Ambassador Knirsch on the Int'l COVID-19 Recovery

In the third interview from GT LIVE INTERVIEWS’ “AMBASSADORS GO LIVE,” series, GEORGIA TODAY’s Editor-in-Chief Katie Ruth Davies met German Ambassador to Georgia Hubert Knirsch, who has been in Georgia since September 2018.

Before we spoke to Ambassador Knirsch, we looked at the latest COVID-19 statistics from his home country Germany, which is 357, 386 km² and has a population of 83.02 million.

Germany is 8th on the Worldometer coronavirus list, behind the US, Brazil, Russia, Spain, UK, Italy and France. Germany has 10,162 active cases of coronavirus, of which 763 are critical. 8,533 German citizens have died and the number of total cases currently stands at 181,895.

What steps have Germany’s government and healthcare system taken to fight COVID-19, and how effective do you think that fight has been?

As in many European countries, there was a huge effort that involved mass testing first of all, to get a clear picture and to get a control of the situation. Restrictive measures were imposed, like in other countries; I would place Germany in the medium range there. In some countries, the situation was even graver and restrictions were even stricter. But, of course, we are still in the situation when schools, universities can only work through electronic means, and now we are slowly reopening public life, things like restaurants and service industries. The effort to fight COVID, of course, was also concentrated on hospitals, it was very important, and German hospitals made available large capacities for COVID patients. Not the entire capacity that was available had to be made use of in the end, and we were also able to receive and threat patients from neighboring countries in German hospitals.

If you could go back in time, what would you do/recommend be done differently?

This is a big discussion in Germany and everybody agrees that we should have been better prepared in terms of protection: at hospitals, in public authorities, and the same for our embassy. The first face masks we received were a donation from the Georgian government, for which I am very thankful, but indeed, every country should be prepared for epidemic situations which may occur in future, and having the necessary equipment is an essential part of that. Another aspect is our preparedness for electronic modes of communication and work. We’ve made a leap in applying electronic working methods, we’ve never had a conference with more than 200 participants over the internet, as we did with Ambassadors this week. I think the experience will teach us something. And in some ways, I hope, we will also learn from the crisis that we are going through, and we will find ways of doing things better. Maybe sometimes it’s better not to have a massive international conference with thousands of participants flying in…we can use technologies to have a greener economy and also to address environmental challenges.

Can you tell us anything about vaccine development in Germany?

Some German companies are actively working on vaccines, always in international teams and with international partners. Germany wants to be a part of this effort, and I hope that German companies will be able to make a good contribution to this global challenge. But we want to do it as part of a global network and really avoid the rising competition for the vaccine. The most important thing is that vaccines should be available worldwide to people who need them. And this is something that our government persues very actively in multi-network associations.

Where do you see Germany in 6 months or 1 years’ time?

In six months, I hope that schools and universities will be able to work normally again and that public life, also cultural life, will be able to recommence. I’m thinking of things that can’t easily be done through an online meeting format, such as listening to a concert, or seeing a theatrical presentation, I think of how hard artists are hit in this situation and they can’t easily adapt. So, this is a horizon for six months, returning to a sort of normalcy, and the next year, in 2021, I hope will be the year of economic recovery in Germany and in the EU and worldwide.

What has Germany done to support its citizens, especially those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic?

There were massive job losses in Germany, just as in other countries, much more so than during the financial crisis in 2008 for instance; we’ve never seen before. The German government nationally has rolled out three programs: a grants program for self-employed people to help them survive economically and to continue their activities, not to go out of business. It’s not the biggest program, but it touches a lot of people. A very big program financially is a program for credit guarantees for companies. These credit guarantees are provided by the federal government through the German Development Bank, public bank KFW, which is also active in Georgia. This supports both large and small businesses. The third program of support allows employers to continue to employ their staff and reduce working hours. So, the volume of business goes down, the number of working hours goes down, but people still receive their old salary thanks to this government grants program. It is expensive, of course, with the gov’t paying a portion of the wages of employed people, but it is estimated this crisis could touch up to 10 million people.

From these national measures, it is very interesting and important to find a European answer to the economic problems, because we are an economic union and currency union. Together with France, we’ve proposed a number of programs, one of them a short-time work allowance on the European scale, and another to launch a massive 500 billion European loans program, which would be financed jointly. Discussions have started and I hope that we will jointly reach an agreement soon.

What about education? How has that kept going? And what are the plans for the future?

Schools and universities, just like schools and universities in Georgia, are working electronically, and of course, this is a challenge for teachers, for students and younger kids, and this is a great challenge for parents, especially when parents have to work from home and also take care of their children’s studies. Electronic teaching can be very effective, but you have to know the right methods, and unfortunately teachers, as a rule, are not prepared for this mode of teaching. So, this is something we should learn from and be better prepared for in future.

What are the stages of post-COVID recovery happening in Germany at the moment?

The south and west of Germany were harder hit by the virus than the north and east, so northern and eastern regional governments have essentially reopened public life, and restrictions are fairly limited now.

There are things which are very essential to the German life. The Bundesliga is being played behind closed doors, with no spectators or fans, and that is terrible to see. Also, we know that the Munich October Fest will not take place this year. That said, we should keep in mind that all these restrictions are necessary in order not to have a second wave of the virus.

Many publications, both in the US and Europe, have over the past month praised Georgia’s handling of the pandemic. From what you’ve read or heard, what’s your take on that?

I was very impressed by the Georgian government’s reaction, but also by the reaction of the public. People reacted with great calm and discipline to quite severe restrictive measures. As it turns out, it was the best method: taking strict restrictive measures from the beginning, lockdowns, closing off the major cities; it was something that no other country had done beyond Wuhan in China. And Georgia’s easing of restrictions was also a good measure of control. The necessary testing capacity was available, and it is a very good thing that Georgia had the institutions in place to do so, such as the National Center for Disease Control, something which can’t be created during a crisis: it has to be there, and it is very good [for Georgia] that it was. And here allow me a political remark, how Russia continues to discredit the work of this institution… Everybody can see what the purpose of this institution is and what it does. And the fact that Georgia is in a fairly good situation thanks to the qualified staff available there, thanks to the institution that was able to test a large number of people and advise the government on epidemiological matters… So, the results in Georgia are really great and I am impressed how resilient Georgians are as they cope with this very difficult economic situation. I know that people have completely lost their incomes, people in Georgia have a certain experience of overcoming crises. The 1990s are not so far behind and people know how to cope.

How do you see Georgia in six months or one year in terms of tourism and economic recovery?

The Georgian government, together with the IMF, have mapped out an economic path for this crisis and partners have come, such as the development banks of partner countries, including KFW from Germany, to fill the financial gaps in the short term, so there is reasonable hope that Georgia will remain financially stable throughout this crisis. This is essential and will make it possible to recover as soon as the COVID situation changes, not only in Georgia but around Georgia, because, of course, neighboring countries are important here. Within 6 months, I hope that we will be behind the elections, Georgia will have had good parliamentary elections, and have a strong government and strong opposition balancing it. Let’s keep in mind, with the COVID situation, that democratic development is continuing. As for every country around the world, 2021 will be the year of economic recovery. People are only waiting to take up businesses again; to receive tourists, and my hope is that Georgia, too, will emerge from this crisis better adapted to the future and needs of the future than before. Perhaps with a greener economy, with a stronger focus on the tourism industry, which is very important in Georgia, and with a stronger focus on productive industries and agriculture.

What was your biggest take away from this whole experience?

I’d never thought I was going to have such an experience in my life. You see that things that were so important to you in your daily life, all the events, conferences, receptions, meetings, all of a sudden are not so important anymore, and people say, OK, we can do without it for a while. And this is a good experience. We can learn to put things into a different perspective and find out what is more important to us.

29 May 2020 10:01