“It is serious,” she said. “Take it seriously.”
Merkel’s remarks were an indication that the weight of the pandemic was being felt in Berlin, after what some criticized as a slow and haphazard German response, lacking in central leadership.
Merkel initially played an almost invisible role. It was not until after Germany’s biggest tabloid, Bild, questioned her absence — with the front page headline “No appearance, no speech, no leadership in the crisis” — that Merkel made her first public comments on March 11.
Germany’s efforts have been hampered by the logistics of having to coordinate among the 16 health ministers and state premiers across the country, who ultimately bear responsibility for enacting — or not, as the case has been on occasion — central recommendations from the Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency responsible for infectious disease control.
Underscoring the lack of coordination, Gerald Gaß, president of the German Association of Hospitals, said he had been surprised by the Berlin state government’s announcement on Tuesday that it would build a new hospital with capacity for 1,000 patients.
The confusion over responsibility and coordination at a time of such urgency has thrown open a debate over the very structure of Germany’s federal system — which traces its roots back to the Holy Roman Empire, but was also engineered to have weak central power in the wake of Nazi rule.
The Rheinische Post newspaper described the flaws in the country’s coronavirus response as a “German tragedy.” The political magazine Cicero commented: “Federalism can be deadly.”
“This really is a stress test for our federal system,” said Alexander Kekulé, who heads the institute of medical microbiology at the University of Halle.
He said that while Germany’s problems may have parallels in the United States, where each state has been making its own determinations, the Robert Koch Institute lacks the powers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He noted, for example, that one university clinic in Aachen said it couldn’t stick to 14-day quarantine rules for asymptomatic people exposed to the virus, as it would impact staffing levels.
In recent days, German states have sought to act with more coordination, issuing a set of guidelines for countrywide closures.
The measures — which included the shuttering of bars, nightclubs and nonessential shops, as well as restrictions on restaurant hours — have come alongside grim predictions from German virologists.
Germany’s confirmed cases jumped by more than more than 1,000 overnight Tuesday, to a total of 8,198, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which warned that infections were growing at an exponential rate. The institute upgraded its assessment of the risk level for Germany from “moderate” to “severe.”
If effective measures aren’t taken, researchers warned, 10 million Germans could be infected in the next three months.
Still, some state governments have resisted the supposedly agreed-upon guidelines.
The local premier of Thuringia said he wouldn’t be closing playgrounds for now, though some areas shut theirs anyway. The southwestern German town of Schramberg also kept playgrounds open on Tuesday. The local newspaper, Schwarzwälder Bote, quoted the mayor as saying it was not the federal government but rather the regional minister-president of Baden-Württemberg who was in charge.
“We have the different states with their different bodies, and each state has different solutions,” said Martin Scherer, vice president of the German College of General Practitioners and Family Physicians. “It’s quite difficult to find a common line, but we do all that we can.”
He said that for “some weeks,” the coordination of central players had been slow. But all 16 health ministers have begun participating in a teleconference call each day, in an attempt to coordinate the response.
There are some who argue that Germany’s decentralized system has advantages in a national emergency. Monika Bachmann, the health minister of the western state of Saarland, said it has allowed each state to address their individual needs.
“We face special challenges because this is a high-risk area,” she said. “That’s why we’re in need of unique measures.”
It has also helped with rolling out testing, said Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at Berlin's Charite hospital, allowing Germany to track infections more quickly.
“This gave us an extreme advantage in recognizing the epidemic in Germany,” he told reporters.
Despite a surge in confirmed cases, Germany as of Wednesday had officially recorded 12 deaths linked to the coronavirus, a relatively low rate of fatalities that health authorities said they were looking into further.
But officials agree that figure will no doubt rise. Merkel called on all Germans to play their part to limit the damage.
“I’m absolutely sure we will overcome this crisis,” she said in her speech. “But how many casualties will there be? How many loved ones will we lose?”
To a large extent, it is in “our hands,” Merkel added.
“These are not simply abstract numbers in statistics, but that is a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner,” she said. “And we are a community in which every life and every person counts.”