As the coronavirus crisis tests the resilience of democracies around the globe, Germany has gone from cursing its lead-footed, decentralised political system to wondering if federalism’s tortoise versus hare logic puts it in a better position to brave the pandemic than most.

Under German federalism – which has roots going back to the Holy Roman Empire but was entrenched after the Nazi era to weaken centralised rule – key policy areas, such as health, education and cultural affairs, fall under the jurisdiction of the country’s 16 states, or Länder.

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, such a highly devolved system of governance made the woman nominally in charge of the country look oddly powerless: even when Angela Merkel announced the first raft of social-distancing measures, she could only make recommendations that the federal states were free to implement or ignore.

As social-distancing measures came into effect, there were howls of frustration over how wildly the lockdowns varied between the states: in Berlin, for example, buying a book from a shop is still allowed but having a picnic in the park is not. In Baden-Württemberg, it’s the other way around.

Federalism is useful for creating a dynamic business environment between different regions, but it can make it hard for an entire country to move in sync.

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Coronavirus outbreak, Germany, Health, Epidemics, Infectious diseases, Medical research, Microbiology, Europe, World news

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