Merkel Shines Amid Virus Crisis 03/29 09:41
BERLIN (AP) -- In her first address to the nation on the coronavirus
pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel calmly appealed to citizens' reason
and discipline to slow the spread of the virus, acknowledging as a woman who
grew up in communist East Germany how difficult it is to give up freedoms, yet
as a trained scientist emphasizing that the facts don't lie.
Then, wearing the same blue pantsuit from the televised address, the
65-year-old popped into her local supermarket to pick up food, wine and toilet
paper to take back to her Berlin apartment. For her, it was a regular shopping
stop, but photos snapped by someone at the grocery store were shared worldwide
as a reassuring sign of calm leadership amid a global crisis.
With the coronavirus outbreak, Merkel is reasserting her traditional
strengths and putting her stamp firmly on domestic policy after two years in
which her star seemed to be fading, with attention focused on constant
bickering in her governing coalition and her own party's troubled efforts to
find a successor.
Merkel has run Germany for more than 14 years and has over a decade's
experience of managing crises. She reassured her compatriots in the 2008
financial crisis that their savings were safe, led a hard-nosed but
domestically popular response to the eurozone debt crisis, and then took an
initially welcoming --- but divisive --- approach to an influx of migrants in
In the twilight of her chancellorship, she faces her biggest crisis yet ---
a fact underlined by her decision last week to make her first television
address to the nation other than her annual New Year's message.
"This is serious --- take it seriously," she told her compatriots. "Since
German unification --- no, since World War II --- there has been no challenge
to our country in which our acting together in solidarity matters so much."
With Germany largely shutting down public life, she alluded to her youth in
communist East Germany as she spelled out the scale of the challenge and made
clear how hard she found the prospect of clamping down on people's movement.
"For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a
hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity,"
she said. But they were, she said, "indispensable at the moment to save lives."
The drama was evident in Merkel's words, but the manner was familiar:
Matter-of-fact and calm, reasoning rather than rousing, creating a message that
It is a style that has served the former physicist well in juggling
Germany's often-fractious coalitions and maintaining public support over the
"Merkel painted a picture of the greatest challenge since World War II, but
she did not speak of war," the influential Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper
wrote. "She did not rely on martial words or gestures, but on people's reason.
... Nobody knows if that will be enough, but her tone will at least not lead
the people to sink into uncertainty and fear."
Merkel's response to the coronavirus pandemic is still very much a work in
progress, but a poll released Friday by ZDF television showed 89% of Germans
thought the government was handling it well. The poll saw Merkel strengthen her
lead as the country's most important politician, and a strong 7% rise for her
center-right Union bloc after months in which it was weighed down by questions
over its future leadership.
The poll, done by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, had a margin of error of plus or
minus 3 percentage points.
The 65-year-old chancellor initially had Health Minister Jens Spahn be the
public face of the government's response, drawing some criticism but has taken
center stage over the past two weeks.
She kept that up after going into quarantine on Sunday after a doctor who
gave her a vaccination tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then she has
twice tested negative for the virus herself but continues to work from home.
On Monday, she led a Cabinet meeting by phone from home and then issued an
audio message setting out a huge government relief package to cushion the blow
of the crisis to business --- a format she said was "unusual, but it was
important to me."
Her vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who is also finance minister and a member
of her coalition partner Social Democrats, has also had a chance to shine in
the crisis, leading the way with the aid package that will allow Germany to
offer businesses more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) that he described
as a "bazooka."
The jury is still out on how the government's approach will work, but after
having run a budget surplus for a half-decade, Germany is well-prepared to
offer the massive aid program. Its health care system has been in good enough
shape to be taking in patients from overwhelmed Italy and France, with
intensive care beds still available.
Although Germany has registered the third-highest number of coronavirus
infections in Europe with 57,695, it has only seen 433 people die, placing it
sixth in Europe behind Italy, Spain, France, Britain and even the Netherlands.
Italy alone has over 10,000 dead.
Experts have attributed Germany's success partially to widespread and early
testing for the virus, among other things.
In an audio message Thursday night, Merkel cautioned, however, that it was
far too early to declare victory over COVID-19, saying "now is not the time to
talk about easing measures."
No matter what the outcome of Germany's virus-fighting efforts, it won't
change the fact that the Merkel era is drawing to a close. Merkel has never
shown any signs of backing off her 2018 vow to leave politics at Germany's next
election, due next year.
But the crisis may burnish her government's lackluster image and improve its
chances of making it through to the fall of 2021, after persistent speculation
that it wouldn't last the full legislative term.
And it certainly could put her successor on a better footing ---though just
who that will be is also up in the air. Merkel stepped down as her party's
leader in 2018 but her own choice as a successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer,
lasted just over a year before declaring that she would step down after failing
to establish her authority.
The decision on who will take over the leadership of Merkel's Christian
Democratic Union party was supposed to be made in April, but has been put on
hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.