Merkel urges social distancing in rallying cry

Frankfurt, Germany, Mar 18 (efe-epa).- Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday issued a rallying cry to the nation and said overcoming the coronavirus crisis would “depend on everyone”, as the country ramped up its efforts to slow the outbreak.

In the first televised message of her 15 years in office, Merkel called the crisis the greatest challenge to the country’s solidarity since the Second World War, and said fighting it effectively would require a total, national effort.

“It depends on everyone. We are not doomed to passively accept the spread of the virus,” the Chancellor said.

“We have a remedy for this: we have to keep a distance from one another. The virologists’ advice is clear: no more handshakes, wash your hands thoroughly and often, stay at least one and a half meters away from your neighbor and ideally hardly any contact with the very old, because they are particularly at risk.

“At the moment, distance is the only expression of love,” Merkel said.

As long as there is no cure or vaccine for the coronavirus, all of her government’s actions would be designed “to slow down the spread of the virus, to stretch it over the months and thus save time.”

This will be achieved by “shutting down public life as far as possible,” she said, before reassuring Germans that the state would continue to function and supply chains would remain intact “to preserve as much economic activity as possible.”

Merkel insisted that imposing these restrictions were not taken lightly, especially in a democracy which cherishes freedom of movement and assembly.

“Such restrictions can only be justified in absolute necessity. They should never be taken lightly and be only temporarily in a democracy – but they are indispensable at the moment to save lives.”

She urged Germans to help each other and in particular the most vulnerable in the “difficult” weeks ahead, and assured the country that the government would do “everything it can to cushion the economic impact, and above all save jobs.”

Merkel made the plea to heed medical and scientific advice but stopped short of imposing a full lockdown in Germany, which has nearly 12,000 confirmed cases and 28 deaths.

The country began denying entry on Wednesday to non-EU citizens, in accordance with an agreement reached with EU member states the night before.

“We’ve had around 140 people that have had their entry refused,” Reza Ahmari, public relations director for the German Federal Police, told reporters at Frankfurt Airport.

“The new measures affect around 120 flights today at the Frankfurt airport,” Ahmari said, adding that wait times had not increased dramatically despite the more stringent controls, due largely to the greatly reduced number of travellers since the outbreak.

Germany has already started repatriating tens of thousands of German citizens who were stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, an operation described as “logistically complicated” by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

A group of 7,000 were flown home on Wednesday, the first of an estimated 100,000 people who want to return to Germany.

Some 4,000 Germans in Egypt were expected to be repatriated, as well as another 1,500 holidaymakers in the Dominican Republic and around 1,000 in Morocco, the spokesperson said.

The operation would be carried out with the support of national German carrier Lufthansa and its affiliate Eurowings, which have made 30 planes available to travel to areas where regular commercial flights have been suspended.

In addition to German citizens and their families, people with German residence permits as well as EU citizens and citizens of the United Kingdom, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein may still enter the country.

Travelers with long-term visas, such as students, will also be granted entry, but those with tourist or business trip visas will be barred from entering Germany.

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