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Germany's Chancellor, Merkel shines in virus crisis even as power dwindles

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.

March 29, 2020 / 03:21 PM IST

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 2015.

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 hit home.
It is a style that has served the former physicist well in juggling Germany's often-fractious coalitions and maintaining public support over the years.
"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 March 27 by ZDF television showed 89 per cent 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 per cent 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 March 29 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 March 23, 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 (USD 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.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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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 arch 26 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.
first published: Mar 29, 2020 03:21 pm
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