spread at a faster rate, letting things get worse bit by bit. Some state leaders resisted anything resembling a lockdown; North Rhine-Westphalia School Minister Yvonne Gebauer, bolstered by regional cases dropping to the national average, argued masks in classrooms were “no longer necessary.”

These state leaders were backed by vocal anti-lockdown segments of the population, which marched in the streets in August to oppose Covid-related restrictions. The initial success against the virus — and the short-term economic damage a lockdown would bring — had also left more of the public cool on the need for harsher rules.

By the end of October, the scenario Merkel warned about early in the pandemic when she explained exponential spread to a worldwide audience, came true: Daily new Covid-19 cases in Germany multiplied by seven times in the span of the month.

The success of the past few months had built complacency, and the federal system that allowed Jena to experiment with masks now suffocated further progress. The country’s 16 state governments and Merkel’s federal government couldn’t come to an agreement until it was too late, after they saw the results of exponential spread firsthand.”

“Public fatigue with Covid-19 — that coronamüde — also played a role. Based on his own analysis, Christian Karagiannidis, a researcher and ICU doctor at Witten/Herdecke University, told me that the second set of lockdowns was only “50 percent [as effective] as that from the first wave.” He added, “People are more or less fed up. They are tired. They are not adherent to the measures that were implemented by the German government.””

“Merkel appeared to see much of this coming. As Germany prepared to reopen last summer, she called the country’s success in fighting Covid-19 at the time “fragile,” adding that Germany should be “smart and careful” in the coming months, regularly reevaluating the rules it set in place. But Merkel’s constant message of caution ultimately wasn’t enough to counter a fragmented federalist system — especially as politicians began competing to eventually replace her.”

“German solidarity had major systemic forces stacked against it: a federalist system, a political battle to replace Merkel as head of the government, and a long pandemic that fatigued populations across Europe and the rest of the globe.”

How One European Pipeline Is Derailing Biden’s ‘America Is Back’ Promise

“The issue is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is slated to bring up to 55 billion cubic meters a year of natural gas from Russia to Germany and is within a few months of completion. A bipartisan coalition in Congress aims to thwart what it views as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to acquire political leverage over Europe by hooking it on Russian gas. Now, lawmakers are pressuring the Biden administration to implement the sanctions they already passed.”

“Biden himself has said that the pipeline is “a bad deal for Europe” but is reportedly reluctant to move forward with sanctions that would affect a critical ally. In the face of Congressional demands for maximal action that will kill the pipeline — an outcome that may not even be possible — senior aides are searching for a measure that would get Congress off the boil without causing a breach with Berlin.
If no middle position can be found, and the administration capitulates to Congress, one senior Berlin official worries, the result may be “a major portion of the CDU/CSU [the allied Christian Democrats and Bavarian Christian Social Union] turning against the U.S.” Germany’s center-right coalition has held the chancellery for all but 20 of the postwar German republic’s 72 years in existence. Such a breach with what has arguably been the most consistently pro-American party in Europe, the official adds, “hasn’t happened in the history of this republic.” The insult to Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump singled out for particularly offensive treatment and who is now coming to the end of her 16-year tenure, would be unforgettable.”

“Russia may richly deserve the punitive treatment, but whatever damage a new round of sanctions implementation will inflict on Russia will be relatively minor compared to the harm to the U.S.-German bilateral relationship at a genuinely critical moment. Washington is looking to Europe — with Germany in the lead — to craft complementary policies to manage an emboldened China. On issues like setting standards and regulating the cyber world, only a U.S.-European effort could block Chinese ambitions. Washington also hopes Germany and its EU partners will help stop Chinese efforts to control a range of international agencies and provide a united front on Chinese human rights abuses. Breathing new life into NATO, revitalizing the Iran nuclear deal and, ironically, managing Vladimir Putin are other areas where German support will be essential.”

“Congress is so determined to whack Russia that it is threatening to undermine the very transatlantic alliances that are essential for countering Russia over the long-term. But that is the result of Capitol Hill’s trouble with setting priorities and an ingrained bad habit — specifically, the habit of slapping on sanctions whenever it doesn’t like something. American legislators appear to have forgotten that so-called “secondary” or “extraterritorial” sanctions, which affect not only countries that have done things that are wrong (Russia invading and annexing Crimea) but also countries that have done things within their rights (doing business with Russia), are considered by the rest of the world to be a violation of international law.”

“the case that sanctions advocates make is questionable at best. The notion that Putin will ensnare Europe in an energy stranglehold is far-fetched. Europe has been diversifying its energy sources for decades and now receives less than 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, down from 80 percent in 1990. There is also little evidence that Germany’s substantial Russian gas imports over decades have affected Germany policies toward Russia. Nothing stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel from taking the lead in criticizing Moscow for the poisoning of Navalny, who was flown to Berlin, where he recuperated. (Trump questioned whether the Russian government was behind the poisoning.) Nor can Germany be accused of weakness when it comes to the sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea or occupation of eastern Ukraine.
In recent years, German natural gas consumption has fluctuated in a small band, and while it may grow as nuclear energy and coal are phased out, that will be offset to a significant degree by the rapid growth in renewable energy. Germany is a global leader in the field with renewables comprising 18 percent of total energy consumption and powering more than 45 percent of electricity generation. Moreover, a completed Nord Stream 2 would likely not mean substantially greater exports of Russian gas to Europe. It would just mean that less gas comes to Europe in pipelines that transit Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. (Concern about diminished gas transit fees have led Ukraine and Poland to be among the vociferous lobbyists for killing Nord Stream 2.)

Against this backdrop and with ample historical experience, the Germans plausibly argue that they will not be in the thrall of the Kremlin. The key dependence, they argue, will run in the other direction, with an economically ramshackle Russia urgently needing euro payments for its gas, a point endorsed by experts such as Eugene Rumer, the former top U.S. intelligence community Russia watcher.

There are ways to achieve a solution with Germany that will avoid a train wreck. Many German politicians — including Greens who hate to see more fossil fuels flowing into the country and policymakers who hate having any business with Russia — think the pipeline was a dumb idea from the start, but relations with the Trump administration were too toxic to sort things out, and the project is now too close to completion to abandon. There is ample room for negotiation.

Former German Ambassador to the U.S. Wolfgang Ischinger has suggested that Germany make the flow of gas conditional on improvements in Russian behavior. Responding to the argument that Russia will divert gas that now transits Ukraine to Nord Stream 2 and starve that country of much-needed transit fees, Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. envoy to Ukraine, argues for insisting on a Russian guarantee that it will continue pumping at least 40 billion cubic meters of gas through Ukraine, as it is now doing, beyond 2024, when the current deal runs out. No doubt there are other possible approaches as well.

What there is no substitute for in global politics is a strengthened transatlantic alliance — historically the most important for American statecraft — and that is something that won’t happen if the strongest country in Europe, Germany, feels dissed.”

Germany tightens coronavirus restrictions as cases reach record high

“The sudden rise of infections caused surprise among many politicians and had led to a sudden shift of opinion in recent days, as some of Germany’s regional leaders had previously resisted calls from Merkel to adopt swifter measures. The latest numbers are notably worse than Merkel’s own prediction in late September, when she warned that Germany could have 19,200 daily new cases by Christmas if it did not introduce further restrictions.
Speaking on Sunday, the chancellor made an “urgent” appeal to citizens to respect the rules and thanked health care workers: “For them it will be a very hard Christmas.””