German media are reporting on a decision to put in place tough new measures from Monday, November 2, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But will the German people be compliant?
With the number of coronavirus cases rapidly increasing day by day, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s state premiers held an emergency meeting on Wednesday. According to several German news outlets they agreed to implement a partial second lockdown, which will begin on Monday November 2.
This will be the anticipated „lockdown light“ — a less intense version of the measures that brought German society and economic activity to a standstill in the spring. It would see schools and kindergartens remain open, but restaurants, bars and some shops close for at least a month. Large events would also once more be canceled and unnecessary travel discouraged.
Reportedly, overnight stays in hotels, except for in emergency situations, will also be banned. All those who can work from home should do so, with authorities calling for employers to ease a transition into working from home.
Until now, Merkel’s government has enjoyed high levels of support for the measures put in place to tackle the pandemic and Germany has fared relatively well compared to many of its European neighbors.
But public mood has been shifting and criticism among the population of government-ordained measures is on the rise.
Wednesday saw Germany’s highest rate of new daily infections yet — over 14,000 — and the latest figures show that only around 25% of Germany’s intensive care beds are still available.
Compared to the beginning of October, 5% more people now say that the measures currently in place do not go far enough (32% in total), according to the statistics agency Infratest. At the same time, the number of people for whom the measures go too far increased by 4% to 15% of people in total. A slim majority (51%) feel that the current measures are sufficient, but this number is 8% less than at the start of October.
Some of those who vehemently oppose further restrictions are fearful of the economic impact. Many Berlin restaurant owners, for example, have said they would probably have to close down their business if faced with a second lockdown. They have already seen losses after the closure in the spring, followed by rules that forced them to adhere to social distancing regulations and then the curfew imposed last month.
Several news outlets also reported that financing the new measures would push the amount of debt Germany was in for 2021 well over €100 billion ($117 billion). Finance Minister Olaf Scholz had planned a sum of €96 billion to help businesses ride out the pandemic next year, but the new aid package could cost €10 billion more.
The opposition pro-business liberal Free Democrats have spoken out against another shutdown of the hospitality sector. „I believe it is unnecessary and unconstitutional,“ party leader Christian Lindner wrote on Twitter before Wednesday’s meeting.
For many in Germany, the question of individual freedom is at least as important as a thriving economy. Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is the largest opposition party in the German federal parliament, have been among those the most widely critical of further restrictions.
„No measures — including lockdowns — have had a demonstrable influence on the infection rate, but the lockdown fantasies of government politicians are becoming increasingly absurd,“ the AfD parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland said in a statement on Tuesday.
Germany has seen anti-lockdown protests in recent months, with some groups protesting under the banner of „Querdenker“ — people who „think outside the box.“ A demonstration in Berlin at the weekend coincided with an arson attack on the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health agency — although no suspects have yet been identified.
Protesters espousing conspiracy theories and far-right groups have joined the demonstrations, drawing criticism and ridicule from the left and more liberal quarters. But surveys show that there is a growing number of people critical of restrictions, who believe that fighting the virus should be a question of personal responsibility. The most recent survey shows that a narrow majority of Germans agree with this view: 54% compared to 43% who say authorities should put restrictions in place.
Berlin vs. the states
As Germany is governed by a federal system, one of the key questions during the pandemic response has been how much of a say the central government in Berlin should have, as health policy is the mandate of the 16 states. This has led to a „patchwork“ of regulations across the country, with travel bans or curfews in some places and no restrictions in others.
The most recent survey shows over two thirds (68%) of people want regulations to be unified across the 16 states. Additionally, 78% said they wanted the states to „work more closely together“ in pandemic response.
There have been calls for the parliaments at federal and state levels to be involved in decision making, with MPs from all political parties speaking out against decision-making behind closed doors.
A European role model?
Despite the increasing infection rates, Germany still stands on good ground compared to other European countries. Even with the high daily infection figures seen in late October, in terms of cases per 100,000 inhabitants Germany remains well below rates in Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Belgium.
France and the UK are among the countries that have introduced partial or localized lockdowns in recent weeks in an effort to curb the number of cases. Germany is hoping to take action before cases reach the rates seen there, in two of the worst-affected nations in the world.
Germany’s relatively strong acceptance of measures up until now may have been key in the low infection and death rates. But surveys show that 50% of Germans believe that efforts by police and authorities to enforce the restrictions have not gone far enough.
The challenge is to make sure the German people accept the new measures — and to enforce them. Relying on goodwill and compliance, as the chancellor called for in her most recent video podcast, may not go far enough.