As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, Germany has shut its borders – but asylum seekers are still being accepted, even if they may have moved through the worst-affected countries. Is that the right signal to a locked-down populace?
The media paid much attention to an awkward moment earlier this month, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to shake hands with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, as the number of coronavirus cases was on the uptick. The minister did the seemingly unthinkable and declined Merkel’s advances, forcing the ‘social-distancing’ mantra on his superior. An outburst of laughter defused any discomfort the moment may have caused.
Whether the scene was staged or not we may never know, but it did succeed in driving home the unmistakable message: keep your dirty paws to yourself and we may all get through this pandemic alive. Despite the disappearance of handshaking, however, Covid-19 has mushroomed across Germany. This week, the number of confirmed cases has been surging by over 4,000 cases a day, making the European Union’s largest economy one of the hardest-hit in terms of people infected. By Thursday’s count, over 36,000 Germans were infected and 198 had died from the mysterious illness.
Germany has imposed harsh travel restrictions, essentially entering a bunker mentality amid creeping hysteria seizing the country. Only German nationals or foreign citizens with an “urgent reason to travel” may cross the border. Shockingly, however, refugees from the Middle East and Africa arriving at Germany’s border in search of asylum are given the red carpet treatment into the country.
While it may be difficult to argue against providing humanitarian assistance to refugees under ‘normal circumstances,’ what’s the point in imposing a transnational quarantine if you’re going to let in a select category of people whose movements can’t be tracked for infection safety?
To do so in the middle of a deadly global pandemic is a bit like puffing away on a cigarette at a gas station. At the very least it makes for some very poor optics.
After all, Germany is currently experiencing living conditions not witnessed since World War II. Even in the capital, Berlin, panic buying has led to empty store shelves amidst a foreboding climate of helplessness and despair. To compound the mounting frustration, Germans, a traditionally gregarious people famous for their Oktoberfest revelries, have been ordered not to congregate in groups larger than two people, although families have been spared from this harsh rule. The average German may even have temporarily forgotten about his own plight when it was reported that Angela Merkel had been forced into quarantine after her doctor tested positive for the disease.
Meanwhile, it cannot be ignored that the European Union is currently ground zero for new coronavirus outbreaks. Nowhere is that more evident than in Italy, which is currently under a mandatory nationwide quarantine with the death toll spilling over 8,000. Germany is not immune to the emergency facing Italy, nor is the rest of the European continent. Just this week, six Italians infected with Covid-19 arrived in Germany for medical treatment, with at least another 10 patients expected in the coming days.
Aside from the question as to whether Germany’s medical facilities can handle the growing demand is an equally problematic issue: should Germany be granting asylum to refugees who have not only entered the European Union illegally, but have necessarily traveled through high-infection countries, like Italy and Spain, in their personal quest to receive asylum?
A critical point to remember is that if a refugee makes it to the German border that can mean only one thing: that individual has more than likely broken the quarantine rules now being enforced across Italy and Spain, the two primary points of entry for migrants making their way to Europe from the Middle East and Africa via the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, any refugee now standing on Germany’s doorstep looking for asylum has traversed long distances through high-infection zones, possibly even infecting people along the way.
Although German authorities have established quarantine rules for new arrivals, not all of the refugees are keeping to their accommodations. For example, after one asylum seeker tested positive for coronavirus at the Suhl asylum center in the German state of Thuringia, some 500 migrants from the facility began to riot after being placed into quarantine. Around 200 police officers were called in to reestablish order. Despite such measures, it does seem possible for coronavirus-carrying refugees to infect people once they are granted admission to Germany. After all, no prevention method, even a nationwide lockdown, is absolutely fool-proof; mistakes can happen anywhere and at any time. In any case, optics at this sensitive moment are critical.
Now would seem to be the perfect opportunity for Germany to send an unmistakable message, much like Greece is doing as it works to repel the hundreds of refugees gathered at its border with Turkey – that the EU-wide quarantine is for all people, regardless of their situation, not just fellow Europeans. Germany’s past decision to open its border to millions of illegal aliens from abroad was controversial enough, leading to major setbacks for Merkel’s Christian Democrats. To continue the practice now amid a global pandemic is at least politically reckless.
It seems inevitable that many people will come to view Germany’s ‘helping hand’ to refugees during a pandemic as simply too dangerous at a time when even handshakes among government officials are considered taboo. Europe needs to cure itself before re-embarking on the admirable cause of rescuing refugees from their plight, possibly at the expense of its own citizens’ safety.
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