Open up the schools!

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Dear Reader,

As the sun broke through the clouds above Washington during Lady Gaga’s vocal-chord-puncturing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, who didn’t feel like a brighter day was dawning? Well, we’re here to bring you back down to earth with news of an ex-Chancellor living in Putin’s back pocket and Merkel’s blinkered pandemic response.


Jörg & Axel

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1. The Stöhr-faktor

The “mega lockdown” that was supposed to be announced on Tuesday never materialized. Angela Merkel had to satisfy herself with an extension of the current measures into the middle of February after state leaders shied away from night-time curfews. The only significant change was a requirement to wear medical masks on public transport. Still, working parents are going to have to look after their children for at least another three weeks (see below).

But a revealing thing happened in the build up to the Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz. Social Democrat state leaders wanted to invite a certain Dr. Klaus Stöhr to give expert testimony. Dr. Stöhr ran the WHO influenza programme between the years 2000 and 2006 and advised governments during the first SARS outbreak. He is perhaps the most experienced virologist in Germany when it comes to real world crises, and is clearly held in high regard by Dr. Christian Drosten among others.

But the Chancellor refused to allow him to speak. She herself had invited a young virologist who advocates Zero Covid - a goal which is theoretically possible if most of Europe were forced into a stringent weeks-long lockdown.

Perhaps Queen Angela wanted to avoid a case of Majestätsbeleidigung. This is what Dr. Stöhr had to say about her policies in a subsequent interview:

“The aim of the current strategy - to bring cases back down below 50 per 100,000 inhabitants so that health agencies can contact trace effectively - is illusory during the winter. It is simply wishful thinking,” he told the Munich Merkur.

“Zero Covid is zero realistic,” he continued. “Achieving that goal and then maintaining it in the middle of Europe for the rest of the winter is totally detached from reality. I'm surprised that it's being seriously considered.”

Dr. Stöhr’s thesis: the physicist Chancellor has allowed herself to be convinced by mathematical modelling without considering human psychology. Instead, she should be engaging in honest conversations with the German public that set long-term, achievable goals. You can read the full interview here (in German). He also comments on the risk posed by virus mutations and school closures.


2. In Putin’s back pocket

It should be a national embarrassment that a former Bundeskanzler is a paid lobbyist working for a hostile autocrat. In the latest issue of der Spiegel, Gerhard Schröder (SPD) gave an appalling interview in which he claimed to “never have liked the United States of America”, demands the break-up of NATO, and refuses to utter a negative word about Vladimir Putin, whose regime has just jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

But Mr Schröder, who is chairman of the board of Russian oil producer Rosneft, isn’t the only so called Russlandversteher among Germany’s great and good. After Armin Laschet was crowned chairman of the CDU last Saturday peculiar remarks he had made about Mr Putin resurfaced in the press. At the time of Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014, Mr Laschet scoffed at a “marketable anti-Putin populism” that was spreading in Germany; as late as 2018 he claimed there was no proof that Russia was behind the assassination attempt on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the German government’s stubborn insistence that continuing to build the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline can be decoupled from last summer’s attempted murder of Mr Navalny. 

In order to bypass US sanctions, the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has come up with the novel idea of placing all sanctionable activity in a foundation instead of a targetable private company.

With almost admirable brazenness, state governor Manuela Schwesig (SPD) named the foundation “Climate and Environmental Protection MV,” promising that its goal is to “further environmental projects in the Baltic Sea region.” What she didn’t mention: Russian gas company Gazprom gets to pick its chairperson, and it is being funded with an initial €20 million from the Kremlin.

Enraged environmental groups have called it “an abuse of the charities law” and are promising to block its creation in court.

Ms Schwesig’s claim that the foundation has nothing to do with US sanctions is almost as blatant a fib as the ones we’ve become accustomed to hearing from the Kremlin.

Germany has a complicated relationship with Russia, in part stemming from war guilt, in part from the former GDR’s ties to the country. But one can only hope that whoever replaces Ms Merkel in September plans to untie the complex knots of the country’s Russia policy in order to stand for a coherent line.


Open up the schools!

In global comparisons, the German school system always gets poor marks in two disciplines: it is notoriously bad at enabling social mobility, and its digital infrastructure is dismal. 

According to PISA, in 2018 only a third of German pupils had access to an online learning platform, far below the OECD average of 53 percent. Hence it’s safe to say that the government’s insistence on keeping schools and kindergartens closed (although loopholes and local exceptions mean many children will attend both) during the shutdown will be more damaging than elsewhere.

Then again, most other European countries - even the ones which have had harsher lockdowns, such as Portugal, France, Spain and Greece - have mostly maintained in-person primary and secondary teaching. 

They have based their decisions on an assessment from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which has concluded that school closures should only be used as a measure of last resort. “The negative physical, psychological, and educational effects of proactive school closures on children, as well as the economic impact on the broader society, would likely outweigh the benefits,” the disease centre argues.

The French have conducted their own investigation. Ahead of deciding to keep schools open, the government (unsurprisingly) concluded that children from poorer families suffer disproportionately, as they do not have the same technological infrastructure and support that children from wealthier families do. They concluded that the damage could be irreversible. 

Admittedly, the decision to keep school closed wasn’t made lightly. Manuela Schwesig (see above) reportedly knocked heads with Ms Merkel, accusing her of having no empathy for children, at which point the discussion got so heated that they had to take a breather. 

Attacking Ms Merkel because she doesn’t have children is a low blow (one the AfD are only too happy to throw). Still, it’s an undeniable fact that some of the main architects of the government's policy don’t have kids. In contrast to Ms Schwesig, Messrs Spahn, Scholz, Braun, Altmaier and Ms Merkel can only imagine the current struggles of parents and children.

They would do well to listen more carefully to their colleagues who know how hard this can be. Then again, in a climate in which influential opposition politicians are claiming that “the propagandists of school openings” have blood on their hands, it isn’t easy to make a balanced decision.

(With rhetoric like that, perhaps Green MP Jürgen Trittin should think about joining his peers on the far-right of the chamber when the Bundestag reopens).


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.