Merkel warns against 'lies, disinformation' in virus fight

Berlin (AFP) –


German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday defended tough new shutdown measures her government has announced against the coronavirus, warning that propaganda and conspiracy theories undermine the fight against the pandemic.

The popular Merkel called on Germans to rally behind her in respecting the restrictions, and to reject those who refused to follow the established science in combatting the spread of the disease.

"Let me be clear: lies and disinformation, conspiracy and hate damage not only democratic debate but also the fight against the coronavirus," she told the lower house of parliament.

The speech interrupted by jeers from the ranks of the far-right AfD party prompted a rare intervention from speaker of the house Wolfgang Schaeuble, who threatened unruly MPs with penalties.

Merkel agreed with Germany's 16 state leaders in a videoconference Wednesday to shutter restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres, gyms and public pools among other leisure facilities for the month of November in a bid to halt a surge in new infections.

Schools, nurseries, shops and other essential businesses will remain open and there will be no restrictions on people leaving their homes unlike in harder-hit countries such as France and Spain.

She won broad backing across the political spectrum but industry groups warned that small business in particular would have trouble surviving despite 10 billion euros ($12 billion) in earmrked state aid.

Protests by corona-skeptics have also multiplied across the country in recent months, sometimes erupting in violence.

Merkel told deputies on Thursday that with new cases doubling over the last week and intensive care units quickly nearing capacity, tight restrictions were the only responsible choice.

"The measures we are adopting are appropriate, necessary and proportional," she said.

"At the beginning of the cold time of the year, we find ourselves in a dramatic situation."

- 'Desperation' -

She said her aim was to decrease personal contact among Germans to an "absolute minimum" to flatten the curve of new infections.

But she said she "understands the frustration, yes the desperation" in sectors that will bear the brunt of the shutdown.

"The winter will be hard -- four long difficult months -- but it will come to an end," Merkel said.

Germany came through the first phase of the pandemic better than most of its neighbours, with the total number of deaths at just over 10,000 in the European Union's most populous country.

But it has been rocked by a series of often large demonstrations against government measures to tame the virus, with activists from the political fringe accusing Merkel of exploiting the pandemic for a power grab.

Merkel pushed back hard against such claims, calling populism "not only unrealistic but also irresponsible".

"The things that have been proved wrong by science must be called out," she said.

Merkel is at the height of her popularity as her fourth and final term in office comes to a close next year.

"Freedom does not mean that everyone does what they want, but that everyone has a responsibility," she said.