james178_Henning Schacht - PoolGetty Images_merkel apology Henning Schacht/Pool/Getty Images

All Apologies for Democracy

Recent mistakes by elected governments underscore the unique difficulties that democracies face when dealing with a problem as large and complex as a pandemic. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 crisis has offered clear lessons, validating two classic answers to the question of what role the state should fill.

BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hasty revocation of a hastily announced Easter lockdown was surprising, even shocking, given her ever-calm demeanor. Even more extraordinary was the apology she issued to parliament: “The mistake is mine and mine alone. Because in the end, I bear responsibility as chancellor. I regret it deeply, and I ask our citizens for forgiveness.”

Merkel was right to reverse course. The proposed lockdown, agreed at a lengthy late-night conference of German regional government leaders, would have shut down vital supply chains and created chaos in food shops ahead of the sudden closure. The move might have cost not just money but lives.

Few governments have been as candid as Merkel’s about their own limitations. Around the world, the pandemic has laid bare the problems democracies face when they respond to complex and rapidly changing situations. When governments are forced to make so many decisions, some inevitably will appear unfair, mistaken, or both.

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