Coronavirus: what we can learn for the future

“We can’t just press the reset button”

Interview with Bavaria’s minister president Markus Söder

Ministerpräsident Markus Söder
© Fraunhofer / Marc Müller

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bavaria’s minister president Markus Söder has shown his qualities as a crisis manager. In an interview with Fraunhofer Magazine, he calls for a technological leap forward that will enable Germany to seize new opportunities.

Minister President Söder, it’s seldom so evident just what an enormous responsibility politicians have for protecting human life. How have you been sleeping in recent months?

Söder: There’ve been quite a few bad nights, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, it wasn’t clear at all whether we would be able to cope. With the border to Austria and people returning from ski holidays, we had a high infection rate here in Bavaria and a lot of people dying every day. I was extremely worried – and there were many nights I didn’t sleep well at all. But we’ve achieved a lot in Bavaria over the last two months. The key indicators of infection have now improved to an extent where we can say that we have the virus under control. Bavaria has emerged from this crisis much better than others. That’s also thanks to the prudence and patience of its people. Since then, I’ve been sleeping a bit better.

Talking about resilience – how do you relax and refocus in these turbulent times?

It took a major effort on behalf of the entire Bavarian cabinet to overcome this crisis. We worked more or less around the clock. I managed to find time to relax and reflect while cycling or walking the dog. My family’s also been a real source of strength. And sometimes a prayer helps you gather your thoughts.

According to the opinion polls, you’ve done a great job in your role as a crisis manager. Did you feel that you had adequate support from the scientific community?

Definitely. We’ve followed medical science all the way. We’re in permanent contact with our specialist advisors from the fields of virology, epidemiology and from medicine and the university hospitals. I really can’t thank them enough for all their advice. I don’t really understand this criticism of the guidance given by virologists. You can’t criticize a doctor for the fact that you’re ill or that you don’t like the cure. The virus is the problem, not the virologists! We’ve also created a monitoring group for legal issues – with a theologian and two former presidents of the higher regional court in Bavaria. And we’re consulting with experts from the business world as to how we can best get the economy restarted after the crisis.

Science became part of the discussion perhaps more quickly than ever before. In which areas could the relationship between science, politics and the public be improved?

It’s an unprecedented crisis, and I think everyone has done a pretty good job so far. Sure, looking back, you can say that a few things could have been done better. Some people maybe wish that the scientists would hurry up and produce a vaccine, others that politicians might say something more long-term – about the summer vacation, for example. But it’s a new situation for us all. The coronavirus is a stress test for our health care system, the economy and for society. So far, I think, we’ve all done pretty well.”

It’s never been easier to gain access to information. So what’s the origin of the current craze for dubious stories, fake news and blind allegiance?

Perhaps that’s the problem: it’s now so easy to access information, but not all of it is trustworthy. You can get information quickly, but you still need to be able to handle it properly. You have to be willing and able to sort through that information. This means knowing what you can trust in the Internet, and what you can’t. In times of crisis, some people take refuge in simple answers. But they need to learn that the world is not that simple. And then there are those who deliberately stir things up and spread conspiracy theories in order to harm our country. These people are enemies of democracy, and we must combat them.

Which conspiracy theory is your personal bugbear right now?

I’ve every sympathy for demonstrations. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are pillars of our democracy. But there’s been a clear attempt by some extreme groups to hijack and instrumentalize people’s understandable desire for greater freedom. It’s just scaremongering. Why, for example, would anyone talk about mandatory vaccination when there’s not even a vaccine available yet? We all need to be very careful not to be manipulated. If you’re at a demonstration, you should keep your distance both physically and intellectually.

Back to reality: Which strengths have helped us confront the crisis relatively unscathed here in Germany?

We’ve confronted this pandemic together – without falling into panic but with the utmost seriousness. The Bavarian authorities have worked in harmony with federal government and other federal states, and also with our neighbors abroad, such as Austria. The Bavarian government has worked hand in hand with the municipal authorities, the emergency services and local medical personnel. Everyone has done their job. We were able to ramp up capacity in our health care system in no time at all, while also taking rigorous measures to reduce the infection rate. This would have been impossible without the patience and support of the population throughout Germany. People across the country have played a big part in their support for the measures introduced to fight the coronavirus. I’d like to thank them all for this. We’ve been thankfully spared scenes like we’ve witnessed in Italy or Spain, or in the USA or the UK.

More and more people are saying: “Things will never be the same again!” What are we going to lose?

We should be asking: What can we gain? Daily life is not going to get back to normal until we have a vaccine. We’re going to have to learn to live with the pandemic. We need to ask ourselves how we can be better prepared for such a challenge next time around. And we need to draw lessons from this crisis and become more resilient.

How can we gain from this crisis? And where might new opportunities arise for us to press ahead with the process of change?

We need a technological leap forward, here in Germany. In recent years, the gap to China and the US has grown – especially in areas such as digitalization, robotics and artificial intelligence. We need to redress that with a massive high-tech program on the national level.

Are sustainability and value creation contradictory objectives?

Both will have to become even more closely entwined. We can’t just press the reset button for the economy. Instead, we should be using this crisis as an opportunity to propel the economy in new directions. Those who say we can forget about climate protection, all we need is classic growth at any price will soon see that it’s not so easy to do this in an economy that’s been changed by globalization. We must learn to stop looking at problems in isolation and think of them as interconnected. That’s the big challenge. We therefore need an approach that’s based on technology and digitalization, but we also need to make progress in the areas of climate protection and energy.

Innovation is seen as the engine of the German economy. How can we ensure that research and development continue in times of crisis?

First of all, given our export problems right now, it’s vital to stimulate domestic demand in Germany – for example, with an innovation premium for the purchase of low-emission cars. This will create further research incentives for the automobile industry. We also want to increase the maximum threshold for tax incentives for research and create other tax allowances. We need to think about ways of providing easily accessible, unbureaucratic support for new companies in their early years. And we need to accelerate our Hightech Agenda here in Bavaria and establish it on the federal level.