GERMANY’S president Frank-Walter Steinmeier broke with tradition on Saturday to give a rare televised Easter address. Urging Germans to show “solidarity” both domestically and internationally in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, he stressed that Germany could not emerge from the crisis strong and healthy if its neighbours did not do the same, that the crisis was “not a war” but rather a “test of our humanity”.

His words contrast sharply with the go-to, cut-and-paste wartime rhetoric we are so used to hearing in the UK, where in recent weeks, clumsy, rehashed talk of “invisible enemies” and ‘Blitz spirit’ has clashed embarrassingly with news of German ventilator donations and images of Luftwaffe aircraft flying foreigners to Germany for treatment.

Whether the British establishment has noticed or not, the world’s changed a bit in the past eight decades. It’s changed a bit in the past eight weeks too.

Just eight short weeks ago, Covid-19 was a Chinese problem that was barely on the UK’s radar; four weeks ago, Westminster was talking of herd immunity and shunning the opportunity of involvement in EU ventilator procurement; now, the UK is on course to be the worst hit state in Europe, accepting aid from Turkey, while Germany has some of the lowest death rates anywhere.

For the sake of comparison, of the 127,584 people confirmed to have contracted Covid-19 in Germany as of April 15, 3254 have died -- some 2.6% of the total. The UK, with 93,873 confirmed cases to date, has recorded 12,107 deaths among those hospitalised alone -- 12.9% of confirmed cases.

Scotland appears to be doing slightly better than the UK as a whole, with 6748 cases recorded and 699 deaths overall (around 10.4% of the total) but, as the First Minister herself would acknowledge, that’s hardly a cause for celebration. Every death is a tragedy and we still have one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in Europe.

Direct comparisons between different countries are difficult to make. They involve countless complexities and are not always helpful. However, with the Covid-19 crisis having hit Germany and the UK at roughly the same time, the starkly differing death figures undeniably prompt questions as to where the UK has gone wrong.

Westminster has faced some criticism for how late it left the introduction of lockdown measures, with now infamous images of crowds at the Cheltenham Festival last month looking set to haunt Boris Johnson for some time to come. Important as lockdown measures have become however, speedy, strict orders that the public should stay at home do not seem to have been key to Germany’s success.

As in Scotland and the rest of the UK, schools and non-essential businesses have been closed and gatherings of more than two people banned. However, while some of Germany’s federal states have imposed stringent lockdown measures, the national government has refrained from ordering people to stay indoors, instead encouraging them to do so and stressing the importance of social distancing measures if and when they do go out.

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SO, are Germans more disciplined than others in self-policing social distancing instructions? This is, after all, a country where it’s not unusual to see people standing in otherwise deserted streets at 3am, awaiting permission from the green man to cross the road. Perhaps. But citizens in all countries have largely responded well to restrictions, and reports of German police chastising occasional rule-breakers suggest similar societal behaviour to that seen in other countries. People are people are people.

More dramatic differences between Germany and the UK appear to lie in testing and in the resilience of health services.

With the World Health Organisation stressing the importance of testing, and South Korea apparently succeeding in tackling the crisis by implementing it on a massive scale, Germany was quick to act on that issue. The results were twofold.

On the one hand, widespread testing confirmed a large number of cases, often in young people with mild or no symptoms, pushing down the national death rate due to the simple fact that death figures became a smaller proportion of overall confirmed cases. By testing only the very sick, authorities in the UK may have created the opposite effect. However, the huge difference in actual numbers of deaths suggests that is only part of the story.

Large-scale testing has also helped provide Germany a clearer picture of how the crisis is unfolding, facilitating faster treatment of the sick, making carriers aware of the danger they pose to others and potentially highlighting vulnerabilities in specific areas, allowing for more targeted responses and preparations.

Evidence suggests that when patients are identified, they stand a better chance of quality treatment in Germany than they do in any country of the UK.

WITH a reported 29.2 critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitants at the start of the crisis to the UK’s 6.6, Germany’s hospitals were (and are) among the best equipped in Europe. The vast majority of its beds (some 25,000) were already equipped with ventilators and the government was quick to order thousands more.

In short, Germany was far better prepared than any of the UK’s health services to deal with the crisis from day one. That’s not to say it has a perfect system. Reports of staff shortages at German hospitals did cause some concern and measures were taken, as they have been elsewhere, to re-recruit former medical workers and to fast track new trainees into work.

Contrast Germany’s position, though, with that of the UK, a state whose government has underfunded healthcare for years; a state whose government, just weeks before the crisis, left the European Union, discarding the contribution of thousands of EU workers to its health services; a state whose government failed to join an EU ventilator procurement programme (which it was still welcome to join) apparently because it missed an email.

There is no way of knowing what the UK death toll might have been if Westminster governments had funded hospitals properly in past decades. We can’t say how many lives would have been saved had this Romanian doctor or that Portuguese nurse not felt driven out of the country by Brexit. We don’t know how many ventilators might have arrived had Johnson checked his spam folder more often. Surely, though, if any lessons are to be learned by the UK Government, they should be that hospitals are worth funding, that medical staff are worth valuing, that international solidarity is worth pursuing.

FOR now, we’ll have to do our best with the health services we have. Our selfless doctors and nurses and carers and cleaners will plough on, overworked and underpaid, risking their own lives to make the broken systems in which they work function to the best of their abilities.

The Scottish Government will likewise work to make a broken system function to the best of its ability. Whether and how that system might be fixed in the future remains to be seen but now, perhaps more than ever before, the need for radical change has been laid bare.

This crisis is indeed a test of our humanity. We’d do well to remember that, not just now but in the months and years to come, because when the worst of this is over, life in Scotland cannot return to how it was before. We face an unavoidable period of reflection, reform and political upheaval, against the backdrop of a Brexit that has not gone away and which seeks to isolate us from our neighbours.

However much some people may wish otherwise, the old normal is gone. We now find ourselves in the process of forging a new one. Let’s learn from the past and push forward with hope, enthusiasm, conviction and respect. Creating a better future is a turbulent process. It’s a test of our humanity. But it’s not a war.

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