News Digest 20th March

Corona virus

Last week’s New Digest started with increasing alarm about the corona virus, but normal life. This week sees a completely different country – kindergartens, schools and universities were shut early in the week; by Wednesday all public gatherings, non-essential shops and leisure activities (including playgrounds) had been shut down, and public transport scaled back to a minimum. People were asked to make only essential journeys, cancel all non-essential events and stay at home. Angela Merkel gave an unprecedented address to the nation to persuade people to take social distancing seriously.

The week ended with over 16,000 reported cases by Friday lunchtime, and Bavaria announcing a virtual lockdown, with all public gatherings banned. The government announced it will decide whether stricter measures will be necessary across the whole country on Sunday, since some people are still going out.

Accelerating controls and measures

On Sunday, Germany announced controls on its borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg. On Monday, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, proposed a ban on all travel into the EU and Schengen countries. This came into force on Tuesday. Ursula von der Leyen said that British people would be exempted from the travel ban into the EU, since, “UK citizens are European citizens so of course there are no restrictions for the UK citizens to travel to the Continent.” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that German citizens stranded abroad would be brought home – he said that there were 35,000 stranded in Egypt alone.

On Monday, representatives of Germany’s 16 states met with the Federal government and agreed a joint action plan. In measures that Chancellor Angela Merkel said were ‘drastic’, shops (except food shops), churches, sports facilities, bars and clubs were to be shut down everywhere, following the school and university closures which had already been announced late last week. Banks, chemists, petrol stations and a few other businesses will stay open. Merkel said that, “There have never been measures like this in our country before. They are far-reaching, but at the moment they are necessary.” The President of the Robert Koch Institute, the government’s scientific institute, said in Berlin on Monday, that they would have to see what effect these measures have had after 10-12 days. The Spiegel reported on Merkel’s delivery of the news: “In one of the biggest crises, the chancellor remains true to herself. While others go into the fight against the corona virus with pathos, Angela Merkel soberly announces massive cuts in everyday life……….. “It is something extraordinary that we discussed together today,” said Merkel. And that’s really not an exaggeration. Only the Chancellor presents the drastic hardships in the Corona defense so stoically and almost staccato-like, as if it were a few side notes from the budget consultations.”

People out and about in Görlitzer park in Berlin, despite instructions to practice social distancing

The Tagesspiegel reported however that in Berlin, where only 300 cases had been reported by Monday, the guidelines were being ignored: social distancing was not being universally practised, at least amongst young people. The Berlin government even went against the nationwide plan by declaring the playgrounds and zoos should be kept open; however, some districts in the capital closed them anyway. Other paper reported similar circumstances: the Zeit for example said that in other cities, such as Munich, many people were socialising. By Friday, as the Berliner Morgenpost reported, there were deep divisions in Berlin’s SPD-Left Party-Green state government over whether a lockdown would be necessary – the paper reported a ‘fierce argument’ was taking place.

The Handelsblatt reported that Deutsche Telekom is giving anonymous mobile phone data to the Robert Koch Institiute, so they can understand why the virus is spreading, if many people continue to go about their normal lives. This of course gave rise to concerns about data protection.

On Tuesday, the Robert Koch Institute classified the risk to the population as high, as the pandemic became more dynamic and the country had seen high increases in the number of cases (6,012 by Monday evening, over 1,100 cases more than Sunday). The Institute also warned that it would be years before the expected infection rate of 60-70% was reached; but this depends on when a vaccine is developed. Overall, the health risk to the population was classified as moderate, and hospitals were reported to be confident they could handle the crisis.

Die Welt figures showed that deaths from the virus were so far low in Germany – 0.3%, compared to, for example, 3.6% in the UK and 7.9% in Italy. The Tagesschau reported on possible reasons for the lower death rate in Germany. One reason could be that more tests are carried out in Germany than in Italy, therefore more infections are discovered, including many cases that are not serious. A second possibility is that death rates in Germany will rise; in Italy, the virus spread unnoticed at first – people who died did so about 18.5 days after the first symptoms. So, there could be a big rise in death rates in Germany in the next weeks. Thirdly, the average age of the sick was 63 in Italy, while in Germany it is so far 47 years. Finally, Italy’s health system has been overwhelmed and that could mean the level of care is not as high as in a country where the health system is not yet overloaded.

It was announced that Berlin is building a 1,000 bed corona virus hospital at the Berlin Messe – the trade fair facility – and that the army will be helping to build it. This should be ready in 20 – 25 days. Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also said that the army will be used for helping treat the sick and supporting police and local authorities.

On Friday, the town of Freiburg issued a curfew, since the voluntary measures had only been partially effective and since the town is only a few kilometers from the emergency areas in France and Switzerland (Freiburg is in Baden-Würrtemburg in the south of Germany). Similarly Leverkeusen and Dormund have implemented stricter controls on gatherings and going out.

CDU leadership contender Friedrich Merz announced he had tested positive for the virus,´but so far with only mild symptoms, as did Green politician Cem Özdemir.

The Spiegel reported on one politician who is doing well at the moment: Markus Söder, Minister President, who was one of the first state leaders to take action: Bavaria was the first to close schools, last Friday. Söder is currently chair of the Minister Presidents’ Conference – the committee which coordinates the governments of Germany’s 16 states. The Spiegel comments that, “The dynamism of the pandemic shows the Duracell politician Söder in top form,” and that, “compared to Söder’s media presence, the Chancellor is hardly visible. In TV programmes, in talk shows – Söder is the face of the crisis, the top anti-virus politician.”

Söder has declared a state of emergency in Bavaria, meaning that emergency services and hospitals are under state control. On Friday Söder announced that due to the massive increase in cases from Thursday to Friday in Bavaria, people would not be allowed to go out for two weeks. Bavaria is the first state to impose such controls.

The Deutsche Welle has an interesting article in English on what this means for basic rights and what the legal situation is. At the moment, action is being taken nationwide in accordance with the Infection Protection Act of 2001, but in a disaster situation each federal state has its own laws. In the case of a national emergency being declared, a package of laws passed in 1968 (which were controversial since memories of the Nazi dictatorship were still fresh), the federal government can also assume operational control and deploy the German army internally. It could also curtail basic rights, something that has not happened yet in the history of the Federal Republic.

“It is serious. Take it seriously.”

On Wednesday the number of cases in Germany went over 9,000. It was warned that the real figure is probably over 70,000 and that 10 million could be infected in the future. Angela Merkel gave an address to the nation about the emergency – the first time she has ever done this about a current topic. She stressed again that the aim was to slow the spread of the virus down and that we all have a responsibility to help the community and others by practicing social distancing: “It is serious. Take it seriously.” She said that the government would be looking daily at the effects on the rules imposed this week, and would either adjust or strengthen them depending on circumstances, clearly implying there could be a lockdown. “This is a historical task,” she said, “and we can only do it together.”

Vaccine hopes

The European Commission tweeted that “CureVac, a German vaccines company, has already started its #COVID19 vaccine development programme. Clinical testing is estimated by June 2020″ and that EU funding has been made available for the programme. On Tuesday, the Berliner Zeitung reported that the billionaire owner of the company, Dietmar Hopp, says the vaccine will be ready by the autumn. The country had been shocked on Sunday to read a Welt on Sunday article, which, as the Deutsche Welle reported,  “quoted an anonymous German government source as saying that Trump was doing everything he could to secure a vaccine for the United States, but only for the US.” The response? “We want to develop a vaccine for the whole world and not individual countries.” However, the Robert Koch Institute said that it did not expect a vaccine to become available until the spring of 2021.

Effect on the economy

The effect on the economy continues to be a major concern. The Welt reported on Tuesday that Volkswagen VW planned to suspend production due to the spread of the virus and that inquiries to the Employment Agency about short-time benefits have gone through the roof. On Wednesday, Audi and Porsche followed. By the end of the week, the Welt reported that the German auto industry was at a complete standstill. Although the government has guaranteed that 60% of net wages will be paid to all employees laid off during this time – 67% for employees with children – the unions are concerned that this is not enough for many. Some companies are supplementing the 60% themselves.

The FT reported that queues of lorries built up on the German-Polish border, as the Polish government tighten up controls on the flow of goods. On Wednesday, the Polish government has to open four border crossings because of the massive build up of traffic.

Handelsblatt reported on Monday, that following Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s “unpacking of the Bazooka” last Friday (when he promised unlimited liquidity aid, so that no company or business should go bankrupt simply because the corona virus has limited production or customers are missing), individual states have followed suit. For example, Bavaria is launching a fund worth ten billion euros, which should provide immediate financial aid of between 5,000 and 30,000 euros.

Similarly, the Berlin mayor Michael Müller announced a grant program of 600 million for self-employed people in Berlin to support those who fall through all the support programs that have been launched so far, or who cannot benefit from tax reductions.

The stock market was in turmoil: the Handelsblatt reported on Monday that the German stock market slump “has reached historic dimensions: more than minus 35 percent since the beginning of the year, minus 20 percent in the past trading week and minus ten percent on Monday alone…… an end to these price losses is not yet in sight, despite the already drastic losses.” On Wednesday it fell another 5.56 %.

On Friday, however, the FT reported that European equities had rallied after government intervention programmes had been announced. It also reported that Ursula von der Leyen has said that the eurozone could issue “corona bonds” to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic and that Olaf Scholz had said that the European Stability Mechanism, could be used to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, although there was currently no need to deploy the fund.

In an interview with the Zeit, Scholz promised that more support for businesses was on the way – for example, credit was not always useful, since loss of sales means businesses can’t pay back loans. He did not rule out that there could be some form of nationalisation for some larger companies, where the state purchases equity: “if there is a lack of money somewhere, we will make this money available.” Since he became Finance Minister in 2018, Scholz has often been criticised – mainly by members of his own party, the SPD – for his balanced budget policy. Now, he argued, this has been shown to have been prudent: “There has been occasional criticism in the past that I have continued to insist on balanced budgets and have reduced the debt ratio. I have always said that this is not an end in itself, but should give us the necessary strength when a crisis comes. Today, thanks to our solid public finances, we can do our utmost to fight the crisis.”

Right-wing extremism

The Zeit reported on Monday on the fall-out from the Hanau shootings for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In February, a far-right extremist killed 9 people at two shisha bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt; the AfD was accused of being complicit by fostering a climate of hatred. Despite protestations by AfD politicians that the party does not encourage hatred, social media tells a different story. For example, in a Facebook group called “AfD Fan Club” which has almost 3,400 members, “supporters exploit the attack …..in the group, they spread the claim that one of the murdered, Fervat Unvar, was an Islamist…. the murder of Unvar is applauded and justified.”

Last Thursday, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BfV, classified the nationalist wing of the AfD, the Flügel, as right-extremists. On Monday, the Tagesspiegel reported that a video of the Flügel leader, Björn Höcke, making a joke about Auschwitz had emerged. The Tagesspiegel said that, “the allusion to the extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Nazi era caused cheers among the audience present, followed by “Höcke, Höcke” calls,” and that “in addition to numerous angry and stunned comments, the Auschwitz Museum also commented on its Twitter account. “This speech by Mr. Höcke is a shame, dishonorable, immoral and inhuman – just like the laughter and the applause. This hatred poisons our thoughts and conscience, ”says the museum’s statement.”

The Berliner Zeitung reported that Höcke and the Flügel are now coming under massive pressure from within the AfD. A board member asked the Flügel to disclose its structures, saying, “The party’s project is in serious danger,” and that, “Björn Höcke is the king of own goals. Too many statements from him have harmed the party in recent years – and make the party unelectable for many in the west.” The AfD parliamentary group leader in Rhineland-Palatinate, sent an internal letter which said, “I am receiving outraged reports from all parts of the country and the unmistakable willingness to leave the party if there is no decisive reaction now.”

On Friday, the Welt reported that the Hamburg executive had called for Höcke to be thrown out of the party, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine that party leader Jörg Meuthen, who has spoken at Flügel meetings, had called for the Flügel to be dissolved, and that this was approved by the executive. When and how this will happen is currently unclear.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned the Reichsbürger groups, and police raided the homes of some of the leading members of two groups. Reichsbürger are far-right groups which do not recognise the legitimacy of the Federal government. A Ministry statement said that the members of the groups, “clearly express their intolerance of democracy through racism, anti-Semitism and historical revisionism.”

The Deutsche Welle reported that the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has warned that Germany must do more to prevent and counter extremism and neo-Nazism. It also said there is evidence of extensive racial profiling by police, and that the county is becoming increasingly xenophobic, with high levels of Islamophobia.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported on a study by researchers from Mainz, Duisburg-Essen and Zurich universities which showed that there is a connection between narcissists and support for right-wing populists because of the tendency to devalue other people.

Brexit

The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that EU parliamentarians are asking for an extension to the transition phase, because of the disruption caused by the corona virus.

Decline in carbon emmissions

The Environment Minister published a report showing that there has been a decline in greenhouse gases of 6.3% in 2019. The government has pledged an emissions reduction of at least 55% by 2030.

Gender pay gap

Ahead of Equal Pay Day on March 17th, the Deutsche Welle reported on a German Federal Statistics Office report which showed that women in Germany earned 20% less than men in 2019. The pay gap was around three times lower in the former East German states than in western states, a difference that could reflect the fact that wages are lower in east Germany than in the west.

What’s going on in Berlin

The Bundestag will go ahead with its sitting week on 23rd April, but with restricted debates and pairing for votes, reported RND. The schedule includes questions to the government on Wednesday, and a debate on the EU budget on Thursday

The German Bundestag newspaper, “Das Parlament“, reported on the draft law presented by the coalition government on combating right-wing extremism and hate crime. Johannes Fechner, legal policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group, said, “We will no longer stand and watch the worst hatred and incitement spread on the Internet.”

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