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German hostility to coronavirus shutdown grows

Kay-Alexander Scholz
October 29, 2020

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's 16 state premiers spent four hours deliberating before announcing drastic measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The question now is how the Germans will react.

An intensive care station in Germany
Image: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance

"We have to face the wave," Chancellor Angela Merkel said after meeting with the heads of Germany's 16 federal states on Wednesday. She said the goal of the latest round of pandemic measures was to reduce contact between people who do not live together by 75% in order to return to a level of 50 or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Only then could the chain of infection be broken, she said. With full compliance, this could be possible by the end of November. 

Kindergartens and schools will not close as they had in the spring. But socializing in private will be reduced to a minimum: Up to 10 people will be permitted to gather, provided that they come from no more than two households, but restaurants and cafes will have to shut their doors to customers. They will, however, be allowed to offer takeaway food.  

Deutschland Berlin | Protestaktion | Alarmstufe Rot
In Berlin on Wednesday, people who work in the events sector held a rallyImage: Anita Bugge/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Once again, the cultural sector will be hit hard, with theaters, cinemas and concert halls having to close. Swimming pools, gyms and other leisure centers will shut, too. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees that are forced to close and have up to 50 employees will receive 75% of their October 2019 revenues as compensation for their losses.  

Read more: Germany faces a hard coronavirus pandemic winter

Unnecessary travel within Germany will be banned. However, there will not be any border patrols. Demonstrations and religious services will still be permitted. 

Read more: Germany's neighbors react to second coronavirus wave

Will Germans behave?  

The question now is whether Germans will comply with the rules. Generally, Germany was seen to be very disciplined during the first wave of the pandemic in spring. People stayed home and reduced their contact with members of other households. The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung described the Germans as "Europe's model pupils."  

Not everyone was on their best behavior. Many Germans took to the streets to protest against the measures. Stuttgart's Querdenken 711 protests, named with the German word for "unconventional thinking" and the local telephone prefix, became notorious. On October 25, there was an arson attack on the Robert Koch Institute, the government's agency for infectious disease control, in Berlin. The RKI has been in the forefront of Germany's fight against the coronavirus.

A recent study conducted by the research institute Infratest dimap found that the number of people who believe that the measures are too strict had risen by four percentage points since early October, to 15%, and the proportion of people who were satisfied with Germany's efforts had decreased by eight percentage points, to 51%. As Merkel met with her state-level counterparts on Wednesday, thousands of Germans who work in the culture and events sectors and the hospitality and tourism industries took to the streets to draw attention to their precarious economic situation. 

Read more: WHO says health workers account for 10% of global coronavirus infections

Edgar Grande, a professor who researches civil society and political conflict at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), said nobody had managed "to create a really organized and well-networked protest movement." He said the protests so far had tended to come apart at the edges — with one reason being that the participants are politically heterogeneous and include New Age practitioners, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. On the other hand, he also said that it was known from regular polls that there was "considerable potential for protest." Generally, one in 10 seem to be prepared to take part in protests against measures to curb COVID-19 and 20% sympathize. He said that this "significant minority" should not be ignored and could increase in number over the "very long winter" as more people are affected by the restrictions. 

Grande said there was a risk that the protests could radicalize as the xenophobic and Islamophobic PEGIDA demonstrations had in recent years. However, he doubted that there would violent demonstrations akin to those taking place across Italy at the moment, explaining that there was "a very different protest landscape there with greater militancy."  

Read more: In May, the World Medical Association said Germany had 'underestimated risk to public health'

The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is the biggest opposition party in the German parliament, has been most critical of the government's measures to slow the spread of the virus. However, this does not seem to have earned it more support among voters.  

The laissez-faire Free Democrats have charged that the lifesaving measures could have a negative economic impact. Party leader Christian Lindner wrote on Twitter that he thought it was "unnecessary and therefore unconstitutional" to shut down the restaurant sector. There has been a series of cases recently in which the courts have overturned measures such as curfews and hotel bans.  

Read more: India braces for winter as coronavirus cases top 8 million

Though some state premiers had announced resistance prior to meeting with Merkel, the new measures seem to be an indication that there is consensus between the federal government and the provinces. "Everyone's on board," Merkel said. "That's good news."  

This article was adapted from German.