By Karl Sexton
Frankfurt, Germany, Mar 23 (efe-epa).- Germany’s cabinet on Monday approved a massive and unprecedented financial aid package of 156 billion euro ($166.5 bn) to offset the socio-economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.
The stimulus package, the largest in the country since the Second World War, is designed to ease the burden on hospitals and clinics and supply financial aid to save jobs and companies that have been affected by the pandemic.
“The corona pandemic is changing our whole lives,” said Olaf Scholz, German finance minister and vice-chancellor, said while explaining why the government was taking “the necessary and correct” step of unveiling such an enormous economic aid package.
“We will do everything we can to prevent this crisis from endangering the health care of our citizens or the economic processes in this country.”
German authorities fear a severe recession due to the crisis, with the decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expected to be “at least as high” as in 2008/2009, Minister of Economy Peter Altmeier warned while announcing a bailout fund of up to 600 billion euros for larger companies.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn, meanwhile, said that hospitals and clinics requiring additional staff, beds and equipment would receive financial support.
“If you need more beds, if you need more staff and equipment to treat coronavirus patients, you will be compensated financially,” Spahn said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the cabinet meeting from her home office, where she has been in quarantine since Sunday after coming into contact with a doctor who tested positive for coronavirus.
“She is simply in home office, as are many other people who have had to place themselves in self-isolation at home,” Scholz told reporters. “She is active: we had the cabinet meeting together this morning.” The finance minister added that he would speak in Merkel’s stead in the Bundestag lower house of parliament session on Wednesday.
Despite Merkel being forced into preventative isolation, Germany is “seeing signs that the exponential growth curve is flattening off slightly,” said Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, on Monday, although he cautioned that a fuller picture would only be available from Wednesday.
Wieler said he was optimistic that social distancing measures taken last week and over the weekend, including the closure of schools and bans on all public gatherings, had helped to limit the virus’s spread.
Germany has recorded 115 deaths out of more than 26,220 cases of the coronavirus, making it the fifth-worst affected country by number of infections, behind Spain (over 33,000), the United States (more than 35,000), China (81,000), where the virus originated, and Italy, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic with over 59,000 cases and 5,400 deaths on Monday, according to John Hopkins University.
The COVID-19 disease has killed over 15,300 people worldwide out of more than 350,000 confirmed cases. More than 100,000 people have recovered.
But the outbreak, while appearing to be stabilizing or at least coming under control in Germany, remains far from contained across much of Europe, amid differing containment approaches from various governments.
Belgium and France have all but confined their citizens nationwide to their homes, with only ‘essential’ trips to the supermarket, pharmacy or doctors allowed.
In the United Kingdom, however, authorities have resisted imposing nationwide lockdown restrictions, opting instead to issue recommendations that people should avoid public gatherings and large crowds and ordering the closure bars and restaurants.
A University College London study published on Monday in the Financial Times newspaper found that the government’s measures to tackle the crisis have been insufficient, and could ultimately lead to between 35,000 and 70,000 “excess” deaths.
The government should “do more in the pursuit of suppressing the epidemic whether through enforced lockdowns or enforced social distancing rather than voluntary measures,” the report found.
Amid the differing official approaches, the chief of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria, urged national governments and international institutions to coordinate and work together if the world is going to overcome the coronavirus crisis.