Musa Okwonga considers why it cannot be assumed that the German Government’s good handling of the Coronavirus pandemic will be remembered by the public once the outbreak eases.
These must be frustrating times for the far-right in Germany.
It has always thrived whenever the Government is seen to be under-performing, yet Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the challenge posed by COVID-19 is currently the envy of many countries.
The Alternative for Germany party (AfD), has lost some ground in the polls, languishing on 10%. Not only that, it has misjudged much of the public mood. The party appears to see COVID-19 as a virility contest, advising a swift return to normal school and office life where Merkel calls for caution. While most people were sympathetic to Merkel for having to go into quarantine, one of the party’s members openly mocked her for doing so, deleting his tweet after a swift and vigorous backlash. While it thought it macho to be the only party to remain working from the Bundestag – the other parties, respecting the principles of social distancing, chose to work from home – most of the country was taking its lead from the virologist Christian Drosten.
The AfD is finding that it is much better at stoking the fires of imaginary crises rather than real ones, and that its ideology – nationalism spearheaded by fascism – is precisely the wrong one for the period we are in, which requires a keen civic spirit and collaboration across borders.
It is understandable why it is sticking to its old playbook, because it was working fairly well until reality intervened. The party was being joyfully hawkish about refugees trying to cross the Greek border, downplaying a mass-murderous act of white supremacist terrorism, and celebrating an unprecedented alliance with right-wing parties in the state of Thuringia. Now, it has to deal with the unexciting business of keeping people safe regardless of their religion or colour, and it doesn’t like it.
Unfortunately for the AfD, this is a period in which people have been reminded of the importance of scientific rigour and good governance, and during which the Government is earning a huge amount of political goodwill. Germans only need to look at the disastrously inept approach taken to COVID-19 in the UK to understand, in relative terms, just how good they have it.
In Germany, unlike in the UK, there is no talk of reopening shops and schools with a cavalier spirit. It is unimaginable that Merkel would ever phrase the concept of reducing these restrictions – as did Michael Gove – as “running hot”: she would not reduce the health of her citizens to a debating-chamber catchphrase. It is unthinkable that Merkel would allow travellers to return to Germany without at least requiring that they enter quarantine for a period of several days.
Yet this is no time to be complacent.
It is unrealistic to imagine that everyone will remember, once this lockdown ends or is at least substantially eased, that the Government delivered both good ideas and good practice and that the AfD did not. It is perhaps more realistic that some of the old feuds with migrants and neighbouring states will be resumed.
It is important to note that some members of the Government, even now, are still keen to provoke conflict. Friedrich Merz, one of Merkel’s possible successors, will have won himself few Italian friends by arguing that Italy was merely using the excuse of COVID-19 to get more funds for its budget. More broadly, it is easy to foresee scenarios in which closed borders are seen as a long-term political solution to the challenge of ‘keeping Germany safe’. A quick look at Hungary’s imploding democracy shows how effectively these times can be used for authoritarian ends.
Germany’s leading politicians, therefore, need to use this goodwill carefully, because they will need it. For one thing, judging by a recent and well-attended protest in Berlin, there is at least one virus-related culture war on the horizon.
It should not be assumed, in the event of a vaccine for COVID-19 being successfully developed, that it will be welcomed by everyone. More than 500 conspiracy theorists, drawn from the political fringes, gathered for an illegal demonstration in the capital. In case their views are thought of as safely far from the global mainstream, it is of note that none other than tennis star Novak Djokovic recently restated his opposition to compulsory vaccination in all circumstances. There will soon come a time when the Government will have to call on its reserves of public trust.
Whilst, for the most part, it has handled this present situation very well, Germany has work to do.
It is inescapable that, whilst Merkel is receiving so much praise, she has for a long time been regarded as an outlier within her own party – most notably on her progressive stance in relation to refugees. Anyone expecting whoever follows her to have the same degree of rigour, and similarly to refuse to cater to some of the electorate’s baser instincts, would be sorely mistaken.
It can only be hoped that those successors have learned from her approach, which is something of a parting gift to her country: that, in a time of true crisis, clarity, transparency, accountability and overwhelming scientific consensus still wins public support. This will be vital to remember when other rapidly approaching ravages, both economic and ecological, truly begin to bite.
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