Chancellor Angela Merkel’s voice briefly cracked as she appealed to Germans this week to rein in Christmas celebrations to protect grandma and grandpa from the coronavirus.
The trained physicist’s unusually emotional outburst during a debate in parliament was brought on by her failure to slow the spread of the disease. After comfortably handling the initial wave of the pandemic, the country is now lagging behind many of its neighbors and faces increasing pressure to tighten restrictions days before Christmas.
Germany’s stumbles are a function of its complex and at times dysfunctional federal system, Merkel’s pursuit of open borders and political power plays ahead of next year’s elections. It puts Europe’s largest economy at risk of another blow to consumer and business confidence.
Fresh off brokering a historic recovery package for the European Union in Brussels, Merkel is under pressure to reinvigorate Germany’s fight against the pandemic. She is expected to meet with the heads of the country’s 16 states over the weekend to impose stiffer measures, including closing non-essential shops and extending school holidays.
Germany’s soft shutdown — which closed bars, gyms and theaters but allowed most of the economy to continue operating — halted exponential growth in infections, “but as we can see, that’s not enough,” Martina Fietz, a government spokeswoman, said Friday. “The number of people voicing concerns about the tense situation in our hospitals is increasing, and they shouldn’t be ignored.”
Merkel, who is in the final year of her 16-year tenure as chancellor, is partly to blame for the current situation. She effectively declared mission accomplished in the spring when she vowed to avoid reimposing a national lockdown — which was already less harsh than in countries such as Italy and Spain.
That created the feeling that the country could get away with looser restrictions that would do less damage to the economy. It also prompted a false sense of security during the summer months, in which Germany allowed people to travel freely throughout Europe while failing to properly prepare for the second wave by ramping up testing capacities faster, protecting the elderly and beefing up online-learning capabilities.
The country’s situation at the heart of Europe — bordering on the fall hot spots of Belgium and the Czech Republic — may also have contributed to a stubborn outbreak, which has gotten worse since the partial shutdown was implemented in early November. On Friday, the country’s contagion rate climbed to more than triple the target rate set by Merkel’s government.
When it became clear in mid-November that the infection rate was not coming down, Germany’s federalist system — in which states control health policy and schools — became a major stumbling bloc for a clear response. Merkel at the time pushed for much stricter curbs. But many regional state leaders resisted, afraid of alienating voters with further restrictions and angry about the way Merkel tried to force them into a decision.
Others simply jockeyed for a role in the post-Merkel order.
Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder, the current front-runner to become the next chancellor, backed Merkel’s tougher approach, as he used the pandemic to elevate his national profile. He canceled Munich’s Oktoberfest already in the spring and imposed a curfew for hard-hit areas this week. On Friday, he called for a strict lockdown before Christmas.
By contrast, Armin Laschet — the head of North Rhine-Westphalia and a key rival to become the chancellor candidate for Merkel’s conservative bloc in September’s election — argued for a quicker return to normalcy. But with deaths now at record levels and intensive-care capacity filling up, the signals are impossible to ignore.
“We need a lockdown for all of Germany as quickly as possible,” Laschet said in a news conference on Friday. “We all wanted something else. We wanted to celebrate a carefree Christmas.”
Instead of brightening the mood before the holidays by loosening curbs like in France and the U.K., Germans face the psychological blow of tighter restrictions as 2020 draws to a close.
Still, the gloom is relative. Germany’s outbreak never neared the highs in countries like France, the U.K. and Spain, and contagion rates remain less severe than in more than half of Europe.
Polls show that Germans are suffering from pandemic fatigue and that their sense of risk has changed, according to Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, noting that Germans have reduced their contacts by only about 40%, compared with a more than 60% reduction during the first-wave lockdown. And muddling through is not what the country is accustomed to.
“The development is not what I would have wished for and not what probably everyone in this country would have hoped for,” Wieler said.