Coronavirus greatest challenge since second World War, Merkel says

‘This is serious. Take it seriously,’ German chancellor says in rare broadcast to nation

A family in Berlin watches  Angela Merkel’s speech on the coronavirus crisis on Wednesday. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

A family in Berlin watches Angela Merkel’s speech on the coronavirus crisis on Wednesday. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the growing coronavirus crisis as the most serious challenge Germany has faced since the second World War.

In a grim broadcast to the nation – a rarity in Germany – the chancellor said the success of government restrictions depended on the assistance of all.

“This is serious. Take it seriously, too,” she said. “Not since German unification, not since the second World War, has there been a challenge to our country that depends so much on joint, demonstrations of solidarity.”

With coronavirus cases in Germany passing 8,200, the federal disease control body has warned of an “exponential” spread of the virus, with a worst-case scenario up to 10 million infections by mid-June. 

“We can all contribute [to ensure] that this scenario doesn’t come to pass,” said Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute. In a bid to monitor whether people are heeding restrictions, German mobile provider Deutsche Telekom is providing anonymised data to authorities.

Unlike in Asia and Israel, the data is not detailed enough to identify and isolate possible contact persons.

Dr Merkel was speaking at the end of the first day of almost total lockdown in Germany that has closed schools and universities, most shops, all cultural and event spaces as well as services. Several federal states have suspended their equivalent of the Leaving Certificate.

Germany has closed its borders, following the lead of its neighbours, with long tailbacks of up to 60km for vehicles travelling into Poland. Dr Merkel said that, as someone who grew up walled into East Germany, she did not agree lightly to travel restrictions.

Such restrictions could only be justified in “absolute necessity” – to save lives by reducing possibility of transmission and retarding its spread. “All state measures will be for nothing if we don’t use our most effective means against a quick spread of the virus: that is us, ourselves,” she said.

Subsidies

With no effective vaccine against the virus even Germany’s health system – one of the best in the world – risked being overwhelmed, she said, if too many people required treatment at once.

Dr Merkel conceded the impact of the epidemic for business “was already very difficult ... the coming weeks will be even more difficult”. The federal government has agreed to increase public investments by €12.4 billion and, through a state-owned bank, a loan programme worth up to €553 billion.

In addition it has broadened subsidies to assist companies retain their staff with reduced working hours and would do “everything it takes” to assist companies and employees through the weeks and months ahead.

Dr Merkel said it was sensible for citizens to set aside food reserves – “it always was” – but panic buying was senseless and, in the end, “completely lacking in solidarity”.

“What an epidemic shows us is how vulnerable we are,” she said, “how dependent we are on the considerate behaviour of others.”