Opinion: COVID-19 hits the Cabinet and German leaders shrug | Opinion | DW | 25.10.2020

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Opinion: COVID-19 hits the Cabinet and German leaders shrug

The health minister tested positive for COVID-19 after meeting with colleagues. Officials implore Germans to stay home for their communities — but often fail to practice what they preach, writes DW's Rosalia Romaniec.

When the news that Health Minister Jens Spahn had tested positive for the coronavirus was made public last week, many in Germany expected that half of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet would have to isolate as well. In the morning on the day he tested positive, Spahn participated in a meeting of government ministers. There was certainly a vocal exchange — possibly loud at times — and maybe even some laughter. Not everyone present would have worn masks the entire time. And is a meeting like that even safe? It's the federal government, after all.

Rosalia Romaniec Portrait

Rosalia Romaniec writes about politics and society

There is a risk wherever people meet. And these are German leaders who are accompanied by security personnel and government staff to several meetings a day as part of their job governing a country of 83 million people. 

Even more concerning is that nobody decided to isolate after hearing of Spahn's positive test — not even as a precautionary measure. In the end, a single minister decided to have herself tested.

Read more: Coronavirus deaths in Germany pass 10,000

On the day Spahn's infection was confirmed, his spokesperson said the health minister had had "no fever," but that "cold symptoms" were present. Excuse me? Did Spahn go into the Cabinet meeting with cold symptoms? The reassuring answer came two days later: no — in the meeting, Spahn had just noticed a hoarse throat, but the cold symptoms didn't come until later, which is why he decided to test that very day.

Read more: German lawmakers urge shorter coronavirus quarantine

Precaution 'whenever possible'

Merkel did not recommend that all who were present at the meeting be tested — but her spokesperson did clarify the hygiene policies of the chancellery and noted that the meeting had been held in a large open room with modern ventilation. That which is not wrong, is not automatically right, of course. Possible doubts could quickly have been clarified. A government that is urging Germans to follow strict measures could have offered a helpful display of caution.

Watch video 02:09

Local health authorities reach their limits

Perhaps Merkel is tired of the pandemic. The otherwise-disciplined chancellor even allowed herself a small slipup last week. "Whenever possible," Merkel said on her weekly podcast, "please stay home." Shortly after, she was spotted shopping in Berlin — though with a mask.

Read more: Should Germans should panic-buy during the pandemic?

Some people who see the otherwise-admonitory Merkel in line for the register might simply think it's nifty to have caught the chancellor out shopping. Others might decide that the pandemic is not so dangerous, after all, if Merkel thinks shopping is still safe. It's not an easy time for politicians, but they may be underestimating the value of setting an example.

Read more: Journalists document German officials' wasted weeks early in the pandemic

Who's the spreader?

Up until the beginning of summer, the only people wearing masks at the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament, were the facility's staff and journalists. Politicians walked the halls as if they were immune. For the first months of the pandemic, the Bundestag was its own universe. Masks have only been required in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, since October 6.

Which brings us back to Spahn. Last week, he met with several people. From whom he caught the coronavirus could not be traced. It seems odd that Berlin's city-state health officials would say the matter is back under control. For a while, they have not been able to promptly inform people who need to isolate. In fairness, several leading German politicians have self-isolated out of concern for the people around them, including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

On Twitter, Spahn told the people whom he had encountered during the period that he hopes they "stay healthy." In April, he had offered a bit of foreshadowing when he said: "We are likely going to have to forgive each other for a lot." He was so right.