News Digest 1st May

May Day – also International Workers’ Day – is a public holiday in Germany which is normally marked by rallies and demonstrations. This year is very different; the Trade Union Confederation announced an online day of meetings, speeches and band performances instead of the usual mass gatherings, although around 20 small May Day demonstrations in Berlin were planned nevertheless.

But protest is alive and well in Germany. Fridays for Future protestors, for example, found their own way of demonstrating last Friday – they laid 1,000 placards out in front of the Bundestag. Restaurant owners put 800 empty chairs in front of the Brandenburg gate to raise awareness of their plight.

Around a thousand right-wingers demonstrated in Berlin last Saturday against the lockdown restrictions and Angela Merkel said that the decision to restrict personal freedoms was one of hardest she has made in her time as chancellor and called the pandemic an “imposition on democracy.”

So far, 160,000 people have been confirmed to have been infected with the virus and over 6,200 died. The mortality rate – still low in comparison with many other countries – rose to 4%, and the number of medical staff infected to 8539. The reinfection rate rose to 1 and was then revised down to 0.9 and then 0.75 and then 0.76 this week. The new 1,000 bed hospital hospital was finished after four weeks of construction.

At the same time, it was reported that the lockdown has significantly reduced the numbers of people with influenza (which killed 25,000 people in Germany two years ago).

The country has been taking some small steps towards ending the restrictions on public life; some shops and businesses were allowed to open and school leaving exams took place.

A small but growing backlash against the lockdown could be seen this week and the debate about how fast restrictions should be loosened, and the interpretation of the agreements made by the 16 federal states two weeks ago, intensified.

However, the government warned that the rate of new infections needed to fall to hundreds rather than thousands a day before any further loosening could be considered, and extended the world-wide travel warning until at least June 14th.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said that it would be reckless to jeopardise the country’s costly success in fighting the virus.

While schools are preparing to partially open next week and Education Minister Anja Karliczek floated the idea of opening schools on Saturdays, in order to make up for lost time, a paper from Berlin virologist Christian Drosten found that that even though children usually have far milder symptoms the adults, they have the same levels of virus in their body. This cast doubt on the wisdom of re-opening schools.

Drosten, who has been influential voice in advocating strict lockdown measures, said this week that he has been threatened and even received death threats by people unhappy about the lockdown.

The Deustche Welle reported in the rise of conspiracy theories about the pandemic in Germany: Platforms like Russia Today Germany or the right-wing magazine Compact carry out targeted propaganda, claiming that a small elite group are conspiring against the public

Against protests about data privacy, the government dropped its collaboration on a corona app, and announced it would switch instead to a Swiss-developed app supported by Google and Apple.

The Zeit reported on a surprising discovery – people seem happier in lockdown than in normal life. In a survey it has been regularly running since March 2017, the paper noticed a spike in people answering that they are doing well: “While between 60 and 65 percent of readers previously stated that they were doing well, it is now between 70 and 80 percent. The change comes at exactly the time when public life has been significantly restricted.”

As an obligation to wear masks on public transport, and in some states, shops, came in across the country this week, the German army flew in 10 million masks from China: 15 million are supposed to follow.

Employment Minister Hubertus Heil and Health Minister Jens Spahn announced plans to give care workers a bonus of up to 1500 euros.

In images that can’t be unseen, German GPs posted pictures of themselves naked in protest at the lack of PPE equipment in local surgeries.

Government meeting to discuss lifting the restrictions

On Thursday, representatives of the federal and state governments met again to discuss the restrictions. Even before the meeting, the Head of the Chancellery Helene Braun had said that there would be no significant lifting of the restrictions before 10th May. Some easing was announced however. Large events will not take place until at least August 31, but religious services will be possible again, and playgrounds will be opened. Museums, zoos and botanical gardens will open across the country, although some states have already done this following the last meeting on April 15.

Merkel said that people must remain careful, and since there is still no vaccine,”The aim, as at the beginning, is to follow every chain of infection.”

Further decisions about schools and the Bundesliga will be made at the next meeting. This meeting, to discuss major measures after May 10th, will be held next Wednesday, May 6th.

CDU/CSU still winning

The CDU/CSU Union continued its poll revival, with a ZDF Politbarometer putting them on 39%; the SPD remain on 16% and the Greens have not revived; they are still on 18%. The far-right AfD fell further, to 9%. A majority of the public approve the government’s loosening of restrictions – 55% approve the gradual lifting of restrictions, 13% said they wanted more reopening, and 30% felt that too much was being loosened. 53% support the reopening of schools, although 32% said they should remain closed. 73% are worried that an economic downturn is coming.

CDU leadership

Last weekend should have been the CDU leadership election – a special conference would have elected either Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz or Norbert Röttgen. Due to the ban on large gatherings, the conference has been indefinitely delayed.

That doesn’t mean that campaigning stopped – Laschet has been widely seen as promoting his claim to the leadership during the crisis. A loud voice in favour of discussing an exit strategy earlier than the government wanted, and in favour of faster lifting of restrictions, he has set himself apart from the other two and from possible CSU Chancellor candidate, Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder, who has been strongly in favour of stringent lockdown measures.

Expansion of financial aid

Two SPD politicians have performed strongly throughout the corona crisis: Employment Minister Hubertus Heil who, with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, has been responsible for many key policies. Their initiatives, however, have not resulted in higher poll ratings for the SPD, despite their popularity.

Scholz added a further 10 billion to his 1.2 trillion financial aid package last week, partly to finance an increase in short work money from between 60- 67% to as much as 87%, depending on the length of time a worker is laid off (short work, or Kurzarbeit, is an invention of the 2009 financial crisis and means that the state pays a proportion of a worker’s salary if they are temporarily laid off due to lack of demand). So far, 10.1 million people have registered for short work.

Two weeks ago, Scholz confirmed  that the  ‘basic pension’, which the SPD had won an agreement on in late November, will not be delayed by corona, but come in as planned 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. Last week, Hubertus Heil announced that from July, there will be an increase in the state pension for 21 million pensioners.

The Spiegel reported that Heil is also preparing a draft law to enshrine the right to work from home (entirely, or for a few days a week), even after the corona pandemic is over. The number of employees working from home has increased from 12% to 25% as a result of the corona crisis. The Spiegel reported that Heil is also planning longer ‘wage loss payments’ for parents who have to look after their children at home in the corona crisis due to closed daycare centers, as well as regulations for continued payment of wages if someone has to self-quarantine.

The Education Minister, Anja Karliczek, also announced help for students in financial distress as a result of the crisis. Many students have lost their jobs but had so far been overlooked. They will now be able to receive interest-free loans, and this will apply to foreign students studying in Germany as well as German students.

Gloomy economic news continues

The government predicted that the economy will shrink 6.3% this year (albeit with a rebound of 5.2% next year), household consumption will fall by 7.4%, exports by 11.6 % and the number of people in work will fall from 45.3 m to 44.9m.

The German Retail Association warned that 50,000 retailers could go bust as a result of the shutdown and demanded consumer vouchers to help. Although smaller shops have re-opened, the FT reported that many people are staying away; and the lack of tourists is making the problem worse for beleaguered retailers. While online retailers and delivery companies are booming, the government rejected calls for Sunday deliveries; the right to rest on a Sunday is embodied in law.

Lufthansa has said that it will lose 10,000 jobs and 100 planes as a result of the reduction in travel; the government is discussing a state aid package.

The auto industry, which has been seeking state subsidies for car buying, has been criticised by the SPD: Carsten Schneider, the first parliamentary managing director of the SPD parliamentary group, said that the industry had made enormous profits in the past few years and that taxpayers’ money must be used “in a targeted and responsible manner.”

The German government, which had planned to allow travel companies to issue vouchers instead of refunds for cancelled trips, was blocked from doing this by the European Commission, which wants travellers too be able to claim refunds.

The Green Party – which has seen its poll ratings slip to 18% during the crisis – called for a massive economic stimulus program. Its ‘Containment, Recovery and Renewal’ paper proposed investment of around 100 billion euros this year, including 20 billion euros to be invested in a program to save the city centres (for example, by giving people ‘purchase-on-site vouchers’, for shops and restaurants). 500 billion euros should be spent in the next ten years, including on the health system and hospitals. State support should be given to for companies on the condition that consider climate issue; for example by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Alternative for Germany continues to be dogged by fascism

The AfD is having a bad run of it. It has fallen over 5% in the opinion polls recently, partly because of its confused – and unpopular – response to the corona crisis. Its nationalist wing, the Flügel, was dissolved after it was classified as right-extreme by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and a joke about Auschwitz made by Flügel leader Björn Höcke, who is the AfD leader in Thuringia. This week, the party sacked their parliamentary press spokesman, Christian Lüth, who has worked for the party since 2013 and has been a close associate of parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland. According to the Zeit, the reason was Lüth’s attitude towards National Socialism. The Zeit reported that “Lüth is said to have repeatedly referred to himself as a ‘fascist’ and to have referred to his ‘Aryan’ descent with reference to his grandfather.”

Additionally, the Spiegel reported that the Thuringian head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Stephan Kramer, had said that the announcements that the Flügel was being dissolved were “a deliberate tactical ‘fog candle'”. He said that: “Numerous protagonists of the wing continue to exert great influence within the AfD – regardless of organisational form.”

Hezbollah banned

The Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned the Lebanese terrorist militia Hezbollah from operating in Germany. The main reason is agitation against Israel. The police raided several mosques in Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen on Thursday morning; these places are considered to support Hezbollah with money and propaganda.

A bad week for car drivers

While the government announced higher fines for speeding and parking offences this week, Berlin has also annoyed car drivers by widening its bike lanes to give cyclists more space and keep to social distancing measures.

BER airport to finally open

Berlin’s new airport, BER, was supposed to be opened in 2012 but it has become a running joke in Germany. It went billions over budget and the opening has been delayed 9 times (mostly because it has failed fire safety checks). It has finally got the approval to open, and should be in operation from October this year. However, the project is already in debt and will need a further cash injection of up to 1.8 billion euro by 2023, according to a study published this week. The company responsible for the airport, FBB, is jointly owned by the states of Berlin (37%) and Brandenburg (37%) and the federal government (26%).

Systemsprenger to represent Germany at the Oscars

A film called Systemsprenger (System Crasher) won 8 awards at the German Film Festival last weekend, and has been selected to represent Germany at the Oscars. The film is about a nine year old girl growing up in care who cannot be integrated into any system. As the Deutsche Welle reported, it’s a surprising choice since other German films at the Oscars have tended to concentrate on German history.

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