News Digest 17th April

An unusual Easter passed without church services, family visits and trips to the Ostsee; but the end of the restrictions were in sight.

The number of new corona virus infections fell steadily this week; the doubling rate had slowed down to  29 and the re-infection rate was under 1.   By Monday there were 127,000 infections and 3000 deaths and by Friday morning, 136,698 and more than 4052 deaths.   The mortality rate rose to 2.2% last weekend.    Germany was reported to be the second safest country in the world to be in during the corona crisis.

The government scientific institute, the Robert Koch Institute, released figures showing that the median age of infected people in Germany is 50.  5,100 medical employees had been infected, 71% of whom are women and the median age is 42.

Exit strategy

Prior to a meeting of representatives of federal and state governments on Wednesday, the scientific academy the National Academy of Sciences,  Leopoldina, wrote a  report recommending  that primary schools and lower secondary education should be gradually reopened under certain conditions, and step-by-step,  shops and restaurants, if social distancing regulations are strictly enforced.  The academy also said the government should introduce requirements for citizens to wear face masks in public.  Although it was reported that Merkel was listening closely to these recommendations, there were powerful voices advising against: The Tagesspiegel reported that the Helmholtz Association strongly argued that the current restrictions should be maintained about another three weeks.

On Wednesday, in a careful balancing act, Angela Merkel reported that agreement had been reached that small steps towards loosening of restrictions will  take place. She warned that the country has won only a fragile intermediate success and that rushing ahead within loosening of restrictions would be the wrong thing to do.

As a general rule, restrictions will apply until 3rd May; people should only be with others from their household; trips and visits are prohibited; and there should continue to be a 1.5 m distance between people.

Exceptions are small shops (up to 800 square metres), bookstores of any size, zoos, libraries, botanical gardens, as well as car and bike traders.  

While there will be some differences from state to state, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil said that nation-wide rules will apply as regards workplace conditions so that employees have as little direct contact as possible.

Big meetings and gatherings are banned until 31st August meaning, amongst other things, that football matches won’t be played to crowds for the remainder of this season, although there could be ‘ghost’ matches; and the ban on religious gatherings remains for the present.  The police are preparing for action against left-wing demonstrators who say they will go ahead with their 1st May demonstration regardless. 

A very controversial area was when schools should be open – it was agreed they would stay shut until 4th May, while plans were developed to open them with smaller classes and hygiene and distancing procedures in place (although Abitur  exams will take place before that).   In Bavaria, schools will not reopen until May 11.  The Deutsche Welle reported that schools must present proposals for how they plan to adhere to strict hygiene and distancing rules. “This demand has been criticised by some educators who say German schools do not have enough soap, disinfectant or protective gear like masks. The education ministers of all 16 states are working together on a solution they say will be provided by the end of April.”

Another controversial area was whether face masks should be made compulsory – Markus Söder, Bavaria’s Minister President, argued in favour of this, but it was agreed that masks should be ‘strongly recommended’ while in public places.

Border controls will remain for at least another 20 days.  This means that the borders with Austria, France, Luxembourg, Denmark and Switzerland will continue to be monitored.  There is no control at the border with   Belgium and the Netherlands, but surveillance around these border areas  will be intensified, while the  borders with  Poland and the Czech Republic are controlled by those states.  People who are neither Germans nor permanently living in Germany may only come to Germany with a “valid reason to travel”.

This agreement must now be legally implemented in the next few weeks and  several state cabinets will meet this Thursday. 

Support for the government measures

Given the still high support for the measures the government have taken so far, there was little political criticism of the measures: the criticism of the decisions is rather restrained as the Berliner Morgenpost pointed out.   SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans praised them, saying, “the measures are balanced and responsible.” FDP chief Christian Lindner welcomed the cautious easing, but said more could happen: “The orientation towards caution is correct ….But in retail, catering and education, a little more opening would have been conceivable if protection concepts were available.”

A YouGov survey before the announcement, which was summarised by the Frankfurter Allgemeine, showed that 79% of people opposed the restrictions being lifted too quickly, with 48% saying they would be happy if they were to continue until the summer holidays and only 15% saying they should be relaxed.  More than half (55%) wouldn’t even have objected to curfews if they turned out to be necessary.   Two-thirds were in favour of increasingly producing urgently needed medical goods in Germany; three quarters considered it necessary to invest more in health care for the population in the event of pandemics and crises; and almost two thirds (64 percent) hoped that the difficult situation in hospitals and clinics will result in a higher esteem for professional groups  such as nurses.

The Welt reported that the coalition government parties maintained  their improved poll ratings: the CDU/CSU Union on 37%  and the SPD on 17% percent, meaning that the grand coalition has an absolute majority of 54%.

The far-right AfD continued to oppose government restrictions, arguing that churches should be open over Easter.

Corona app raises data protection fears

An important party of the exit strategy is an app which will warn people if they have come into near contact with a person who has been diagnosed as infected with corona.  However, as the FT pointed out, this is raising questions in a country which is very committed to data privacy.  For the app to work, 50 million people would have to download it, and as the FT commented,  “in a country that lived through decades of institutionalised snooping by the Stasi and the cruelty of the Gestapo there are deep misgivings about anything smacking of mass surveillance.”

Can the health service cope?

The FT reported on Germany’s supply of hospital beds: Germany had 28,000 intensive care beds before the corona epidemic began, and that has now been raised to 40,000.  Germany also has a higher number of hospital beds per 1,000 people; this has been a subject of discussion in the past few years, reported the FT, with some people having argued that the number of beds should be cut. Germany has  a total of 497,000 hospital beds for general and acute care, in contrast to the UK,  which has only 101,255.

However, as Angela Merkel warned, if Germany were to reach an infection rate of 1.1, the health system will reach its limit by October; if an infection rate of 1.2 is reached, the health service will reach its limit by July; at 1.3, it would be as early as June. 

Since the average average population age  is the second-oldest in the European Union, after Italy, the issue of corona in retirement homes is fundamental.  The Deutsche Welle reported that although visits and events in nursing homes have been cancelled in order to protect the over 800,000 pensioners who live in around 11,700 facilities across the country,  the virus is starting to get into these homes. This means that the death rate in Germany is set  to rise.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attacked US President Donald Trump over the cessation of American payments to the World Health Organization. NTV quoted Maas as saying, “Weakening WHO would be nothing less than throwing the pilot out of the plane during a flight.  And we don’t think that is responsible.”

The Deustche Welle  reported on outbreaks of the virus in refugee centres in Germany. The paper reported that refugees, who often live in very crowded conditions, have been quarantined with infected people. They haven’t been allowed to leave at all, and panic and anger has spread amongst inhabitants.  The Deutsche Welle reported that an official who works from the Berlin public health authorities said that it was like being on a “cruise ship” with infected people: “The attitude seems to be, ‘we’ll put the whole centre under quarantine with police support until the whole place is contaminated.’ This is not ethical!”

Elevator embarrassment for Spahn

Health Minister Jens Spahn was caught in an embarrassing situation this week  – a journalist took a photo of him,  the Minister President of Hesse, the head of the Federal Chancellery (who is also a doctor), Hesse’s Minister of Social Affairs, and the  spokesman for the Hessian state government, plus some doctors, all crammed into an elevator.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that as a result, many people had reported the incident to the police. 

Strain on the EU

Amid concerns that the pandemic could break the EU apart, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a  speech calling for solidarity with other  EU countries – Germany could not emerge stronger from the crisis, he said, if its neighbours are not also strong. This is not a war, he said; nations do not stand against other nations – it’s a test of our humanity.  Let’s show the best of ourselves.

Germany is set to take over the rotating EU President in July; Foreign Minister Heiko Mass told the Welt am Sonntag, that Germany  would lead a coronavirus presidency to overcome the health crisis and its consequences.

Repatriation of German citizens

Over 212,000 Germans have been brought back since the repatriation programme was announced by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on 17 March 2020.  Over  58,000 have been repatriated in over 230 special flights chartered by the Foreign Office, including in countries where the airports had already been closed and curfews imposed, such as New Zealand.

Economic effects

The Suddeustche Zeitung reported on the effect of the lockdown on towns and cities: The German Association of Cities and Towns said  that the effects will be more drastic than in the financial and economic crisis of 2008/9 when trade tax revenues alone fell by 20 percent. The paper reported that many companies have applied for tax deferrals; and while  public institutions revenues are falling, fixed and personnel costs continue to accrue; for example,  zoos, day-care centres, libraries, baths or theatres are closed and while hardly anyone is using public transport,  the fixed costs for staff, for example, continue to add up. 

The Spiegel reported on the contradiction between the government allowing 80,000 seasonal workers into Germany to pick  asparagus and otters seasonal crops – “by special flights, across closed borders, yes, suddenly a lot is possible,” whereas the government has so far only brought over 50 refugee children from the Greek refugee camps: “they live in camps in which the corona virus spreads, with too little food, too little water, hardly any opportunities to wash themselves. There is violence, suicide, about every report contains the word “catastrophe” or “hell” or both. 50 people are allowed to come, “for now”, and for some this is already too much and this decision is “politically and health prohibitive” (Holger Stahlknecht, CDU).”

Plans for basic pension proceeding

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz confirmed  that the  ‘basic pension’,which the SPD had won an agreement on in late November, will come in on 1st January 2021.  The basic pension  will be an additional payment that would come on top of a retiree’s pension payment if, despite having paid into the system for decades, a person would have a pension which did not cover the cost of living.  The plans will be debated in parliament next week.

CDU leadership

The Zeit looked at a leadership battle taking place: between Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria, and Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North-Rhine Westphalia and CDU leadership contender.  Both men have been touted as possible Chancellor candidates for the CDU/CSU Union in next year’s election.

The two men have had different strategies.  At the beginning of the crisis,  while Söder acted quickly to shut schools,  Laschet initially opposed that.   “ (Laschet) wants to be a bridge builder ….”Measure and Middle is the motto of his government.”  But, “the Laschet method no longer worked. In the crisis, listening can easily be interpreted as hesitation.”

After that  “he became Söder’s opposite pole. He wants to be the one who fights for people to be able to lead a reasonably normal life again as soon as possible. Laschet is now an exit strategist.” Since then, he has consistently argued for small steps back to normal life, while Söder has pursued a tougher line.   

Currently, as a Welt survey last week showed, Söder is ahead of his rivals for the Chancellor candidature.

Anniversaries  of the liberation of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen

A small ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp,  where 56,000 people died, was held.  Buchenwald is in Thuringia, a state which has high AfD support and which has seen a rise in extreme- right activity in recent years.   On Saturday, authorities published the Thuringia Declaration,  reported the Deutsche Welle: The signatories warn that today “right-wing radicalism and authoritarianism are on the rise, as are a form of populism emboldened by a racially motivated superiority complex, nationalism.”

Bergen-Belsen, where more than 50,000 people, including Anne Frank, died,  postponed a larger ceremony to mark the anniversary.  In a small ceremony, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said that it is important “for the stability of our democracy to remember, again and again, where inhumane ideologies and disregard of basic democratic rights can lead.”

Merkel’s anniversary

The Deutsche Welle reported on a 20 year anniversary this week – on April 10th  two decades ago, Angela Merkel took over a head of the CDU.  In a review of her time as leader, the paper concludes that, “Though wounded, she remains the most popular politician in the country to this day.”

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