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Is Germany About to Take A Leaf Out of China's COVID-19 Digital Playbook?

Published: August 13, 2022 | Print Friendly and PDF

Germany’s health minister unveils plans to launch a color-coded digital app to confirm citizens’ COVID-19 vaccination status. Different colors will confer different rights.

The German people’s vaccination status will soon be “recognizable by color,” thanks to an upgrade to the Health Ministry’s Corona-Warn-App, reports German newspaper Berliner Zeitung. “Different colors will give different rights in the future,” the article notes, adding that a similar “system already exists in China.” Which is hardly comforting, especially given how some Chinese authorities appear to be abusing that system.

While many EU countries, including even neighboring Austria, have softened or suspended their COVID-19 vaccine passport restrictions, Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach seems determined to take them to a new level. This week, he unveiled Germany’s Corona plans for the autumn in the latest iteration of the so-called “Infection Protection Act”. Some of the proposed plans have not gone down well with the public. Even politicians and some newspapers are kicking up a stink.

Different Colors, Different Rights

Most controversial of all is the Health Ministry’s plan to repurpose the Corona-Warn-App into a color-coded system as a means of more easily corroborating people’s vaccination status. As already mentioned, the app’s different colors will confer different rights in the future. Those rights will apparently include the ability to access certain public places as well as the right not to wear a mask in hospitality venues. In order to qualify, you need to have been vaccinated in the past three months or have recently recovered from infection.

Lauterbach has previously stated that forcing the unvaccinated or undervaccinated to wear a mask in public — almost like a badge of shame — might cause them to reconsider their position on the vaccines: “It will certainly be an incentive… to think about whether they would like to be vaccinated.”

All of this no doubt sounds familiar to American readers. After all, it is a virtual replica of the Biden Administration’s “Mission Accomplished” mask reversal back in May ’21. As Yves noted at the time, “the CDC [thought] it was reasonable to operate on a vaccination honor system and have the vaccinated ditch masks and social distancing.” That was despite the fact that only 35% of Americans were fully vaccinated and it was not yet known whether “breakthrough” asymptomatic cases could spread the disease.

Now, we know they can. We also know that the current crop of vaccines do precious little when it comes to actually protecting against transmission of the virus. Lauterbach himself knows this from first-hand experience, given he is currently grappling with his second  COVID-19 infection — despite having received four shots of COVID-19 vaccines. Given what he knows about the vaccines’ leaky nature, encouraging, or perhaps better put, compelling recently vaccinated people to dump their masks makes zero sense from a public health perspective — unless, of course, the only goal is to maximize vaccination.

Of course, by the time the draft law is in place, in early October, Pfizer-BioNtech may have already launched its new Omicron-adapted vaccine. For the moment, the average rate of uptake for a second booster among adults in the EU is extremely low, at just 7.5%. That compares to 64% for the first booster. Of course, Lauterback’s policy proposals may help to boost demand for the largely German-manufactured product once it does hit the market.

Color-Coded Control

Germany’s color-coded app was developed by SAP and T-Systems, the IT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, and is an update on the previous system that showed whether someone falls into the 3G, 2G or 2G-plus (Germany’s Covid pass rules) category. A color coded system will apparently make it quicker and easier to process vaccine passport holders.

With the contract for the app set to expire at the end of 2022, its developers have been lobbying for the contract to be extended and its applications expanded, reports Der Spiegel. They argue that the app’s high level of support among the scientific and medical communities and its wide installation base mean that “it is far too good for a place in the Museum of Communication.” They would much prefer it either to be recalibrated as a general federal warning app or to be expanded to include the electronic patient file (ePA) of every citizen. So far the health ministry has rejected these proposals.

It’s worth noting that T-Systems has already played a key role in making the EU’s vaccine passport systems interoperable and was recently chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO) to do the same at a global level.

Of course, Germany would not be the first country to roll out a color-coded app as part of its COVID-19 response. Beijing has been operating one for some time, albeit not to denote a citizen’s vaccination status but rather the state of each person’s health, proximity to COVID-19 cases, “abnormal” PCR test results and failure to take a PCR test within the 3-7 day cycle (h/t bonks). Unlike Germany, China does not have a vaccine mandate. But as the article in Berliner Zeitung notes, the so-called “Health Code” apps do play a crucial role in the country:

The apps create movement profiles and display the state of [each person’s] health. Depending on the color, the users have different rights. A green code allows free movement while orange and red mean quarantine for up to two weeks… In China, you are not allowed to work, shop or ride the train without the right app colour.

The “Health Code” apps, now universally installed and accepted, can also be used to control citizens for other purposes, as the German state broadcaster Tagesschau reported in February (machine translated):

Wang Yu has not been able to move freely for some time. She is a lawyer in China — and a critic of the authoritarian Chinese regime. She has often been placed under house arrest. But recently the regime appears to have developed a different method: her health app does not show the green code — despite receiving three negative PCR test results. “As a lawyer, I had to deal with a case in court. But they changed my code to yellow,” says Wang Yu. “I was completely helpless. You can’t move at all, you can’t go anywhere.”

In the meantime, nothing works without the health app in China’s big cities: Wang Yu is turned away at the supermarket without the green code. She cannot board a taxi, bus, subway or train. In Beijing, even the entrances to apartments are monitored. Everyone lives within a gated compound with only one entry. Guards have set up their border posts there. Everyone has to scan the QR code with the health app and show the green code.

At first, Wang Yu couldn’t go to her home either. Because their app didn’t work again and again. The guards at the barrier to Wang Yu’s condominium would not let her in. After a heated argument, the guards let them pass. “But you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Maybe the guard won’t let me through then. And I can’t break in here,” says the lawyer. What drives Wang Yu almost insane: Everything is based on arbitrariness. There are no laws governing the use of the health app. “I’m a lawyer. I love the law. I need precise rules to follow.” However, the Chinese parliament has not decided on this. “There is nothing. No paper, no regulations. The restrictions imposed by the app are completely illegal,” Wang Yu concludes.

In recent months local authorities in Central China even used the COVID-19 health app to prevent account holders from seeking access to funds that have been frozen by their banks. According to Asia Times, more than 400,000 depositors of six rural banks in Henan Province have been unable to withdraw their money since April. Yet when some of those depositors tried to travel to the banks’ headquarters to take part in protests, they suddenly found that the health code on their app had turned red, making them ineligible for travel.

As I’ve previously noted, the Western press tends to shine a bright light on the Chinese government’s deployment of new digital technologies to expand its surveillance and control of the Chinese population. That was certainly the case with the recent events in Henan Province. The BBC, Bloomberg, the New York Times, CBS, CNN and France 24 all covered the story at least once. Myriad reports, some absurdly overblown, have also been published over the years on China’s creeping introduction of a Social Credit System. Yet whenever the same highly intrusive technologies are being rolled out in so-called “liberal” Western democracies, the Western media is nowhere to be seen.

Back in Germany…

Lauterbach’s proposals are meeting strong resistance, both in the media and in political circles, particularly within the ranks of the SDP’s junior coalition party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the two main opposition parties, the CDU and AfD. Like them, Germany’s widest read tabloid, Bild Zeitung, accuses Lauterbach of adopting “panic measures”. One article even posits that the renewed pressure to get vaccinated may form part of a plan to get rid of Germany’s huge stockpiles of surplus vaccines before they expire.

The small details of the proposals have been well set out in many newspapers, including the Allgemeine Zeitung Mainz, which carefully dissects the various measures before commenting clearly on each proposal. There are, it says, few objections to a proposal to reimpose FFP2 mask wearing on long-distance trains and flights from German airports from October 1 this year to April 7, 2023 (Good Friday). Where the paper takes issue is that the new measures will place a huge strain on hospitality, sport and cultural events if their respective staff and security guards have to check who is “freshly” jabbed (i.e. within the past 3 months), who is in recovery (i.e. have had the virus in the previous 3 months) and who needs to be tested on site (at the expense of the hospitality business).

The three-month period is out of step with other European countries applying six or nine-month periods. It also clashes with recommendations from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which warned in January that boosting every few months is not a long-term option since it risks adversely affecting the immune system. It also goes against the recommendations of Stiko, the body of public health experts who report to the government.

“I don’t understand why you should be vaccinated every three months,” said CDU health expert Erwin Rüddel. “In all other European countries, planning for the Corona winter is handled differently.”

Even Lauterbach himself says he doesn’t expect people to get vaccinated every three months. Yet why set the limit for eligibility at three months? The new laws, if implemented in their present form, will provide an overarching need for compliance tempered by each of the 16 federal states having the right to add their own measures depending on the severity of any localised outbreak. But according to Rüddel, the draft proposals will probably be heavily watered down by the time they have completed their passage through the Bundestag.

Some civic-minded Germans may feel affronted by an article likening
what some would regard as relatively modest, if somewhat unenforceable, measures
with elements of China’s creeping high-tech dystopia. But it is worth remembering that Germany and Austria led the way back in 2021 in introducing (or at least trying to) lockdowns of the unvaccinated and universal vaccine mandates, even as it was becoming clear that the vaccines themselves offered zero hope of controlling the spread of the virus.


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