It’s another typically grey Hamburg afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk eyeing up my postal vote for the upcoming Bundestagswahl. In recent years, I’ve often dropped my ballot off at the electoral services offices several weeks before polling day. After all, I was always pretty sure of who I wanted to vote for, if not necessarily always sure of precisely how to do that (anyone who thinks Erststimme/Zweitstimme (first and second vote) is complicated should give the five-vote system for the Hamburg local elections a try…). This time round, though, I’m hesitating.
It would appear that I’m not alone. As pollsters, pundits, and publicans (those much underestimated societal barometers) confirm, the mood in Germany this summer has been characterised by a strange blend of stasis and volatility. The stasis can be summed up in two words: Merkel and Corona. Both have been around seemingly forever – and it feels difficult to imagine either ever going away. The volatility comes from the complete uncertainty about what will come after them (and when “after” will be).
Let’s start with Merkel. She had been in office for little over six weeks when I first moved to Hamburg in early 2006. My entire life in Germany to date has taken place under a Merkel chancellorship, as has that of anyone currently turning 16 or younger. Through this feat alone, she has become beloved of many Germans, who of course like nothing more than weighty stability, both in their cars (Mercedes, BMW) and their Chancellors (think Kohl).
In fact, Germans are such suckers for stability that they voted Merkel even after her core campaign message became nothing more ambitious than “Sie kennen mich ja”. This translates as “Well, you know me”, but might be rendered facetiously as “Better the devil you know”.
It’s a paradox we’ve all come to know. Germans dislike almost everything about Merkel’s policies (or lack of them), but have proved unwilling to trust anyone else with the levers of power.
Literally everyone in Germany I know is deeply dissatisfied with something: people who vote for Merkel’s CDU often think they’re too soft on migrants and complain that they haven’t done enough to keep the Autobahn network in shape; people who don’t vote for the CDU are perplexed that it still refuses to recognise that Germany has always run on immigration and think the millions spent on re-tarmacking motorways might be put to better use on crumbling schools and understaffed hospitals.
If you detect some frustration in me personally here, you’re right: on most issues in public life, from immigration to public investment, the debate has barely moved on since I arrived. Ich kann es nicht mehr hören (I can’t listen to it anymore). The fact that Merkel only really scraped back in in 2017, having lost eight percent vote share (no, most people don’t remember that bit, either), suggests that I may not be as alone as I sometimes feel here.
In any case, I for one am absolutely delighted that Merkel has chosen to release us from this 16-year-limbo.
I know the prospect of her retiring worries some people – not just in Germany, but elsewhere – because “compared to Trump, Johnson et al, she stands for a different style of doing politics”, as the argument goes. That’s certainly true, but declaring her to be the best leader a western democracy in the early twenty-first century could ever have by comparing her to populism’s most mendacious sociopaths betrays, in my view, a worrying lack of ambition. Compare her to a leader with plausible hair and a political programme – like Emmanuel Macron, for instance, or Sanna Marin – and she looks like a tired hack with very little to say for herself.
This spring, even the most dyed-in-the-wall Merkel apologists couldn’t overlook just how much damage an utter lack of convictions can wreak. After going in front of the cameras in March 2020 to do what a chancellor has to do (“It is serious; take it seriously”), Merkel retreated behind a webcam for the rest of the pandemic, sniping at the various state leaders when they didn’t agree with her on coronavirus restrictions and going borderline unconstitutional at several points along the way.
Germany stuck in a Merkel – and Covid rut
Which brings us on to the second cause of the odd feeling of stasis: Corona. Just like with Chancellors, Germans don’t like taking risks with illnesses, either. We have always been a nation of hypochondriacs, and in days gone by, this was advantageous: doctors take ailments seriously and routinely run diagnostics people in other countries have to fight tooth and nail (or be privately insured) for. Yet the virus has brought out the worst in us.
As a country, we are terrified of the virus to the point that we still put on masks to walk three feet to the toilet in a restaurant, but are equally scared of the 1-in-100,000 chance of getting ill with the available vaccines. It’s a bad case of: “Wasch mich, aber mach mich nicht naß!” (wash me but don’t get me wet – similar to ‘having your cake and eating it’) Either way, Germany is doomed to suffer a bad autumn and winter in which we bear higher rates of illness than we would like with less freedom than we would want.
Nothing, however – not Merkel, not Corona – lasts forever, even though Germans love nothing more than a protracted status quo.
But there you go: that’s the Germany I fell in love with enough to become German back in 2015 (yes, before it was cool/necessary for Brits to do so). And because of that, I at least get to register my discontent at the ballot box in just a couple of weeks’ time. Habitually, I vote Green; in locals, I’ve even gone as far as Die Linke (voting SPD in Hamburg is just like voting CDU). Yet something tells me we might need the FDP in government this time round before they start making us check into our own flats with the cursed LUCA app. Then again, I dislike much of their manifesto and personnel … Tough one.
So I resort to the Wahl-o-mat. As it turns out, I should be voting for DIE PARTEI. Now, that seems to be taking my instinct to break out of endless Grand Coalitions a little too far. Even back in the UK, I never voted Monster Raving Loony. What is more: the less clear the result, the longer Merkel will have to stay on as caretaker until a government is formed. And so my hesitation continues.
European Commission recommends travel ban on southern Africa amid fears over new Covid variant
The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa because of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.
The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and could evade vaccines, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province Gauteng.
The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”
The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.
Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.
Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.
Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”
The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”
The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Mary Favier has warned that if the new South African variant of the virus manages to “out run” Delta, then “we will have a problem”.
It was still unknown if vaccines would work against the new variant which was why so much attention was being paid to it, she told Newstalk Breakfast.
Dr Favier also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged 5-11. GPs knew the difference that vaccines could make, however, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.
On RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme immunology expert, Professor Christine Loscher said she expected the World Health Organisation (WHO) to move the status of the new variant from one of interest to one of concern in the near future.
The new variant was of concern because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it was still unclear how this variant would respond to vaccines. It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.
Within the coming weeks it would be known how good current vaccines were at neutralising antibodies in the variant, added Prof Loscher. But she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.
“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive.”
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he is “deeply concerned” about the new Covid variant.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet on Friday to to further assess the significance of this variant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has not updated its travel advice to South Africa on its website. It no longer advises against non-essential travel.
Italy tightens Covid restrictions as some regions face return to ‘yellow’ zone
A government decree that comes into force from December 6th will require a ‘super green pass’ health certificate to access most venues and services across the country, in a bid to contain Italy’s rising infection rate and ensure Christmas celebrations can go ahead as planned.
The ‘super green pass’ can be obtained only by those who are vaccinated against or have recovered from Covid-19.
It supersedes the basic ‘green pass’, which was also available to those who had recently tested negative for the virus; though the basic green pass will still be valid for use on public transport and to access workplaces.
Speaking at a televised press conference on Monday evening, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the restrictions would mean a “normal” Christmas this year for those who are vaccinated, and would “give certainty to the tourist season”.
The announcement comes amid media reports that some Italian regions will be placed under increased restrictions starting next week.
People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP
The northerneastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia will be returned to the more restricted ‘yellow’ zone from Monday, after it met all of the Italian government’s criteria for tightened restrictions.
Italy operates under a four-tier colour coded system for coronavirus restrictions, with ‘white’ zone areas under the most relaxed rules, and ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ and ‘red’ zones under increasingly strict restrictions.
Since October, the entire country has been in the least-restricted white zone – but this week, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s hospital ward occupancy and Covid infection rates exceeded the limits put in place by the government last summer.
The region’s figures stood at 15 percent Covid patient ICU occupancy and 18 percent general hospital ward occupancy as of November 24th, according to data provided by Agenas, Italy’s National Agency for Health Services.
Under a law introduced by Italy’s government in July, any region above the threshold of 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy and with a new weekly incident rate of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants should automatically be placed in the yellow zone.
It’s thought that mass demonstrations held in the region’s capital of Trieste last month to protest the introduction of a Covid health certificate requirement for Italy’s workers are partly behind its deteriorating health situation.
A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome’s Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP
According to Italian media, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s governor Massimiliano Fedriga has agreed to enforce the government’s ‘super green pass’ rules from Monday, allowing the region’s vaccinated population to bypass restrictions they would otherwise be subject to.
Currently, ‘yellow zone’ restrictions require an area’s inhabitants to wear a mask both outdoors and in indoor public spaces, and restaurants can seat a maximum of four diners to a table.
While those in a yellow zone will still be required to mask up outdoors, under the new rules, people who hold the ‘super green pass’ will be able to access “indoor catering”, shows (such as theatre performances), parties, nightclubs, sporting events, and “public ceremonies”, as normal.
Other parts of the country currently expected to join Friuli Venezia Giulia in the yellow zone within the next couple of weeks are the autonomous province of Bolzano, which had 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy rates as of November 24th; as well as Marche, Liguria, Lazio, Calabria, which all have figures approaching the threshold.
Some of Italy’s larger cities are putting into place their own preemptive strategies to try to contain their infection rates.
On Thursday, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala said he was preparing to sign a measure making facemasks mandatory outdoors across the city center from the coming weekend, reports news agency Ansa.
And in Venice, mayor Luigi Brugnaro has already signed an order requiring the use of masks at Christmas markets and other large outdoor gatherings in the city, reports Sky TG 24.
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