News Digest 27th March

Corona virus: ‘the calm before the storm’

The week started with over 26,000 corona infections recorded on Monday morning. By Friday morning, the number had hit 47,278, with 281 deaths. This rise in infections partly reflects the huge amount of testing being carried out in Germany. Angela Merkel said that the number of people infected is currently doubling every four to five days. In order for restrictions to be eased, that has to thin out to around every 10 days.

Last Sunday, the representatives of the 16 states and the federal government agreed a new set of more stringent measures which came into force on Monday, and which built on the near-lockdown of the previous week. Businesses such as hairdressers and restaurants, which had been allowed to stay open last week, were shut. People are not allowed out except in certain circumstances, such as to go to work, food shopping, helping others, exercise (such as going for a walk) and essential official appointments. There must be at least 1.5 metre distance between people who are out, and groups of no more than 3, unless of people who live together. Police are checking people who are out on the streets, and everyone is required to carry ID which proves their address.

Berliners stayed inside on Monday following the clampdown: a lone car drives down a normally busy street

The government announced that these controls will be in place for at least 2 weeks, and as Angela Merkel said, “These are not guidlelines, these are rules.”

On Thursday, Health Minister Jens Spahn warned that restrictions on daily life will not ease until after Easter – and only if people comply with government instructions until then. He said that this period is “still the calm before the storm. Nobody can say exactly what will come in the next few weeks.”

The Zeit reported that the new measures announced on Sunday were necessary because all Germany’s 16 states had until then adopted different rules: “What was still allowed in Berlin was no longer valid in Bavaria. It was very confusing for people – the virus doesn’t care much about state borders.”

The Zeit also referred to reports over the weekend that the North-Rhine Westphalia Prime Minister, and CDU leadership contender, Armin Laschet, had had a row with Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria, who had imposed a lockdown in Bavaria without consulting other state heads. The Zeit regards the fight as being about more than strategy for fighting the virus: “This is no longer about federalism, least of all about medical necessities. This is about who moves to the Chancellery in autumn 2021.” In other words, key politicians are fighting to place themselves to be their parties’ Chancellor candidates for the next election.

A glimmer of optimism came on Tuesday, when the government scientific institution, the Robert Koch Institute, said that analysis of new case numbers is giving hope that the restrictions will work and that the spread of the corona virus will slow down. The Tagesschau reported that the Institute was “cautiously optimistic that the spread of the coronavirus will slow down slightly and the increase in the number of coronavirus cases in Germany will weaken slightly.” This was confirmed on Thursday by the chief virologist of Berlin’s Charité hospital, Christian Drosten, who said Germany is now carrying out about 500,000 tests a week in the country’s effort to flatten the curve.

Another reason for cautious optimism is that, as the Deutsche Welle reported, German company CureVac have once again said that a vaccine could be ready by the autumn, if everything goes according to schedule.

The Handelsblatt reported on the government’s work on the ‘exit strategy’ – how normal life can be safely restored. Noting that in the past few days there have been increasing demands to find a way out of the state of emergency, the paper reports that, depending on regional situations, public life could start again carefully after Easter, but not for everyone (eg risk groups such as old and chronically ill people). The government is also looking at practices in South Korea, which has managed to control the outbreak of the corona virus without lockdowns. Although Spahn wanted to have a legislative amendment passed this week in order to be able to access movement profiles of mobile phone users in order to track risk contacts, he backed down because of data protection concerns. However the government is looking at developing a corona taking app, which could help contain the virus. The Deutsche Welle reported on Friday that mass testing to check immunity could start as early as April; this would make it easier to decide when to re-open schools and businesses.

Alongside the new guidelines, cities started to legislate against ‘hamster’ shopping – people hoarding products such as flour and toilet paper. The city of Frankfurt, for example, passed a law on Monday restricting the amount people could buy. All over the country, shops limited the numbers of people who could be in a shop at one time, and many also limited purchases of items which are being hoarded.

While most people are holding to the rules, there were reports of police being called to supermarkets where people were standing too close to each other.

Angela Merkel had to go into quarantine on Sunday, because the doctor who had given her the anti-pneumonia injection was found to have the virus. Her first two corona tests were negative. The Deutsche Welle explored what would happen if Merkel were too sick to carry out her duties as Chancellor: Article 69 of constitution says that, “The federal chancellor nominates a minister from the cabinet as deputy.” Currently, that is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. There are also plans in the case that both Merkel and Scholz are out of action at the same time; each cabinet member has his or her own deputy, and so if Scholz could not carry out his duties, he would be represented by the economics minister, Peter Altmaier.

Medical care

Beds on intensive care stations have started to fill up. The Berliner Morgenpost reported, for example, that 80% of beds in intensive care were already full early in the week. The numbers needing intensive care were still relatively low. However, given that a rise is expected, and given the situation observed in other countries, German doctors have drawn up guidelines for who is to be treated in the event of excess demand for life-saving equipment.

The amount of testing carried out in Germany – now 500,000 a week – is much higher than in other countries. Not everyone can get tested if they think they have symptoms (the Ministry of Health has the following guidelines for who will be tested: “symptoms such as fever, a sore throat and respiratory complaints, on their own, are not sufficient. The person must additionally have had contact with an infected person, or have spent time in a region in which the virus was proven to exist over large areas”). Nevertheless, Germany’s rapidly accelerating testing rate has been argued to be a crucial factor in its low mortality. Germany’s mortality rate on Thursday was 0.54%, far lower than Italy’s of around 10 percent, Spain’s of 7.3 percent and France’s of 5.2 percent.

An FT article which explores why the death rate from the virus is lower in Germany than in many other countries (so far at least) can be found here. According to the FT, “Even South Korea, which is conducting 15,000 tests a day and has been held up by virologists as an example to follow, appears to be testing less than Germany.” Higher testing rates means that more mild cases of the infection are detected and so the percentage rate of deaths is lower. In addition, more testing means more people who have come into contact with someone with the virus are detected, so that the virus won’t be spread as fast, and earlier medical intervention is possible. The average age of people who have been found to had the virus so far is also lower than in other countries. However, with the growth of infections, the death rate is expected to rise.

So the government anticipates a leap in the number of people needing hospital treatment in the next few weeks. However, before the expected rise in hospitalisations occurs, patients from Italy and France are being treated in some German hospitals.

Meanwhile, Christian Drosten, Chief Virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital, said that they were testing the effectiveness of ebola and other drugs on COVID-19. The Tagesspiegel reported that Drosten had said that Remdesivir, an Ebola drug, could be successful:”We have a substance with a plausible and known mechanism that inhibits the replication enzyme of the virus….It is clear that it works against corona viruses in the cell substance and in animal experiments. It’s good.”

Work is underway to construct the new 1,000 bed corona hospital in Berlin and other states are also building extra hospital space. Other efforts to support the health service included: 300,000 euros from the Berlin Einstein Foundation for the Charité hospital in Berlin to hire students to support hospitals; and the expansion of a new type of video chat service for emergency responders to help break chains of infection – an existing EmergencyEye system was expanded with the support of the Vodafone so that it can also be used by doctors for an initial assessment.

Six million protective masks, which were ordered and should have been delivered to Germany by 20th March, “disappeared without a trace” at an airport in Kenya – the army procurement office is investigating.

The provision of disinfection products is being guaranteed by a series of measures, reported the Berliner Morgenpost. The chemical industry agreed to deliver special supplies to the 370 hospital pharmacies in Germany in an emergency agreement earlier this week, and two weeks ago, the chemical association had set up a Disinfectants Task Force; disinfectants and raw materials are even being given to hospitals free of charge in some cases. Meanwhile, chemists at Berlin’s Humboldt University have abandoned their normal work and are mixing disinfectant from raw materials they have available: “We are chemists, we can mix it,” said the professor in charge.

ZDF reported about concerns dentists have: although the new rules require people to stay 1.5 m apart, dentist have to stay open. The risk of infection for dentists is high, and there have been complaints that they have not been provided with adequate protective equipment.

Effect on the economy

On Monday, the stock market opened 4 points down. A stark warning was issued by the Munich Ifo Institute, which calculated that the corona virus crisis could cost Germany more than half a trillion euros and more than a million jobs. “The costs are expected to exceed everything known in Germany from economic crises or natural disasters in recent decades…..Depending on the scenario, the economy will shrink by between 7.2 and 20.6 percentage points. That corresponds to costs of 255 to 729 billion euros.” The government, which two weeks ago had ‘unpacked the bazooka’ continued to make announcements to support employees and businesses, totalling 1.2 trillion euros. More on the measures the government are taking to help the economy can be found here.

Olaf Scholz argued last week that his continuation of the CDU balanced budget policy had been proved to be prudent – now Germany has to the funds to mitigate the economic effects of the crisis. An article in the Tagesspiegel this week also praised the much-criticised Gerhard Schröder (SPD Chancellor 1998 – 2005) for his reforms, which included the controversial Hartz IV welfare reforms: ” The social consequences – Monday demonstrations, a split from the party by Oskar Lafontaine – cost Schröder his office. But economic development proved him right.” The article also praised Angela Merkel, whose prudent economic policies since 2005 earned her the mocking nickname of the ‘Swabian housewife’: “Thanks to Schröder’s reforms and Merkel’s austerity policies, Germany is able to think big and act big. It is forbidden to be proud of this during the crisis. But relief and gratitude are allowed.”

A good article on the breakdown of where the government’s aid money is to be spent by the Deutsche Welle can be found here.

While many businesses have faced a complete shutdown, some, such as online retailers, are booming. But what about the health of their workers? The Zeit reported this week that there are criticisms that amazon is making too many compromises when it comes to protecting the health of its employees: workers feel that they are not adequately protected, and have complained about distances between employees not being observed, as well as lack of hygiene measures when using handheld devices.

Some businesses have switched their production to adapt to new circumstances: the Berliner Morgenpost for example, reported that a sprits producer is using its existing alcohol stocks to produce disinfectants, which are already becoming scarce in many medical facilities.

Some dissent about the measures imposed by the government has been expressed: the mayor of Düsseldorf for example, arguing that the virus won’t really harm most people who get it, wrote that “it is obvious that we cannot shut down all public life and put the population in quarantine for an indefinite period. We have to protect those who are infected with the virus in a targeted manner.”

Social effects of the crisis

Some newspaper have reported concerns about vulnerable people during the crisis. The Berliner Morgenpost interviewed the Social Minister for the Berlin state government, who was concerned about the effect on society: on homeless people who can’t ‘stay at home’; on low-income earners who depend on food banks, many of which are closing; on pensioners who need support; and on people who are losing their jobs or having to cope on a reduced income: “Everyone will feel the changes painfully. Society will see that the crisis has serious social implications. We have a big responsibility there.”

The Zeit reported on an issue which has been seen in other countries: the increased risk of domestic violence when women are quarantined with an abusive partner. The quarantine effect is expected to be similar to holiday periods, when violence in families increases sharply; but it could be worse, since at the moment, the opportunity to take part in stress-relieving activities, such as sports, is missing. The Tagesspiegel confirmed this worry with police figures from the past three weeks: although crime in Berlin has decreased since the beginning of the corona virus crisis, domestic violence is up 10%.

An integration activist was widely criticised when she seemed to suggest that people with a migration background would be disadvantaged if doctors have to decide who gets a ventilator. She tweeted “I somehow have an idea which population groups in hospitals will be treated first when the respirators become scarce.” In response to the criticism, she told the Welt that, “many people from immigrant families are concerned about racism…..They are thinking about the consequences of institutional racism in an impending state of emergency. I wanted to point this out. I am sorry if this was misunderstood.”

Political effects

The government has been praised for its handling of the crisis, and as the Zeit argued, it has brought about a revival in the fortunes of the CDU/CSU Union and SPD government coalition. The coalition had looked to be on very shaky ground prior to the crisis. But now, “under the pressure of a real, global crisis, the grand coalition alliance is growing beyond itself. There is no longer any question that this government might not be able to reach the next regular election date in 2021…..It is not just the huge numbers (the amount of aid) which is impressive. It is also the speed with which all sides have switched from normal mode to the state of emergency, and are revising previously seemingly immovable beliefs – such as the debt brake. And all of this largely without petty power struggles or party political fighting.” The article praises the cooperation between CDU Chancellor Merkel, SPD Finance Minister Scholz and CSU Interior Minister Seehofer for their constructive cooperation, based on experience in other crises.

The unprecedented restrictions on personal freedom in Germany have met with widespread approval, reported the Handelsblatt. A YouGov survey found that 88 % agreed to the measures in place and every third person wanted even tougher restrictions. Almost two thirds of the respondents also expect the rules to be tightened again.

Following a new polling low just three weeks ago, the Welt reported that the CDU/CSU Union has shot up 5 % to 33.5%, according to to the polling institute Insa. This is highly significant: “For the first time since early July 2018, the grand coalition of CDU / CSU and SPD, if elected on Sunday, would again have a parliamentary majority with 48.5 percent. The SPD comes to 15 percent, gaining half a point.” The coalition’s gain has been at the cost of the Greens, who polled at 20 % (3% down) and the Left Party (2.5% down).

Two days later, a Forsa poll showed further gains for the Union, now polling on 36%, the highest amount since the 2017 election. The Greens had dropped further to 17%, their worst result since September 2018, and the SPD had gained one point. The right wing populists the Alternative for Germany sank to 9%; this also shows the effect of the controversy surrounding Björn Höcke and the Flügel (see below).

Reporting on Britain’s handling of corona

An opinion piece in the Deutsche Welle argued that, “Boris Johnson’s timorous response to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has veered from procrastination to invoking a take-it-on-the-chin spirit to looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights…..Guidance and clear messages is what the public needs in these times. Johnson has failed to provide either.”

The Zeit, in an article called “Politics is suddenly not a game anymore” argued that Boris Johnson has changed: “the muffled populism of the Brexit time is over: along with the spread of the corona virus, Britain’s prime minister has become more serious.” The article argued that, “after ten years of austerity, the NHS gets overwhelmed by a wave of a normal flu. The country has less than a quarter of the beds that Germany has in intensive care units for emergencies. The number of deaths in the UK has already risen to 422, a development that resembles the catastrophe in Italy – only with a time lag. Great Britain is very poorly prepared for the corona epidemic.” So, “gone are the flippant sayings ….(Johnson’s) hands no longer run through the tousled blond head – they are clenched into fists. … he now speaks to the conscience of the population.”

Other papers reported the relatively small number of tests carried out in the UK so far – 82,000 – and the amount of people ignoring the government instructions to stay at home. The Frankfurter Rundschau commented that the voice of reason “is surprisingly often missing in the United Kingdom. Most British people simply ignored the government’s recommendations at the weekend.” The crowded conditions on London underground trains were also reported.

Right-wing extremism

Last week, it was reported that Björn Höcke, leader of the extreme nationalist wing of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), had come under intense pressure from his party because of a joke he had made about Auschwtiz. The week before, the office for the protection of the constitution had labelled the wing (the Flügel) right-extremist. In the face of the bad publicity received, a party executive agreed that the Flügel hould be disbanded. On Sunday, Höcke moved to pre-empt party action and announced that the Flügel had been ‘historicised’. The decision met with approval from parliamentary leader Alice Weidel: As the Spiegel noted, “Alice Weidel, who signed a non-aggression pact with the Flügel a long time ago, praised the decision: “I respect the Flügel leaders for their swift action. They have taken a clear step towards unifying the party.”

However, there are doubts that the dissolution of the official existence of the Flügel by Höcke and co-leader Andreas Kalbitz will change anything. As the Tagesspiegel commented, “Höcke and Kalbitz are not thinking of moderating themselves…..The two front men of the Flügel are die-hard right-wing extremists and racists; neither their right-wing histories nor their crusade against refugees and Muslims raise any doubts.” The paper pointed out that because of their successes in the state elections in Thuringia and Brandenburg, Höcke and Kalbitz “will not abandon their goal of conquering the AfD and positioning it as a right-wing extremist opposition to the “system” of the Federal Republic.” Höcke made his announcement to the right-wing publication Sezession, with which he has close contacts. As the Spiegel noted, his manner was combative.

Politicians did not believe the dissolution of the Flügel was any more than a cosmetic exercise, either: CSU General Secretary Markus Blume said that, “Höcke remains, right-wing extremism remains – in the future they will be at the centre of the AfD and not a wing anymore.” In addition, Thuringia’s head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Stephan Kramer, argued that the dissolution of the wing is “a chess move” – “Much more important is whether the party really distances itself from the Flügel…. So far not much of that can be seen.”

Despite the Office for the Protection of the Constitution having labelled Höcke a right-extremist, a Hamburg court ruled this week that he could not be called a fascist. Höcke had appealed after a Berlin politician called him a fascist in February.

Meanwhile, a trial in Dresden found eight men to be proven to be members of the right-extreme terrorist organisation ‘Revolution Chemnitz.’ Five of the men were also found guilty of breaches of the peace, and one for bodily harm. They were sentences to prison terms of between two years and three months and five and a half years. Revolution Chemnitz was formed in September 2018 after anti-foreigners demonstrations and riots in Chemnitz.

Fall in crime in 2019 – but high proportion of foreigners recorded as committing crimes

The Welt reported that official figures published this week showed a fall in overall crime in 2019 – although child pornography and attacks on law enforcement officers have increased. A total of 5.44 million crimes were registered in 2019, 2% less than in the previous year; a downward trend since 2017. The Welt comments that the drop can almost entirely be explained by a drop in theft: the total number of registered crimes fell by 119,000, and theft alone fell by 114,000. There were increases in attack on law enforcement officers (28% higher); child abuse (11% higher); and in the “distribution, acquisition, possession and production of child pornography” (65% higher) – perhaps representing more success in identifying these people.

The figures shows “an extraordinarily high proportion of foreigners” in crime: 2.02 million suspects, including 699,000 people without a German passport (35%), were recorded in 2019. However, as the Welt points out, there are crimes that only foreigners can commit, such as illegally staying in the country: “If one only looks at the offences that are not related to violations of immigration law, 1.9 million suspects were registered last year, including 577,000 foreigners (30%).”

Non-Germans are particularly strongly overrepresented in violent crime: 40% of the suspects (1185 people) arrested for murder and manslaughter and 37% (52,634) for serious bodily harm had no German passport. “This means that foreigners are represented far more strongly in the statistics than their share of the population (13%).” However, this includes those who do not live in Germany at all – such as tourists or travelling criminals.

What’s going on in Berlin

On Wednesday, a raft of bills tackling problems arising from the corona crisis were passed all in one day – the so-called Corona package. The Bundesrat Kompakt summarised the package: “The Corona package, which the Federal Cabinet passed on March 23, 2020 ….. comprises six laws with a wide range. It is intended to mitigate the consequences of the corona crisis for citizens, businesses, business and society: measures for social protection and hospital relief, changes in jurisdiction in the Infection Protection Act and changes in tenancy, bankruptcy and criminal procedural law – secured by a multi-billion dollar supplementary budget.”

The Bundestag had to amend the constitution in order to cover the costs of the corona crisis. The government said that the federal government now expects expenditure of 484.5 billion euros for 2020, which is 122.5 billion euros more than previously planned. Tax revenues are also expected to be 33.5 billion euros lower than previously assumed and so in total new borrowing of 156 billion euros is required. That required an amendment to Article 115, paragraph 2, sentence 6 the Basic Law (the constitution) which limits government debt – the ‘debt brake.’

In the debate Scholz spoke instead of Angela Merkel, since she was in quarantine. He called the pandemic a national challenge, but also promised solidarity with the poorest countries in the world. He said, “Everyone has to take care of each other. Then we can get through this.” CDU parliamentary group leader Ralph Brinkhaus spoke of “the greatest challenge” in the history of the Federal Republic, and said that if any country could afford aid packages worth billions, it is Germany.

Relief for hospitals, doctors and nursing facilities was legislated for: if clinics make beds available for patients with coronavirus instead of planned operations, losses will be compensated. Nursing homes will be temporarily relieved of bureaucracy and given financial support.

Easier access to social security systems and better security for social service providers was enabled. This includes making access to social security systems easier and the adaptation of the calculation of the children’s supplement, where is is dependent on income.

A bill to mitigate the consequences of the crisis in civil, insolvency and criminal law was passed – this included, for example, regulations on tenancies, suspension of bankruptcy filing and continuation of basic services such as electricity, gas and telecommunications in the case of failure to pay bills.

The Bundesrat also met to approve the measures – in its shortest ever sitting since it was formed in 1949, the upper house confirmed that it had no objections to the measures.

In other news, the AfD continued to re-submit its candidates to sit on the boards of the Foundation for the Murdered Jews of Europe, the German Historical Museum and the Hirschfeld Foundation (which promotes education, science and research on the life of homosexual men and women, especially keeping in mind the National Socialist persecution of homosexuals). AfD candidates are often chosen with provocation in mind and are regularly voted down.

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