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HEALTH

Alarm in Germany as ‘corona demos’ take off

German police said on Saturday they have launched an investigation after a mock tombstone was found in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral offices, apparently to decry measures aimed at halting transmission of the coronavirus.

Alarm in Germany as 'corona demos' take off
A demonstrator wearing a mask and a T-shirt with inscriptions reading 'The mask has no healthy use' sits in the demo area during a protest against the Corona restrictions in Berlin, amid the coronavir

The protest action came as thousands of demonstrators prepared to gather in major German cities including Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin against the stay-at-home measures.

Red roses and candles were placed around the mock tombstone, which bore the inscription: “Freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, movement and assemblies — Democracy 1990-2020”, police said in a statement.

A face mask was also tied to the stone placed at Merkel party's CDU office in her electoral district of Stralsund, by the Baltic coast, according to police.

General secretary of Merkel's CDU party, Paul Ziemiak, called it “an action of poor taste”.

A growing wave of demonstrations in Germany by conspiracy theorists, extremists and anti-vaxxers has alarmed Merkel and her government.

Protesters hold a banner which reads “Open borders for all” in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on May 1, 2020, during May Day protests amid the COVID-19 outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus.
John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Initially starting as a handful of protesters decrying tough restrictions on public life to halt transmission of the coronavirus, the protests have swelled in recent weeks to gatherings of thousands in major German cities.

Thousands are set to mass again in Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin on Saturday, with police out in force after some protests turned violent.

The growing demonstrations have sparked comparison to the anti-Muslim Pegida marches at the height of Europe's refugee crisis in 2015, raising questions over whether the strong support that Merkel is currently enjoying due to her handling of the virus crisis could evaporate.

Just like it won popularity by fanning anti-migrant sentiment five years back, the far-right AfD party is now openly encouraging protesters and repositioning itself as an anti-lockdown party.

A recent poll commissioned by the Spiegel news magazine found that almost one in four Germans surveyed voiced “understanding” for the demonstrations.

The development has shocked the political establishment, with Merkel reportedly telling top brass of her centre-right CDU party of the “worrying” trend that may bear some hallmarks of Russia's disinformation campaigns.

'Vilification'

Germany in March took unprecedented measures to shut down public life.

While a huge majority of Germans back the action, giving Merkel's government a big boost in approval ratings, dissent is fomenting, particularly online where YouTube videos championing conspiracy theories or quack medical advice are attracting tens of thousands of views.

Seeking to counter absurd claims, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that although he wasn't a medical practitioner, he could safely suggest that the “uncomfortable and cumbersome face mask is more to be recommended than a tin-foil hat.”

After a public outcry over unruly protests last weekend, the AfD placed itself squarely on the side of the demonstrators.

A demonstrator holding a placard reading 'Democracy now' stands in the demo area during a protest against the Corona restrictions in Berlin, amid the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. May 2, 2020. John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Party co-chief Alexander Gauland said it was “completely correct that people are exercising their fundamental rights and demonstrating against corona measures.”

Any resulting split in society over the demonstrations should not be blamed on the protesters, but on “the sweeping vilification of participants as right-wing extremists, nutcases or conspiracy theorists,” he charged.

Sometimes violent in nature, the demonstrations have also been increasingly tinged by anti-Semitism, as participants hold aloft slogans portraying figures like George Soros as the bogeyman in the virus crisis.

Second populist wave

“I consider this type of protest to be extremely dangerous,” Felix Klein, the government's pointman on tackling anti-Semitism, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

“It undermines confidence in our democratic state and forms a reservoir in which conspiratorial anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers can be found alongside others with sometimes very obscure attitudes,” he added.

Miro Dittrich, an expert at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said conspiracy theories could be appealing to people who find it hard to grasp the concept of the virus, and who personally know of no one who has been affected.

“In addition, people are currently isolated from their social environment in a crisis situation and spend an extremely large amount of time online, all factors that promote the belief in conspiracy stories,” Dittrich said.

Klein warned that “we must take the emergence of these movements very seriously and cannot hope that with the end of the corona crisis these forces will disappear again.”

Spiegel also cited the urgent need for Merkel to get a grip on the situation. “If she doesn't take counter action now, a second populist wave of anger could break over Germany,” it warned.   

Time could be pressing

Hermann Binkert, who heads the polling institute INSA, said the strong support for Merkel's government could quickly melt away when the health imperative recedes.

“When the unifying theme of health fades and the debate focuses on solving the labour market, economic and financial crisis, the consensus ends,” he warned.

COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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