Corona politician karl lauterbach in portrait : lots of pepper, no salt

The social democrat is omnipresent. Karl Lauterbach speaks on all channels and knows only one topic at the moment: the pandemic. Should you listen to him?

An article from

Simone Schmollack

22.11.2020, 6:40 p.m

K arl Lauterbach is pissed. To show that, the man doesn’t have to rant and froth. Two words are enough for that: "lost opportunity". Opportunities should not be lost, thinks the SPD politician. Something like this should certainly not happen during a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing.

For the 57-year-old Social Democratic member of the Bundestag, the "lost opportunity" is the result of last week’s corona summit between the federal and state governments. Sharp lockdown, greater restrictions on private, school closures as in the spring? Missing. In favor of appeals to reduce contacts even further, otherwise everything remains the same.

Lauterbach sits in a barren conference room in the virtually deserted Bundestag. A bottle of water on the table in front of him, a virus-inactivating -Livinguard mask on his face, the darkness of a November evening in Berlin outside. It’s not so easy to meet this man, whom Twitter users sometimes call a "complete idiot," these days. During the day, the job in the Bundestag, meetings with the chancellor, with scientists. Reading studies at night, evaluating them, passing them on. After the interview with the taz, he will meet with Christian Drosten, who – thanks to Corona – is the best-known virologist in Germany. "I’m in no hurry," Lauterbach says. But the further the evening progresses, the more often his gaze slides to the wall to a clock.

Lauterbach speaks as if raised

Before he explains the "lost opportunity" in more detail, he takes a deep breath and jerks his mask. Then he lays it on: high incidence rate – that number that says how many infections there are in a given time – enormous infection dark rate, the need to close the schools down again, preferably immediately. "Otherwise, even if we continue as we are, it will take another six to seven weeks for anything to change." That would be in January. And even after that, bars, restaurants, hotels, museums might not reopen yet – because "that’s when it starts again".

Lauterbach speaks as if raised, the sentences literally fall out of his mouth, as if he had been torn from a deep sleep and queried the infection figures of the past weeks. Corona – it’s Lauterbach’s issue, has been for months now. The man is not only a politician, but also a medical doctor. To be precise: an epidemiologist, i.e. someone who studies the causes, spread and consequences of diseases. If anyone – besides Sandra Ciesek, Christian Drosten, Hendrik Streeck and other virologists – knows something about this profession, it’s Karl Lauterbach. That’s why he’s been speaking out about it every day since March, on the radio, on "Tagesthemen," in the Bundestag, on talk shows. He is a regular guest on Anne Will, Lanz, Maischberger, Maybrit lllner, where he explains, admonishes and advises. One would no longer be surprised if Lauterbach met himself in one of the rounds, he is so omnipresent.

With it Lauterbach polarizes. There are those who subscribe to everything he says. Who follow his lead, haven’t seen the inside of a restaurant in months and avoid public places. Who work entirely in a home office and talk to others exclusively by phone, zoom, skype. Who felt vindicated in their cautious behavior when infection numbers spiked at the beginning of fall. After all, that’s exactly what Lauterbach had predicted: as soon as it got cooler, more people would catch it. For months, he has been warning of late effects and unclear permanent damage to lungs, kidneys and brain once the virus had hit the body hard.

Always on the rise: Since the beginning of the pandemic, Lauterbach has been everywhere Photo: Anja Weber

And there are the others who think the Corona measures are exaggerated. They argue that Covid-19 is especially dangerous for the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions and obesity. These should be especially protected. But the many millions of others? For critics of the drastic restrictions, Lauterbach is a buzzkill and one of the biggest phobics of all time. "Alarm siren" once called him the Time, "Most lovable Cassandra" is how the taz christened him.

Almost all of his forecasts were correct

The problem is: Lauterbach is both a right-winger and a killjoy. Almost everything he predicts and explains has come to pass: higher infection rates in the fall and winter, long-term consequences, the many deaths. The shortage of hospital staff, soon to be missing respiratory beds, high incidence rates over long periods of time.

In all the talk shows, interviews and conversations, he explains it with his characteristic flat amplitude of tone, usually a little nasally. His tweets about it come with an urgency that is completely humorless. "Ban private parties without mask and ceiling celebration 50 people," he tweeted in August. A Mirror-article, he commented on Twitter thus: "The case also shows how dangerous the Christmas parties are becoming." The text reports on a wedding with only 55 guests, as a result of which there were 177 infected people, seven hospitalizations and seven deaths.

He was wrong once: In the summer, he warned against opening stores and restaurants too early because too many people would then become infected too quickly. This did not happen – and Lauterbach justified it with the fresh air, outside the risk of infection is not so great. Well, it’s not wrong.

That is Karl Lauterbach

The physician Karl Lauterbach, 56, grew up in a Catholic household in the Rhineland. After studying in Aachen and the U.S., he earns a doctorate in medicine in 1991. Another study of health economics follows.

The Professor In 1998, he becomes director and professor of the Institute for Health Economics and Clinical Epidemiology (IGKE) at the University of Cologne. Ten years later, he advances to professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The politician After graduating, Lauterbach initially joined the CDU. He has been a member of the SPD since 2001. In 2005, he was first elected to the Bundestag by direct mandate in the electoral district "Leverkusen – Cologne IV", he has defended this mandate since then always.

The career From 2013 to 2019, Lauterbach was deputy leader of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, where he was responsible for health, education and research. In 2019, he failed together with Nina Scheer in the member vote on the SPD chairmanship. (taz)

But Lauterbach is not only controversial among the population, he is also controversial within his own party. This is about competence disputes, his media presence, the connectivity of his theses, his nature itself.

Not entirely free of tension: Lauterbach and his party

To understand this, you have to delve a little into his recent political past. When the SPD was looking for a successor last summer after Andrea Nahles stepped down as party leader, Lauterbach joined forces with environmental politician Nina Scheer. The two were one of six duos. They lost more vehemently than any other inaugural duo, partly because they spoke out sharply against the grand coalition. Most Social Democrats felt the attack on the coalition, of which the SPD is a part, was unhelpful, to say the least. Nest contamination seldom goes down well.

In the course of his candidacy, Lauterbach, who has been elected to the Bundestag by direct mandate in the electoral district "Leverkusen – Cologne IV" without interruption since 2005, relinquished his post as health policy spokesman and also the vice-chairmanship of the parliamentary group. So he was just a normal parliamentary group member. After the defeat of Nina Scheer, he was less in demand, made fewer public appearances and became less important. There are members of the parliamentary group who at that time gloatingly called him a "backbencher".

Those who want to say something good about him point to his new styling: no bow tie since the election debacle, a different hairstyle. During the interview with the taz, the photographer asks what’s wrong with his hair, why so short?. "A hairdresser has moved into my house," says Lauterbach and grins. Then he quickly wants to take three or four photos, he doesn’t have time for more. After all, he’s here to talk, not as a cover boy for a men’s magazine.

Because Lauterbach wouldn’t be Lauterbach if he didn’t make use of his "new freedom" as a simple parliamentary group member. Now, without a post, he can do and say whatever he wants. Factional Reason? Must he no longer accept. Agreements? What’s the point? When Corona reaches Germany, Lauterbach forges ahead, with his own script, his own tempo, his own theses. Briefly: as Karl Lauterbach in high form. Since then, he has been explaining the Corona situation – as an epidemiologist, but above all as a social democrat.

Downhill: It didn’t work out for Lauterbach with the SPD chairmanship Photo: Anja Weber

But wait a minute, is he allowed to do that at all?? He is no longer the health policy spokesman for his party? That’s Barbel Bas now, after all, who followed him in the post in 2019. True. But the health insurance business economist simply cannot compete with the media presence of Lauterbach. Against the expertise of the prof. Dr. Dr. anyway. Lauterbach snatched the health scepter (again) to itself – and holds it since firmly in its hand. A parliamentary party staffer describes it this way: "Karl would love to sit next to Merkel every day and say: Angela, come on, let’s do this now, we’ll both get a handle on Corona."

The woman who says this wishes to remain anonymous. There she is not the only one. No one wants to be critical of Karl Lauterbach at the moment. On the one hand, this has to do with the party’s presidency, which Lauterbach is refusing to accept. And on the other hand with a kind of gratitude: Let’s be glad that we have someone like Lauterbach in these uncertain times. With him, the SPD is present again – and largely scandal-free.

That does not please all. "Karl" is acting completely outside the party, says another SPD member. He calls Lauterbach the "virus political speaker". Perhaps this shows that Lauterbach doesn’t really need the party for his mission. Lauterbach himself denies this, saying: "I don’t know whether I’m more of a politician or a scientist at the moment. But I act politically. As one of many, I advise all levels of politics."The chancellor, vice chancellor Olaf Scholz, health minister Jens Spahn, people like that. "I do that every day."His gaze, clear and steadfast over the mask, seems to say: still questions?

"Anyone who works as hard as I do will be successful. Nothing falls to me"

It’s possible that some people in the parliamentary group and in Willy Brandt House, the SPD party headquarters, envy the man’s self-assurance and charisma. In conversations with members of parliament, this comes through in descriptions such as "Karl the Solitaire," "what a luminary," and "Superman. Lauterbach has only one answer to this: "Anyone who works as hard as I do will be successful. Nothing falls to me."In other words: Then please try harder.

This even turns those in the party against him who are defending him more strongly than usual right now. This Lauterbach hybrid, now even more gigantic than usual, also bothers her.

Difficult in social behavior

In human terms, Lauterbach has "no good reputation" in the party and never has had one, says another woman from the SPD ranks. He is considered arrogant, so convinced of himself that one could speak of autistic traits. "Difficult in social behavior," summarizes the woman: "Taking people along, explaining to them what you want to do and how, Karl can’t do that. Could the never."There is for example the thing with the salt, at which one can explain this best.

Lauterbach has not eaten salt for 30 years, apart from the traces of salt that are contained in fish, vegetables and fruit anyway. By now, everyone in the Berlin Republic knows this, and many Social Democrats can report a "salt experience with Karl". It goes something like this: You want to go out to eat together and are looking forward to a rump steak with fries, until Lauterbach says, "You already know how harmful salt is?"

Members of parliament recall how embarrassing it can be to go with Lauterbach to restaurants whose staff don’t know him. When he orders pasta with the addition of, "No salt, please!", the waiters looked piqued. It’s as if you ordered coq au vin and demanded that the sauce not contain red wine. At an asparagus wedding in Brandenburg a few years ago, Lauterbach insisted that the chef cook the asparagus specially for him. In the wedding party this made the rounds as a "nice quirk".

Salt or not, his own health seems to prove Lauterbach right. He is slim, well-trained and seems to have his body under control in other ways as well. When others sleep at night, he reads studies: corona vaccines, long-term effects, immunity periods, multiple diseases. Three, four, five studies a night. The next day, he explains and rates them in tweets, in statements, on TV. "I don’t read the studies, I eat them up," says Lauterbach, "I’ve been doing that for decades. I have one advantage: I am very well networked with scientists all over the world."

He says he is in contact with them every day. They write each other mails, chat and point each other to studies: Attention, the paper here is important, please pay attention to this passage and that result. "Then I already know which way it’s going," he says. He and his "people" are currently discussing an expert opinion on mutations from Havard University. "It’s totally crazy," he says, "it’s all happening so fast." How many corona studies there are, one can no longer count, that is a "true universe". But only about ten, at most 15 studies are really important, he says. Everything else: Bycatch.

Why does he do it? Why does he spend his nights, rushing from one talk show to the next, talking tirelessly, exposing himself to fierce criticism and even death threats?? "I want us to get through the pandemic as unscathed as possible," he says. And looking so forceful and firm that doubting this statement is almost impossible. "I wish above all that no one in my immediate environment, in my family falls ill."As far as possible, he has limited his contacts. What remains are very few family meetings and those with colleagues, with media people.

When he visits his 85-year-old mother, he gets tested beforehand. Later, mother and son sit on the terrace, wrapped in thick blankets. "That’s how it’s going to be at Christmas," he says, "no risk."

But there is hope. Lauterbach trusts potential vaccines from Biontech and Moderna. It may be possible to begin vaccinations shortly. Lauterbach says: "A great relief."And when will the drama of Corona be largely over?? "Next summer." The bet is on.

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