Merkel faces uphill task to maintain good COVID-19 record
Just as scientists and health care specialists had predicted and politicians feared, autumn is here and the much-dreaded second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has firmly gripped Europe. In many countries, this wave seems to be stronger than the first, as the daily infection rates have reached new highs, particularly in France.
Alongside the UK, continental nations like France, Italy and Spain have already started imposing and even tightening regulations, notably nighttime curfews. Most political leaders, uncertain of exactly how the pandemic may play out during the winter, are for now assuring their citizens that there won’t be a second total lockdown.
One of the first leaders to say this was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has also begun tightening the restrictions as the virus takes hold once again. One can only hope that she manages to keep her word.
Merkel won plaudits not only from fellow Germans but also several other European leaders and global institutions for the way she handled the first wave. As the leaders of other European nations were struggling to come up with a response to effectively deal with and contain the pandemic, Merkel went into overdrive and demonstrated the typical German efficiency and discipline.
Right from the outset, Merkel adopted a two-pronged approach. One was large-scale and widespread testing, instead of slowly ramping up testing as many other countries have done. Germany also rapidly developed a very effective contact tracing system and, with a reinforced health care system, the country was able to slow the virus’ spread within the first few weeks, while it went from bad to worse in most other nations.
The chancellor then identified the hotspots where the infection rates were highest and set time-bound targets to curb the rate of spread and keep fatalities to a minimum. As a result, by mid-May, barely two months after the pandemic had begun spreading around Europe, Germany had managed to flatten the curve of new infections. This made Germany, the most populous country in the EU, one of the bloc’s best-performing in terms of limiting the number of cases and deaths. It has still only suffered just over 10,000 COVID-19-related deaths, compared to 35,000 in France and Spain and 37,000 in Italy.
While taking care of the health-related aspects of the pandemic, Merkel did not lose sight of the economic crisis that the shutdown of offices, shops and factories brought about. Germany was the first EU member state to unveil a large-scale bailout for the companies and citizens hit by the pandemic, with its package eventually totaling almost $1.5 trillion.
The people of Germany seem to have reached their limit in terms of lockdowns and restrictions.
When the virus seemed to be under control, Germany was one of the first nations in the EU to end its lockdown and lift restrictions. Bars and cafes reopened, as did offices and shops. Despite these liberalizations, the number of cases seemed to remain flat until about a month ago. It was then that the infections began to shoot up dramatically. Thus, while it added only 46,000 cases in September, Germany saw more than 156,000 new cases in the first 25 days of October.
As soon as the infections began to shoot up, the German government began to reintroduce restrictions. The mood in Berlin this time around is definitely much more somber than it was in the summer. There are several reasons for this. First is that, even though Germany’s count remains much lower than the other large EU nations, the rise in cases in this phase seems to be out of control. And, as winter approaches, the number of cases could keep on rising faster than ever, partly due to the colder and more humid weather conditions and also the fact that the virus is more likely to spread through cold.
A second worry for Merkel and her government may be that, despite Germany being far removed from the scenes witnessed earlier in the year of hospitals in various EU nations overflowing with patients, its health care system is stretched. It has been facing the challenge of dealing with patients for more than nine months and its personnel and equipment have their limits.
The story with economic bailout packages is similar. Though Germany is the largest economy in Europe and has not suffered as seriously as many of its fellow EU members, Berlin has been known for its tight-fisted fiscal policy, where the politicians like to keep strict tabs on their fiscal spending. Though these limits have been relaxed in the current crisis, Merkel cannot keep on extending fresh bailouts to help German companies and citizens deal with the pandemic’s economic fallout.
But the biggest worry for the chancellor is that the people of Germany seem to have reached their limit in terms of lockdowns and restrictions. Far-right parties have been keenly exploiting this by organizing protests against any new limitations, let alone a full lockdown. In late August, Berlin saw a huge protest against coronavirus restrictions and more than 300 people were arrested. These demonstrations have not only continued but also spread across the country as people tire of the restrictions. Unlike the initial lockdown, when most Germans immediately heeded Merkel’s call to stay at home and use masks, now — in a very atypical and surprising display of indiscipline — many Germans are questioning the government and have begun believing and spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
Though she may be the most astute politician currently around in Europe, even Merkel may now find herself facing an uphill task to keep the pandemic, the economy and her restive population in check.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.