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Polish healthcare workers in Germany face Easter away from families amid corona crisis

Many Polish healthcare workers in Germany's border regions have had to make a tough decision: return to their families or stay on the front lines to help.

Polish healthcare workers in Germany face Easter away from families amid corona crisis
A sign advises of visiting restrictions due to the coronavirus at Magdeburg University Hospital. Photo: DPA

For the first time in his life, Andrzej Zebrowski will not celebrate Easter with his family.

Instead, the Polish surgeon will spend the holiday this year in the German hospital where he works to help his colleagues cope with the coronavirus crisis.

READ ALSO: 'We're in panic': Travellers stranded for days after Polish-German border closes

Like many others, Zebrowski found himself faced with a heartbreaking dilemma when the Polish government announced on March 27th that anyone entering the country would be placed in mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Return to safety and comfort in Poland, or staff the medical front line in Germany? It was a tough decision, and even tougher to tell his family.

According to local media, 300,000 Poles provide healthcare in Europe's biggest economy — some as doctors and nurses in hospitals, others as carers for the elderly.

“Our main task as doctors is to take care of patients professionally… I could not let my staff down at this crucial moment,” said Zebrowski, who works in Prenzlau, 30 kilometres from the border.

Zebrowski had been making the 50-minute journey every day from his home in Szczecin.

“Of course being separated from my family is not easy, but my wife and seven-year-old son understand and accept my decision,” he said. “It is an exceptional situation.”

Financial incentives

Polish healthcare staff account for a fraction of the 69,000 workers who commute across the border every day. But without them, German hospitals would have a problem on their hands.

In some hospitals near the border, Poles comprise more than 30 percent of the workforce, according to Frank Ullrich Schulz, president of the regional medical association in the German state of Brandenburg.

To encourage Polish commuters to stay in Germany, some border regions are offering 40 to 65 euros a day to pay for meals and hotel rooms.

At the Prenzlau hospital, around half of the staff are Polish, including 22 doctors. The hospital has no COVID-19 patients yet, but intensive care beds are ready and waiting.

“Without them, many urgently needed procedures and operations could not be
carried out,” said hospital director Marita Schönemann.

Germany appears to be faring better than many neighbours against COVID-19.
The country has been lauded for its comprehensive approach to testing and as
of Thursday, the official death count was just over 2,100.

Returning to family

“Of our 40 intensive care beds, only three are currently occupied. But we are bracing for a wave,” said Ulrich Gnauk, director of the Asklepios hospital in border-town Schwedt, where half of the 40 Polish staff members have decided to stay.

Without them, the hospital would have had to close, said Gauk, who believes Europe has “failed” by not imposing blanket rules.

Germany will introduce a 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering from
April 10th, with an exception for cross-border commuters.

Many healthcare workers have nonetheless decided to return to their families.

“I didn't want to force my entire family into quarantine over Easter because of me,” said Jacek Witkowski, a doctor in the intensive care unit at Magdeburg University Hospital.

At the end of March, with Poland much less affected by the coronavirus than
Germany, he decided to return to Szczecin.

The temporary employment agency that had placed him in the hospital refused
to pay him during his 14 days of absence, forcing him to stop working for them.

“I'm disappointed… but I'm going to rest for a few days before looking
for a job, probably in Poland,” he said.

By David Courbet

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COVID-19 RULES

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

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