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Why did Merkel close Glühwein stands but not schools?

The chancellor had been desperate to keep schools open, but they were left to figure it out for themselves. Konrad Werner weighs in.

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Angela Merkel during a meeting at the Bundestag. Photo: imago images/Photothek

Disliking Angela Merkel is a challenge, I realise that. I feel it. Her presence calms me down too. It’s almost impossible not to be reassured when she says things like, “If excitement solved anything, I would get excited.” (We don’t know if she says this in real life, but she said it as a character in the movie Die Getriebenen, so that counts.) I also get charmed watching her adopt a slightly impatient voice to explain what “exponential infection rate” means to a room full of frowning journalists. And for British remainers, there was nothing but inner joy when she turned down a desperate meeting with sniggering nationalist Boris Johnson because she’s not the EU and doesn’t negotiate for it.

But what does she actually do? I mean, apart from be calm and correct about science? Let’s look at last year: for the whole summer, Germany looked like it was containing COVID better than any other country in Europe. But much of that was due to luck and having a decentralised health care system that was able to react. Then came November, vengefully reminding us that looser restrictions mean more infections, whether you have a scientist as your leader or not.

Again, Merkel made the right speeches. She was right when she called on state leaders to impose stricter measures because infections would hit 20,000 a day by Christmas (we reached that in mid-November). But at the same time, her own government failed to help prepare local health authorities for the second wave. Additional staffing has been lagging, hospitals are overcrowded and it took months for the Health Ministry to make free FFP2 masks available to the sick and elderly – by which time thousands of them were dead.

Meanwhile, teachers organisations are complaining about how strategies are communicated. For all her “unusually emotional” speeches about Glühwein stands, Merkel had been desperate to keep schools open, but they were left to figure it out for themselves – iPads for remote learning or air filters for classrooms had been promised, but didn’t appear. When asked by Radyo Metropol FM what school children who might have to air their classrooms in winter should do, Merkel’s advice was: “Maybe they could do some knee-bends or clap their hands.” By Friday afternoon the Berlin education department U-turned and decided to keep schools closed anyway.

The whole dynamic resembles the refugee crisis five years ago. Merkel says the right things and offers impressive moral authority, but she remains above the details. Back then, thousands of mainly Syrians and Afghans were walk- ing along the Autobahns across Austria to Germany. Merkel was praised internationally for showing some basic humanity in the autumn of 2015, but her government flailed around helplessly for the next few months in actually preparing the various refugee registration centres and shelters. There was little federal effort to invest in the infrastructure that was necessary to integrate these people into society. Of course, it’s not all the chancellor’s fault. Nothing is ever any one person’s fault in a federal system, and in Germany it’s the state authorities who are primarily in charge of their health and education systems.

Still, someone has to be in charge. Reports have shown that Merkel’s government grew massively complacent over the summer, and the response has been disorganised. We learned in December that, even though the vaccinations are being rolled out, it will take another year for the general population to be immunised. We’ve got a while to go yet.