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Ministry of the Interior hired scientists to justify corona measures
The Ministry of the Interior prepared an internal paper in March 2020 that dramatically presented the threats from Corona. It should legitimize tough political action. Extensive internal correspondence shows how the government hired scientists for this.
In mid-March of last year, Germany was in the first lockdown. Schools and shops were closed, and nerves in the country were on edge. Also with Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU). Because the virologist Christian Drosten and Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), had just paid a visit to his house.
The two had warned the leadership of the Ministry of the Interior: Germany faced dramatic consequences if the country returned too quickly to everyday life. Seehofer was now concerned that the lockdown should end as planned at Easter. The minister was firmly against it. He sent his State Secretary Markus Kerber on the trail.
Kerber had a plan: he wanted to bring together leading scientists from several research institutes and universities. Together they should work out a paper that should then serve as legitimation for further tough political measures beyond Easter. He launched a corresponding call to the researchers via email.
Only a few days later they had fulfilled the Ministry’s mandate. They provided input for a secret classified paper by the Ministry of the Interior (BMI), in which the danger posed by the coronavirus was presented as dramatically as possible and which quickly spread through the media. In a “worst-case scenario” they painted: If Germany did nothing, more than a million people in the country would be dead at the end of the pandemic.
WELT has received extensive correspondence showing what exactly happened between the management level of the ministry and the researchers during these critical days in March 2020. Above all, it shows this: that Seehofer’s authority set out to use the commissioned scientists for the political purpose he was striving for – and that they gladly followed the call.
The more than 200 pages of emails show that, at least in this case, the researchers did not act as independently as scientists and the federal government have been constantly emphasizing since the beginning of the pandemic – but worked towards a fixed result prescribed by politicians.
The correspondence comes from the RKI (German CDC). A group of lawyers, represented by the Berlin lawyer Niko Härting, fought it out in a month-long legal dispute with the authorities and made it available to the editorial team.
The documents have been blackened in many places, yet they reveal a lot about how the Ministry of the Interior influenced the researchers and how they helped to make the situation as threatening as possible.
It is about “maintaining internal security”
The cooperation began with the State Secretary’s call on March 19. “Dear Professors,” Kerber wrote to RKI boss Wieler and to researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research (RWI for short, because it used to be called the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung), the Institute of German Economics (IW), the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) and several universities.
The ministry wants to create an “ad hoc research platform” between its house and the institutes with immediate effect. You need a computer model to “get ahead of the situation mentally and in terms of planning”. It should help to be able to plan further “measures of a preventive and repressive nature”. The State Secretary drew a dystopian picture: It is a matter of “maintaining internal security and the stability of public order in Germany”.
Kerber asked for secrecy: What will be discussed in this small group in the coming days should be kept confidential “outside of operational crisis team institutions”. “Without bureaucracy. Maximum courage, ”wrote Kerber – and he increased the drama of his tone again at the end of the e-mail: Since one does not know“ whether and how long the networks will still function reliably ”, the participants should provide their telephone numbers and private e-mail Submit addresses.
He said that he had “compared the situation with Apollo 13” to his “friend Lothar Wieler”. “Very difficult task, but with a happy ending thanks to maximum collaboration.”
In doing so, he set the tone for the procedure that the Minister of the Interior apparently expected from the scientists who were contacted: the most threatening representation of the situation. The result was available only four days later: that secret paper with the stamp “VS – Only for official use” about the threatened prospect of up to a million deaths. It also said how to achieve the “desired shock effect” in society in order to avoid this worst case scenario.
You have to create images like this in people’s minds: “Many seriously ill people are brought to hospital by their relatives, but they are turned away and die in agony at home gasping for breath.” So one hopes that the citizens will understand, among other things, a “hard, but short stay-at-home order” acceptable.
During those four days, Kerber and other high-ranking officials of the Ministry followed the researchers’ work meticulously and dictated the procedure: From the correspondence it is clear that there were telephone conferences between the BMI and the researchers at short intervals while they were working on their model and the ones from it resulting recommendations worked.
The e-mails from the scientists about the progress of their work were sent not only to the State Secretary but also to several heads of departments and units of the Ministry of the Interior. The ministry even provided the outline for the paper by emailing the mailing list.
The researchers made political recommendations
The researchers not only limited themselves to providing figures, but also made specific suggestions on how to address “fear and compliance among the population”, and they made political recommendations. “Söder is intuitively correct,” writes one whose name has been blacked out in the document. “The spreading feeling of powerlessness must be kept in check by the impression of strong state interventionism.”
The emails also show something else, perhaps far more serious: the scientists were not in agreement on the scientific assessment of the situation. For example, they discussed among themselves which figures to use to calculate the desired scenarios. The responsible scientist from the Robert Koch Institute and from the RWI discussed this on Sunday after the State Secretary’s call. The question was: What assumption should be made about the percentage of infected people in Germany who die from the virus?
This value was not easy to quantify, there was little experience with the virus. The RKI had just published a model itself. Accordingly, 0.56 percent of those infected in Germany would likely die from the virus. The RWI now pleaded to work with a death rate of 1.2 percent. The responsible researcher wrote that one should argue in the paper “from the goal”, namely “to show high pressure to act”, and from the precautionary principle “better worse than too good”. State Secretary Kerber read along with all of this.
It is noticeable that both figures appear in the ministry’s paper that was finally drawn up. There it says: “In a very moderate scenario, the RKI is currently assuming a mortality rate of 0.56 percent. In the further modeling, a case mortality of 1.2 percent is used. ”That means: The BMI explicitly decided against only calculating with the cautious value of the RKI – although Wieler’s authority is the one that is precisely responsible for this in Germany: to provide the numbers that the government uses to argue when planning its actions.
Instead, the ministry used the “worst case” – how many would die if life went on completely as it did before Corona? – the more effective numbers. This follows the logic of the Ministry of the Interior: Because Seehofer’s authority is responsible for the country’s internal security, they always want to be prepared for the greatest possible damage. Looking back, the researchers involved were not grossly wrong with a death rate of 1.2 percent. It is true that the proportion of people who die from a Covid 19 infection cannot be clearly quantified – among other things because the actual number of those infected is never known exactly. Most scientists assume, however, that around one percent of those infected in Germany die from the coronavirus.
Ministry of the Interior State Secretary Kerber explains how the paper came about in retrospect to WELT: “We didn’t need a comprehensive theoretical treatise. We had specific problems in mind and were faced with the task of preventing a worst-case scenario.”The RKI does not comment on its involvement – because it was an “internal discussion paper”. And the research institute RWI writes that there were no political guidelines for the research results.
In any case, from the perspective of the Ministry of the Interior, the project was successful. State Secretary Kerber put it to the group on March 23: “Our paper was (…) very well received and, thanks to its high quality and prudence, will now find its way into the government’s crisis cabinet.”
Source German: WELT