How COVID-19 and disinformation threaten the United States and Germany


For a significant part of the last two years, the United States and Germany were polar opposites with regards to their success in handling COVID-19. While the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the virus left states effectively to fend for themselves, widespread testing, ample intensive care beds, and high levels of trust in the government led to talk of a “German exception” in the early months of the pandemic.

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This response had already begun to fray by the summer of 2020, especially with the growth of the Querdenker movement – a heterogenous, but increasingly violent protest movement that sprung up against COVID-19 lockdowns. But it still compared favorably to an American response that saw a U.S. president muse about injecting bleach and that exposed vast deficiencies in the American healthcare system. From this backdrop, the dramatic surge of coronavirus cases that has swept Germany in the late fall and winter of 2021 has been quite surprising…or even from a certain perspective, American.

At the end of October 2021, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned of a sudden, steep increase in the number of COVID-19 infections as temperatures fell. Within three weeks, the RKI reported more than 50,000 new COVID-19 cases in Germany in a single day, nearly doubling the previous record of approximately 25,757 cases reported on December 23, 2020.

11 months after the first COVID-19 vaccinations had been administered in Germany, more people were getting sick faster than ever before. While a number of factors contributed to this spike in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn also deployed a phrase used two months prior by the head of CDC, calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in September 2021.

That German ministers are adopting the same language used to describe the summer surge of cases that gripped the U.S. South is no coincidence.

In both countries, a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases was caused by missteps in addressing vaccine resistance. In the United States, President Biden’s push to vaccinate 70% of adult Americans by the Fourth of July as part of a “summer of freedom“ relied upon voluntary incentives rather than requirements. As part of this effort, the Biden administration launched a “month of action” in June 2021, seeking to increase vaccinations through measures like free beer or childcare coverage.

In the heavily conservative U.S. South, mixed messages compounded existing divisions over COVID-19. While some Republican governors like Alabama’s Kay Ivey and Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson called for people to get vaccinated, Republican officials in Tennessee briefly halted all vaccine outreach to adolescents, even for routine vaccinations against the flu or measles, over their opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet even when vaccination campaigns were supported, an approach based on “personal responsibility” reigned. The lack of a nationwide vaccine passport system, combined with the CDC’s recommendation that mask mandates end for vaccinated people, turned the “summer of freedom” into a summer surge of cases.

Germany’s current coronavirus surge is the result of a similar failure over the summer and fall of 2021. As temperatures rose over the summer, the number of Germans who viewed COVID-19 as the most important issue facing the country shrunk from 85% in March 2021 to 45% in June 2021. As more Germans gained access to the COVID-19 vaccine, many German politicians began to call for an easing of restrictions, though others still called for caution due to the rise of the Delta variant.

As the Bundestag campaign heated up, discussions of the coronavirus were nowhere to be found, despite concerns from virologists that Germany’s vaccination rate remained too low. Jörg Haßler, who led a study of how COVID-19 appeared in the campaign at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, attributed this phenomenon to parties viewing COVID-19 as a “minefield” with little chance of political benefit. Others warned of a societal “moral rigorism” that influenced the debate around coronavirus measures. Thus, it is unsurprising that Germany’s chancellor candidates still promised that children could attend school in person in the fall, despite rising quarantine numbers. Mixed support existed among Germany’s chancellor candidates for introducing a requirement that people be either vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in order to access many aspects of public life – the “2G” rule. Armin Laschet, the CDU’s chancellor candidate, ruled it out while the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock supported it for hotspots. But even still, health policy experts found it difficult to make their warnings heard due to the ongoing campaign according to the Greens’ Janosch Dahmen.

German states responded to stagnating vaccination rates with unique incentives like free bratwurst or Ferris wheel rides to entice voluntary vaccinations. The federal government pushed for a nationwide “vaccination week” in September 2021 to provide more flexible opportunities to get a shot. Despite the failure of these efforts to increase the vaccination rate, mass vaccination centers began to close on September 30, as planned in June 2021. On October 18, Health Minister Spahn said that the legal state of emergency underpinning measures to combat the coronavirus should be allowed to end on November 25. Despite calling for caution, Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder called the move an announcement of an indirect “freedom day” at the end of November.

These voluntary vaccination campaigns failed to sway the large numbers of people that remain unvaccinated in both countries – approximately 29% of Americans and of Germans as of December 1, 2021. The surge of cases in the United States was particularly severe in the South, where the percentage of people who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 ranges as high as 45% in Mississippi. In Germany, not only eastern states like Saxony – where 39% of people are unvaccinated as of December 2, 2021 – but also western states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg exhibit significant pockets of vaccine resistance.

In both the United States and Germany, the unvaccinated remain a heterogenous bunch. According to polling released in June 2021 before the summer surge, not only Republicans but also younger people in general (aged 18-29) lagged behind the national average, with 52% and 55% having received at least one dose respectively compared to 65% overall. Between December 2020 and June 2021, 13-15% of the adult population consistently said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, while 6-9% said they would get the shot only if required. Their reasons for not getting the vaccine are diverse but concerns about safety feature prominently. 53% of the unvaccinated express concerns about the how new the vaccines are and their potential side effects, and 37% believe that they are not safe.

Similarly, 65% of unvaccinated Germans said at the end of October 2021 that there was no chance they would get vaccinated in the near future. For unvaccinated Germans, concerns that the COVID-19 vaccines remain too untested (74%) or might have long-term side effects (62%) are paramount. As for demographics, unvaccinated Germans skew younger and tend to live in the eastern states. 

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that a subset of the population still questions either the safety of vaccines or their necessity and refuses to get vaccinated continues to spark anger in Germany and the United States. Yet that so many people could become entrenched in COVID-19 disinformation is both unsurprising and even understandable.

Conspiracy theories, especially those concerning vaccinations, spread easily. A British study of the effect of conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions outlined in Katharina Nocun’s and Pia Lamberty’s Fake Facts reveals that even a single exposure to conspiracy theories is sufficient to make people more distrustful and frightened. Nocun and Lamberty also write that events that cause people to feel a sense of insecurity and loss of control – like a pandemic – make them especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. A study of conspiracy theories surrounding the Zika virus also revealed that a heightened susceptibility to conspiracy theories cannot be attributed to sex, educational level, religious belief, or even political background. In other words, nearly everyone faces some risk of being trapped in a conspiracy world.

Outside of crises, conspiracy theories and extremist content bubble just below the surface of mainstream media, their exponential spread facilitated on YouTube and Facebook by powerful algorithms. In both Germany and the United States, conspiracy theories around medicine and vaccines also have deep historical roots.

But by introducing a novel threat that forced most aspects of life online, COVID-19 drastically increased the risk of exposure to disinformation. And this came as no surprise. In February 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) Secretary General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of an “infodemic” of coronavirus falsehoods. Since then, both populist leaders and authoritarian countries have deployed disinformation about COVID-19 either for electoral or geopolitical benefit.

Skepticism regarding government responses to the pandemic can come from both ends of the political spectrum. A new study of the Querdenker movement by Nadine Frei and Oliver Nachtwey reveals that the movement’s adherents largely come from the left, from the “alternative” and “anthroposophic” scenes. Similarly, vaccine resistance in the United States has often come from the left, driven by pseudo-medical beliefs in traditionally liberal places like Boulder, Colorado or Marin County, California, and continues against COVID-19 vaccines, too.  

A correlation between COVID-19 vaccine skepticism and support for right-wing parties exists as well, both in Germany and in the United States. But as Frei, Nachtwey, and others point out, while coronavirus skeptics may originate on the left, their adherence to protest movements around COVID-19 can move them steadily to the far right. Societal overreactions or simply the desire for a like-minded community can thus lead to new political leanings. Whether this is a lasting change remains unknown. While a storm of disinformation may have made it more difficult for the vaccine hesitant to overcome their skepticism, how this divide was handled by the rest of the population may have pushed them deeper yet into conspiracy swamps and to outright resistance to vaccination.

Like the United States, Germany faces interlocking problems: a dramatic surge of coronavirus cases facilitated by increasingly entrenched antivaccine sentiments in a significant portion of the population.

Germany has responded to the latest surge of COVID-19 cases by taking cues from both the United States and France. After COVID-19 seemingly burned through the unvaccinated population in the U.S. South before hitting an epidemiological wall, President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for large swaths of the population. Over the summer, President Macron faced down mass protests to implement a mandatory health pass to enter public spaces and a vaccine requirement for certain professions.

Now, former Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have thrown their support behind a general vaccine mandate. Pending a vote in the Bundestag, it should go into effect in February or March 2022. To halt the spread of cases in the near term, the “2G” rule has been applied nationwide to most stores and businesses, while sharp contact restrictions have come into effect for the unvaccinated.

But responding to COVID-19 requires more than simply halting the spread of the virus. That a significant portion of the U.S. and German populations no longer seem to exist in the same scientific reality as their fellow citizens is an urgent problem. Nocun and Lamberty warn that belief in conspiracy theories can radicalize into a willingness to use violence. Acts of violence and a potential assassination attempt of Saxony’s Minister President Michael Kretschmer by COVID deniers are a testament to this potential. Conspiracy theories represent a national security threat as adherents develop international networks and further radicalize. They pose a threat to democracy by undermining the sense of a shared truth.

Resources exist to provide help to individuals hoping to coax family or friends out of conspiracy worlds. But often those family and friends feel alone, a sense of guilt, or even grief that prevents them from seeking help for the people they once knew. As Nocun and Lamberty write, while conspiracy theories have received more attention in recent years, how to save the people they entrap remains tragically understudied.

In her last speech as Chancellor, Angela Merkel warned that democracy depends on “solidarity and trust” and “loud” opposition to the spread of conspiracy theories and hateful agitation. To save lives, Germany and the United States must do more to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation that corrode the relationship between citizens and reality and delegitimize democratic governance.