By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel hit the stage in frustration when she begged the Germans this month to reduce social contacts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
At one point in her unusually passionate speech to parliament, in which she was harassed, she brought her hands together as if in prayer. At others she shook her fist.
“I want to say this: if we have too much contact during Christmas and afterwards it turns out that it was the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we really screwed up and we shouldn’t screw up!” she said.
Merkel’s rare expression of emotion on December 9 was widely seen as a sign of impatience with the difficulties – and now criticism – she faces as she tries to send Europe’s largest economy through a second wave of COVID-19.
Merkel, a physicist, received credit for her approach to the first wave, when she quickly locked up Germany and then lifted restrictions sooner than in other countries, easing the economic pain.
But her government has come under fire as COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, even though Germany is still doing better than many other European countries and is hampered by a political system built around consensus.
After months of warnings from virologists about an impending wave, Germany started a full lockdown on Wednesday, which will last at least until January 10.
When stores and schools closed, the death toll was up 952, the highest daily increase.
Merkel’s conservative Bavarian ally Markus Soeder says the situation is “getting out of hand” and Der Spiegel magazine referred to its strategy as “The Winter Failure”.
“The bitter truth is that Germany has to close not only because of corona, but also because of its political dealings with corona,” wrote the best-selling daily Bild.
Criticism of Merkel, 66, has been exacerbated by other countries introducing a COVID-19 vaccine partially developed in Germany, but not yet approved for use there.
Berlin is awaiting European Union approval for the vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American company Pfizer.
“Germany lost five weeks on the vaccine. This is killing many lives,” said Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist and legislator with Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners.
Health Minister Jens Spahn has been ridiculed for saying in early November that it would be difficult to explain whether a vaccine produced in Germany was first used elsewhere.
“We have underestimated this virus,” said Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer, who warned of the “hysteria” of the virus in October, but eventually imposed a state-wide lockdown two days before the rest of Germany.
An opinion poll released on Wednesday by the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis found that 81% of Germans regret that the latest measures were not previously agreed.
Only 42% of those surveyed believed that cooperation around the pandemic between the central government and the 16 states of Germany had been good.
MERKEL DEFENDS STRATEGY
Despite the criticism, polls show that Merkel, who has said she will not seek a fifth term as chancellor, remains Germany’s most popular politician.
Comparisons with other European states during the pandemic are also largely favorable. Germany has reported fewer cases or deaths than France, Great Britain, Italy or Spain, despite having a larger population than all countries.
According to the latest official figures, the number of coronavirus cases in Germany was 1,379,238 and the death toll at 23,427. France has had more than 2 million cases and Great Britain has recorded nearly 65,000 deaths.
According to the most recent figures from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Germany is 6.9 per 100,000 people over 14 days, compared to 8.3 in France and 8.9 in Great Britain. Britain. That compared to 15.4 in Poland and 23.6 in Hungary.
Merkel has indicated that she will not be deterred by criticism, obstacles created by Germany’s consensus-driven politics, or bureaucratic delays.
She can only impose coronavirus restrictions with the approval of the 16 federal governors, and they have often watered down her proposals, leaving a patchwork of recommendations impossible to enforce rather than rules.
But tougher measures became possible after a “lockdown light” in November that closed bars and restaurants but left schools and shops open, proved less effective than hoped.
“The necessity (for the new lockdown) is due to the fact that the measures we started on November 2 were not enough,” Merkel said on Sunday, announcing the new lockdown and adding “that urgent action is needed” .
Germany’s success in the first wave has now contributed to Merkel’s problems, political experts say, as it encouraged complacency among those eager to return to work and stimulated popular resistance to restrictions.
Court rulings overturning restrictions from closing local bars to demonstration bans also diminished fervor for political action, and the government faced resistance to a tougher corporate lockdown despite a $ 130 billion ($ 158) stimulus package. , 26 billion) in June.
($ 1 = 0.8214 euros)
(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Andreas Rinke, edited by Timothy Heritage)