Chancellor Angela Merkel used all her political weight in a televised address on Wednesday (18 March) to call on Germans to respect the containment rules imposed because of the coronavirus, urging them to show solidarity and help counter “the biggest challenge since World War Two”.
Yet despite the rapidly increasing number of infections, Merkel (CDU) announced no new restrictive measures to mandate social distancing in the country, leaving many to wonder why Germany continues to chart a different, more relaxed course from its neighbours.
The speech, broadcast in prime time, was her first televised address since her inauguration in 2005, not including her New Year’s messages.
She emphasised the severity of the crisis, even for those who are young and healthy and have thus far been reluctant to embrace voluntary social distancing.
“It’s serious. Take it seriously, too. Since the German reunification, no, since World War Two, there has not been a challenge to our country that depends so much on our joint solidarity,” she stated.
As of 18 March, there are 11,156 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Germany in all 16 states. The highest numbers remain in North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg. The rate of infection has grown dramatically, logging about 9,000 new cases in the last week alone.
Despite these staggering figures, Merkel did not introduce any additional legal restrictions on social gatherings in her address. Instead, she appealed to Germans’ sense of solidarity.
“It depends on every person. We are not condemned to passively accepting the spread of this virus…Whoever avoids unnecessary encounters helps all those who have to deal with more cases in hospitals every day.”
However, it is assessed daily whether stricter measures are necessary, Merkel stressed.
Without new measures, Germany will continue to operate under the plan agreed by the federal government and states on Monday.
Under this agreement, all schools, daycares, bars, clubs, fitness studios, and ‘non-essential’ shops are closed. Restaurants are allowed to operate between 6 am and 6 pm, while all essential services such as supermarkets, banks, gas stations, and pharmacies remain open.
These measures are in effect in all states, although some have instituted slightly more severe restrictions, such as Bavaria, whose restaurants close at 3 pm.
There is reason to believe, however, that these measures may not have not been effective in emptying public areas to the degree necessary to slow the spread of the disease.
While many on social media are urging others to stay home, across the country, people crowd into cafés, beer gardens, and restaurants during their shorter opening hours. Sidewalks are still filled with friends walking closely together.
Germany the odd one out
Merkel’s speech and Germany’s measures thus far are in keeping with the tradition of a country that is very concerned about its economic liberalism: state intervention is kept to a minimum. This political principle is further reinforced by the country’s federal structure.
This may explain why the Chancellor’s address is so different from that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who did not hesitate in his speech on Monday (16 March) to draw on the vocabulary of war to justify the much more restrictive measures implemented in France. After all, France’s “Président de la République” is also the army chief.
Like Merkel, Macron reacted to the fact that a large part of the population did not respect the confinement orders.
“But at the same time, even as the nursing staff in the intensive care units were warning of the seriousness of the situation, we also saw people gathering in parks, crowded markets, restaurants and bars, who did not respect the closure order. It was as if, basically, life hadn’t changed,” Macron said.
He therefore decided to reduce mobility “very drastically” for at least 15 days. Any breach of these rules will be fined (135 euros) and there will be controls, he stressed.
As of 18 March, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 175 people and contaminated 7,730 others in France, of whom 2,579 are hospitalized and 699 are in a serious condition. France has a population of 67 million people.
The Grand Est region, on the border between France and Germany, is among the most affected in the country, with 1,543 cases. Since the outbreak of the epidemic, a total of 51 people have died in the Grand Est.
Germany’s southern neighbour Austria also went for a firm style of leadership. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and his government imposed limitations on public life which essentially have the effect of a curfew, while avoiding that politically sensitive term.
Restaurants, bars and most shops have been closed since Tuesday, only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open.
Citizens must remain in their homes except for shopping, helping others, going to work or taking strolls. They must keep a distance of one meter from others, except for people they live with. Breaking these laws results in fines of up to €3,600. All these measures run out on Sunday, when they will need to be prolonged – or stepped up.
The legislation was passed in record time, which raised eyebrows amongst opposition parties, journalists and activists, who voiced concerns about its constitutionality. It has also been accompanied by schoolmasterly rhetoric. Unlike Merkel, Kurz does not ask people to stay at home in his speeches and interviews – he demands it.
Over and over, he lists the few legitimate reasons to go out, as if talking to a stubborn child. His vice-chancellor, Werner Kogler of the Greens, played the bad cop during the parliamentary debate on the restrictions, expressing anger at sports associations who still organise gatherings.
He called such negligence “perverse and absurd” and directly addressed them with a surprisingly loud – for parliamentary standards – “Hello, wake up!”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic].