WHow long can the Federal Minister of Health hold out: constantly warning, imploring, erratic? “My communication works” – that’s what it sounded like Karl Lauterbach in a soliloquy at “Lanz” a few days ago. The others in the group were already fleeing from the Corona Minister, towards those who “don’t want to hear all that anymore” for Lauterbach. Today it is no longer just the lateral thinkers or conspiracy theorists, but many who go to the supermarket or the stadium and perceive the overwhelming majority of the unmasked people around them.
They call it normality, but the minister doesn’t want to know anything about normality. He remains adamant about his Virus Warner line. From an epidemiological and virological point of view, this role has good reasons, politically it is increasingly marginalizing the minister who is supposed to lead people out of the pandemic. His poll numbers have been falling for weeks, his role as captain, who bravely endures the bitter truth and is the last to leave the ship, no longer works. The ship has run aground, but Karl Lauterbach continues to rant about the sinking, about the Corona autumn, which will be “no picnic”. “I only put warnings where they are justified,” he said. Markus Lanz insisted it was “education through fear”. And scaremongering, that’s a political truism, rarely promotes democracy. It unsettles and drives people who don’t trust statistics but their own experiences to the fringes.
The “Bild” newspaper asked whether the minister was still healthy for our country, and this too is only an escalation of the provocative question of whether the Federal Minister of Health of all people might be the last to prevent the end of the pandemic. So what is Lauterbach aiming for when he answers the hashtags #LauterbachResignation now or #LauterbachRausschmiss, which are popping up everywhere on his favorite communicative platform Twitter, with even more intimidating expert tweets? Even if he warns sharply about the autumn wave or new dangerous variants and then mimics innocence and adds: “… which I hope not”.
Who is speaking: the worried doctor, the scientist providing information, the minister who is loyal to the line? In fact, the pattern and rhythm of his Corona warnings hardly changed. And this penetrance consumes. Sometimes it’s an erratic rumbling against misinformation, sometimes it’s recourse to seemingly infallible evidence.
Superficial and uncritical
When Lauterbach aims at the possibility of high numbers of cases or at “killer viruses” or other hard-to-tolerate eventualities that his corona-nerved FDP cabinet colleague Marco Buschmann after the recent traffic light peace were acknowledged with the nasty word “scaremongering”, Lauterbach offensively gives the pithy head of the team caution. The role corresponds to his medical ethos: take better care and minimize the risks. He is also willing to go overboard with his choice of words. During the breather of the pandemic, when the dangers are subjectively assessed to be lower than they actually are, this is just about acceptable for the majority. At the same time, however, it weakens the role as an expert communicator, as can now be seen.
Quoting from scientific studies and interpreting them according to his own taste is what the minister has developed into his own quasi-ministerial line of communication. Of course, his credibility suffers as a result, because he has to be extremely selective, if only for reasons of time and because of the ever-increasing flood of publications. Comments like Lanz’s on his scientifically triggered warnings are then of little use: “If you leave something out, that’s far from being a lie.” That’s true, but when a minister argues like this, scientific expertise quickly becomes somewhat erratic. However, arbitrariness cannot be the ideal of balanced risk communication.
Some therefore describe Lauterbach’s handling of the studies as dangerous statistical “waving”, which goes back not least to a tweet speared by risk researcher Gerd Gigerenzer recently in his “Unstatistic of the Month”. Lauterbach had referred to an American meta-study on the usefulness of masks, which unfortunately had blatant methodological shortcomings and, at the time, was also a preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed. There is sufficient empirical evidence that good protective masks actually protect against infection (and even more so protect others from my infection). However, Lauterbach’s superficial, uncritical classification seriously damaged the evidence.
Statistically unproven specification
Similar, even disarming rudeness keeps creeping into Lauterbach’s tweets. In the short Twitter text that led to the recent outcry, the minister linked to a Washington Post article brimming with study results Long-Covid – the extremely stressful late effects of corona – and the looming “public health catastrophe”. Lauterbach saw the matter in a nutshell: “Nobody wants to hear that. But many 20- to 50-year-olds will experience inflammation of the brain tissue as a result of #LongCovid in the fall as the number of corona cases increases.”
If you look at the evidence, the medical concern about the neuronal consequences of corona is clearly justified. But in this case too, his statistically unproven specification points to a potential risk that the minister can certainly interpret as irresponsible uncertainty among the general public in the current corona mood. As an expert, he does not have to take this into account in his interpretation of the studies; as a government official, the truth deserves more sensitivity.