Overcoming the Language Barrier between Politics and Medicine in the Corona Crisis

All over Germany the church pews are empty, from the smallest village chapel to Cologne Cathedral. Not because Germans are losing their faith, but because of a state ban on contact. Orphaned parishes and the prohibition of communal worshipping are just two examples of how massively the federal and state governments have restricted basic freedoms in the fight against Covid-19.

In 70 years of German federal-republican history, we have never before experienced such a powerful executive, never before such a repression of economy, religion and culture. These restrictions do not come from nowhere, they are based on epidemiological and statistical figures.

However, there is a nagging question which directly relevant for the future of the liberal constitutional state: Have politicians understood these figures correctly, and are they drawing the right conclusions from them? Doubts are in order. Every day, well over a hundred deaths in connection with Corona are reported by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease prevention authority.

But what falls by the wayside with these worrying figures is the distinction between mortality from the natural course of life and other diseases. In addition, both deaths and new infections are usually presented in cumulative frequency formats rather than via graphs showing the total number of patients recovered from new infections.

This gives laypersons – and this includes both citizens and politicians – the impression of a catastrophic, even apocalyptic development. Thus, it comes as no surprise that decision-makers have adopted the slogan: “Life and death. It’s as simple as that”.

But there is nothing simple about the coronavirus pandemic and the best strategy for tackling it. Medicine and politics speak two completely different languages, and they are on completely different sets of logic. Whereas the former use terms such as “excess mortality”, “local hearth events” and “herd immunity” as a matter of course, the latter are used to the vocabulary of administration, social ethics and, above all, citizen communication.

In the debate on medical epidemiological models for propagation prognostics – and their extremely presuppositional, non-self-evident axioms – the linguistic confusion is exacerbated by the facet of mathematics. A joint view of the crisis? Lost in translation.

The increasing state intervention in all areas of life, which now seems to have become a political perpetuum mobile, is also the result of a devastating speechlessness between politics and medicine. Effective bridging and transmission processes, as they have been tried and tested for decades between economy and politics, barely exist, and usually do not work.

The executive branch interprets the (relatively sparse) medical data with a layperson’s view and follows the simple maxim “Better too much protection than too little”. Medical experts, on the other hand, are bewildered by the goings-on of politics and administrative processes.

What we need now, therefore, is not another cascade of executive measures and ad-hoc regulations, but rather an overcoming of speechlessness: firstly, through the overdue admission of a language barrier and its challenges; secondly, through a new, all-round willingness to learn from each other in order to resolve misunderstandings and prevent the risks of panic-mongering; and thirdly, through the involvement of bridge-builders between medicine and politics who understand the concepts and basic principles of both fields and can act as translators.

Only through a reflected and moderated exchange between decision-makers and medical experts can we escape both from the dangerous logic of binary, ethical simplification (“life or death”, “protection or liberty”) and the escalation of executive power accumulation. We need a bridge-building exit strategy – before dust settles on the church benches.

An abbreviated, German version of this article was published as „Die Sprachbarriere zwischen Politik und Medizin muss in der Coronakrise überwunden werden“ in: Handelsblatt.com on 22nd April 2020, Link.