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A health care worker treats a patient for the coronavirus
Image: Fabian Strauch/dpa/picture alliance

'The number of infections is rising every day'

Rosalia Romaniec
October 31, 2020

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told DW that Germany is in a critical phase of the pandemic. He is concerned by the abrasive debate about health measures. There is "hardly a bridge" between supporters and opponents.


DW: Mr. President, you just spent two weeks in quarantine. How are you feeling now? 

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Everything was fine, I'm well, I wasn't infected. But after 14 days I can say: One should avoid quarantine if at all possible. I'm glad I can meet people face to face again.  

We are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Germany is facing a partial shutdown. Have we lost control? 

We are in a situation where the number of infections is rising every day, reaching new records. This is also a practical test for democracy in Germany. Either we manage to reduce the number of infections significantly with the means at our disposal or the situation will get out of control. I am confident that we will succeed in pushing back the rate of infection. 

Read more: Coronavirus infections soar in US, Europe

When faced with such heavy choices, which is more important: public health or Germans' basic assumed freedoms? 

I'm convinced that most people realize that these burdens are necessary at this point, so we don't have to experience what some of our neighbors have experienced: hospitals overflowing, with highly infectious patients lying in the corridors or who can't be admitted at all. We must avoid pushing the health system beyond its limits — that is the central goal now. I think that people understand that. 

Read more: International health officials were looking ahead to the second wave of infections in the spring

Resistance to public health measures is growing across Germany and the European Union. We can expect a long, hard winter. Are public health measures driving more and more people to embrace conspiracy theories and making them vulnerable to radicalization? 

The number of people who consider the restrictions to be correct or are demanding stricter measures is currently growing faster than the number of critics. In this respect, it's not so much the numbers that worry me, but the abrasiveness of the argument. There is hardly a bridge between those who say "yes, that is correct" and those who either don't consider coronavirus a danger or completely reject restrictions. I've tried myself to bring supporters and opponents together. This can be done in smaller groups. But, on a larger scale, the conversation has indeed become more difficult. 

Read more: How the German military helps fight the pandemic

How can people who have abandoned dialogue or joined the ranks of the conspiracy theorists be brought back to democratic discourse? 

You cannot force someone into democratic discourse. Politicians have to take on the task of explaining in a transparent manner what they're doing and why certain measures are required. With the number of infections rising, those that assert that we are dealing with a simple flu, that we politicians are cooking up a storm, are themselves increasingly under pressure.  

Germany's relationship with Russia is at its lowest point following a series of incidents — including, most recently, the poisoning attack on the prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Are you concerned? 

I'm concerned about Navalny being poisoned, but my concern dates back a long time. Of course, one should mention the illegal annexation of Crimea, where I fear that Moscow has not properly understood the shock that it caused in Europe — and not just in Eastern Europe. What followed didn't change things for the better. Members of the opposition in Russia came increasingly under pressure. Some have to fear for their lives. ... Some have lost them, right up to the Tiergarten murder. And now Navalny. This has put us in a situation where the distance has grown, without a doubt. I believe we shouldn't just let this process of alienation continue. Our history in Europe, but also the geographical location, with Russia as a neighbor, makes it necessary to look for opportunities, again and again, to counter that.  But you cannot change this unilaterally. This also requires the will and understanding of the Russian side. 

Steinmeier says his unease about the Kremlin' affairs predates the poisoning of NavalnyImage: Nina Haase/DW

It sounds as though they aren't giving enough? 

In my opinion, it's too little, yes. 

Read more: Coronavirus cases in Germany reach record high

Developments in the United States, Russia and China show how important it is for Germany to take on a leadership role internationally. How ready is Germany for that? 

We need an understanding in Germany that this country is important in Europe. If we invest in Europe, others will, too. Because of our geographical location and history, we have the task of building bridges that need to be built in Europe between East and West. Bridges across some of the misunderstandings and cracks that have appeared in the past year. But what's more important still is understanding that we also have to invest in Europe in terms of security policy. On the one hand, this means making Europe stronger — and, on the other hand, as I said recently, it also means significantly strengthening the European pillar in NATO. Both are necessary. 

Read more: EU's 'Three Seas Initiative' aims to curb China's influence 

Next year we have federal elections in Germany. This also marks the end of Angela Merkel's political era. Could Germany lose influence once the chancellor steps down — both internationally and in Europe? 

It is natural that, if someone had the opportunity to gain political experience after so many years in government office, and even more importantly, had the opportunity to expand a political network in all European countries and far beyond ... whoever becomes the successor will start differently. In this respect, these are big shoes to fill, but that doesn't mean that the successor would be denied the opportunity to develop similar influence over the years. But, that's not that easy: The shoes are big.  

This interview was adapted from German.

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