Normally this blog is devoted to Canadian speeches but on rare occasion there is an exception. This is one of those times. In a televised address on March 18, 2020 Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans to follow reason and show discipline in the face of the Corona pandemic. Merkel has shown herself, once again, to be perhaps the most competent leader in the Western world. Here, slightly edited, is her speech in translation.
“Everyone counts, it takes all our efforts.”
Dear fellow citizens,
The coronavirus is currently changing life in our country dramatically. Our ideas of normality, of public life, of social interaction – all of these are being put to the test as never before.
Millions of you can’t go to work, your children can’t go to school or go to daycare, theatres and cinemas and shops are closed and, what is perhaps the hardest thing, we all miss the human encounters that are otherwise taken for granted. Of course, in such a situation, each of us is full of questions and worries about how to go on.
I turn to you today in this unusual way because I want to tell you what guides me as Chancellor and all my colleagues in the Federal Government in this situation. This is part and parcel of an open democracy: But we also make political decisions transparent and explain them. We justify and communicate our actions as well as possible so that they are comprehensible.
I firmly believe that we will succeed in this task if all citizens see it as their task.
So let me say that this is serious. Take it seriously too.
Since the German reunification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge to our country that depends so much on our joint solidarity.
Where we stand
I would like to explain to you where we currently stand in the epidemic, what the federal government and the levels of government are doing to protect everyone in our community and limit the economic, social, cultural damage. But I also want to explain why it needs you and what each and every one of you can contribute.
On the epidemic – and everything I am telling you about it comes from the Federal Government’s ongoing consultations with the experts of the Robert Koch Institute and other scientists and virologists: research is being carried out under high pressure all over the world, but there is still neither a therapy against the coronavirus nor a vaccine.
As long as this is the case, there is only one thing we can do, and that is to slow down the spread of the virus, stretch it over the months and thus gain time. Time for research to develop a drug and a vaccine. But above all time so that those who fall ill can receive the best possible care.
Germany has an excellent healthcare system, perhaps one of the best in the world. That can give us confidence. But our hospitals would also be completely overwhelmed if too many patients who suffer a severe course of Corona infection were admitted in the shortest possible time.
These are not just abstract numbers in a statistic, but a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner, they are people. And we are a community in which every life and every person counts.
I would like to take this opportunity to address first and foremost all those who work as doctors, in the nursing service or in any other function in our hospitals and in the health care system in general. They are at the forefront of this struggle. They are the first to see the sick and to see how severe some courses of infection are. And every day you go back to your work and you are there for the people. What you do is tremendous, and I thank you for it with all my heart.
So: the aim is to slow down the virus on its way through Germany. And in doing so, we have to rely on one thing, which is existential: to shut down public life as far as possible. Of course, with reason and a sense of proportion, because the state will continue to function, the supply will continue to be secured and we want to preserve as much economic activity as possible.
But everything that could endanger people, everything that could harm not only the individual, but also the community, we must reduce that now. We must limit the risk of one infecting the other as much as we can.
I know how dramatic the restrictions are already now: no more events, no more fairs, no more concerts and for the time being no more school, no university, no kindergarten, no playing in a playground. I know how hard the closures, which have been agreed upon by the federal and state governments, interfere with our lives and also with our democratic self-image. They are restrictions such as have never been seen before in the Federal Republic.
Let me assure you: For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement was a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified as an absolute necessity. In a democracy, they should never be decided lightly and only temporarily – but at the moment they are indispensable to save lives.
That is why the tightened border controls and entry restrictions to some of our most important neighbouring countries have been in force since the beginning of the week.
It is already very difficult for the economy, for large companies as well as small businesses, for shops, restaurants, freelancers. The coming weeks will be even harder. I can assure you: The German government is doing everything it can to cushion the economic impact – and above all to preserve jobs.
We can and will do everything we can to help our employers and employees through this difficult test.
And everyone can rest assured that the food supply is secure at all times, and if shelves are emptied for a day, they will be refilled. I would like to say to everyone who goes around to the supermarkets: stockpiling makes sense, it always has, by the way. But with moderation. Hoarding, as if nothing will ever be available again, is pointless and ultimately completely lacking in solidarity.
And let me also express my thanks here to the people who are too rarely thanked. These days, anyone who sits at a supermarket checkout or fills shelves is doing one of the hardest jobs there is at the moment. Thank you for being there for your fellow citizens and literally keeping the place running.
Everyone must help
Now to what I feel is the most urgent need today: All government measures would achieve nothing if we did not use the most effective means of combating the virus spreading too quickly – and that is ourselves. Just as any one of us, indiscriminately, can be affected by the virus, so now everyone must help. First and foremost, by taking seriously what we are talking about today. Don’t panic, but don’t think for a moment that he or she doesn’t really matter. No one is expendable. Everyone counts, it takes all our efforts.
This is what an epidemic shows us: How vulnerable we all are, how dependent we are on the considerate behaviour of others, but also – how we can protect and strengthen each other by acting together.
It depends on everyone. We are not condemned to passively accept the spread of the virus. We have a remedy for this: we must keep our distance out of consideration for each other. The advice of the virologists is clear: no more handshakes, wash your hands thoroughly and often, at least one and a half metres away from the next person and, preferably, hardly any contact with the very old, because they are particularly at risk…
I appeal to you: Stick to the rules that now apply for the near future. As a government, we will always re-examine what can be corrected, but also what may still be necessary.
This is a dynamic situation, and we will remain capable of learning from it, so that we can always rethink and react with other instruments. We will then explain that too. That is why I ask you not to believe rumours, but only the official communications, which we always have translated into many languages.
We are a democracy. We do not live by constraint, but by shared knowledge and participation. This is an historic task and it can only be accomplished together.
I am absolutely certain that we will overcome this crisis. But how high will the number of victims be? How many loved ones will we lose? It is largely in our own hands. We can now, resolutely, all react together. We can accept the current limitations and stand by each other.
This situation is serious and it is open.
This means that it will depend not only, but also on how disciplined everyone follows and implements the rules.
We must show, even if we have never experienced anything like this before, that we act cordially and reasonably and thus save lives. Without exception, it depends on each individual and therefore on all of us.
Take good care of yourself and your loved ones.
I thank you.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada.