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German Chancellor Angela Merkel Warns Against Reopening Germany Too Early

Apr 23, 2020
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Germany, the death toll from the coronavirus is significantly lower than elsewhere in Europe. Public health officials are not entirely sure why this is true. This week, the German government took the controversial step to reopen small businesses. Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed some concerns this morning in the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament, and NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin was listening. Hi there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what is the crux of the chancellor's message here? I guess she was speaking to Germany and also to Europe more broadly.

SCHMITZ: Right. She addressed the Bundestag this morning for a couple of reasons. First, today is when EU leaders hold a videoconference summit, and it promises to be a rather contentious one about how the EU will pay for a recovery package. Merkel said Germany should be ready to pay more into the EU budget for this. The other reason Merkel spoke today was to warn the political leaders of Germany's 16 states to not lift the country's lockdown too quickly.

Now, Merkel made it possible for small businesses throughout the country to reopen this week, letting each state decide how its - how it'll do it. And her comments today reflect a lot of caution and maybe uncertainty about whether Germany's acting too quickly to reopen parts of its economy. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, David, she's saying here that Germany is on the thinnest of thin ice. She also warned that this pandemic is only starting and that it will last until there is a vaccine, which could take a lot of time.

GREENE: Well, as I said, I mean, there's a lower death toll in Germany. I mean, maybe some see that as a justification to ease some restrictions. She's saying, though, this is just the beginning and Germany is on thin ice. What do experts say?

SCHMITZ: Well, just to give you the numbers first, Germany has the fifth-most confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world at 150,000. But it's been able to keep, as you mentioned, the death rate pretty low until recently, when it sort of spiked up a little to 3.5%. And much of Germany's success has to do with the fact that it tested early, it tested often and that its health care system is set up well for a crisis like this.

We mentioned that Germany's government began easing lockdown restrictions on Monday of this week, but the country's leading virologist Christian Drosten criticized this move. He said Germany had a head start on containing this virus and could have gotten much further towards that goal had the lockdown continued, and he warned that, given the present circumstances, the virus could spiral out of control by June.

GREENE: How are people feeling? I mean, the public, businesses, where do they feel this should be going?

SCHMITZ: Well, of course, the business community in Germany would like to get back to work yesterday. You know, they're itching to get their employees back into the economy. But the German public seems divided on how quickly to ease restrictions, and it varies by region. Bavaria, in the south, has no plans yet to open up its economy. It prefers to stay safe and keep everyone on lockdown. And that state, of course, had Germany's first infections.

But in the western part of the country, in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westfalia, political leaders there are pushing for a quicker reopening of the economy. But in a popular poll released today, 74% of Germans said they were against easing the lockdown restrictions too quickly. So there does seem to be a lot of popular support if Chancellor Merkel should reverse her decision and return Germany back to tighter restrictions of movement.

GREENE: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin, Rob, thank you so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.