Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 24, 2020
Not known for dramatic outbursts or playing to the gallery, Merkel’s moves will be inclusive and transparent as she clears space for accountability for the health emergency that has infected over 2.5 million people and killed 171,000 people.
COVID-19: Between a smiling Xi and a tweeting Trump stands a lady called Merkel

Late last week a German tabloid said their country had sent an itemised bill to China for coronavirus-related damages. The story caught international attention. The news was false, but it spoke about a common sentiment in Germany and outside of reparations and accountability the world now seeks from China.

It also showed that even when German Chancellor Angela Merkel says nothing, the world listens to her. That is not adulation. It is respect and that happens only when a leader has never misused power or held out false promises. Richard Walker, Chief International Editor of DW, Germany’s global broadcaster has tweeted a new opinion poll according to which 83 % Germans says Merkel is doing a good job and 90 % give the thumbs up to her government. “We’re not living in the final phase of the pandemic, but still at the beginning – we will be living with the virus for a long time,” she said. It does not get more real or realistic than that.

Anything that big powers now do will be closely watched as people seeks answers. The strategic board game Chinese Chequers originated in Germany. Its original name is Sternhelma. Between China accountable to no one and the United States (US) now behaving like a spoilt child stands Angela Merkel. The question on everyone’s mind is this – in the global game of accountability and democracy what will Merkel’s first Sternhelma move be? As a corollary where will world leaders find themselves when the dust has settled?

Not known for dramatic outbursts or playing to the gallery, Merkel’s moves will be inclusive and transparent as she clears space for accountability for the health emergency that has infected over 2.5 million people and killed 171,000 people. The commander in chief as Germans call her, may not directly call out Chinese Premier Xi Xinping for his continued silence about his government’s delay and continued cover up of the pandemic that originated in Wuhan but Merkel will not be mealy mouthed. Over the past few weeks she has been reminding a rudderless European Union (EU) that wealth of nations without health of nations means little and business without ethics is myopic. In between the lines, the lady with a doctorate in quantum chemistry has also told the world she understands the trade game China is playing and will not be bullied into thinking that a pandemic is a trade battle. Covering all fronts, Merkel is helping European nations treat their patients in Germany while ensuring that very German patient gets free treatment. Leadership is a seen and felt thing.

Trump may not have heard of the World Health Organisation (WHO) or its Chinese capture through its puppet Dr. Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, but Merkel understands the organisation’s strengths and failures. An institution builder it is unlikely she is impressed with Tedros (as he is called) now, given her views on how other WHO heads handled the Ebola crisis.

“The WHO is the only international organisation that has universal political legitimacy on global health issues. This is why it is so important to render its structures more efficient,” she had said in May 2015, during the Ebola crisis that left 11,000 people dead. Five years later in 2020, the WHO is neither more responsible nor responsive. It is transparently actively covering up for China. It has a motley mix of supporters including western nations who alternately play the victim, racism, saviour and south-south cooperation card depending on the audience. The virtual G20 health minister’s summit last Sunday was a mix and match of all and as most such combinations go, sank without a trace.

Overtaken by events and tragedy, world leaders are diving into history looking for solutions. The Marshall Plan, the great depression, the Chinese Revolution – every calamity in recent economic and political history has been recalled, as meaningless doomsday scenarios are erected. Most are focussed on Trump, Xi and trade and worry about trade sanctions under the garb of equity and sustainability. Intellectual drowsiness or vacuity of ‘experts’ keen to look at misfortune, disease and death as opportunities is perverse. Something has given.

China and its propaganda machines are facing serious pushbacks. Brute strength has been stopped on its tracks and what happens next will depend on the clairvoyance of global leadership. “It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power,” wrote President and CEO of Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Samir Saran recently. Very early, trade watchers knew that for China WHO was the vehicle and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was the destination. They were right. In a joint statement Tedros and the World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s head Roberto Azevedo jointly put out a statement which said, “governments should avoid measures that can disrupt supply chains and negatively impact the poorest and the most vulnerable, notably in developing countries that are typically reliant on imports of medicines and medical equipment.”

The pandemic has left the world gasping for breath. They have a right to question and the WHO must answer. The American state of Missouri has taken the WHO to court. Israel has launched a class action suit, Spain wants an independent investigation and a poll in the UK says eight out of ten people want an enquiry. On Wednesday Australian Prime Minister Scot Morison said he was pushing for an independent review of the origins and spread of the pandemic including the response of the WHO and his Foreign Minister backed him. More will follow, but getting an international consensus on an independent enquiry will not be easy.

This is where what Merkel does will become the key. Without guns and warships, she has placed Germany’s 80 million people right up -– right there with the Chinese and the US as centres of economic power. Her added ammunition is that it is not hostage to the tedious and unprincipled workings of UN’s P5 – the US, the UK, France, China and Russia. Speaking of Russia, Merkel single-handedly withstood pressure from Trump to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the Group of Seven industrialised countries. “I think it is more appropriate to have Russia in” Trump said before landing at the GT summit in France in 2019. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US and Japan make up the group which originally had an eight member Russia which was ousted following its annexation of Crimea.

Born in Hamburg, West Germany, Merkel moved to East Germany as a child with her family. She worked as a research scientist, entering politics only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her illustrious career has many firsts including the first woman Chancellor of Germany in 2005. Unpopular decisions have never stopped her. The most criticised on was when German took in over a million Syrian refugees fleeing war and poverty. “We can do this,” she said with characteristic calm.

Merkel has many hoops to jump through now as the geopolitical world going east has suddenly been stopped on its tracks by Beijing’s searing aggression at being caught out. Burning economies, gnashing its teeth at the slightest opposition and questioning the very basis upon which modern nation states are built will take different forms ranging from pity to aggression and even trade sanction. She is navigating way cautiously well-aware that while Chinese and German trade is intricately linked nothing can take precedence over human suffering.

In Germany that has special meaning. German children visit concentration camps to understand what human beings can do. Last year Merkel visited the Auschwitz memorial site in Poland, her first as head of Germany. “This place obligates us to maintain the memory of what happened here. We must remember the crimes that happened and clearly define them, it is important to clearly identify the perpetrators and we owe it to the victims and to ourselves” she said.

Nothing can compare to the horrors of the Nazis concentration camps, but the world was aghast at what little it saw at Wuhan. The whistle blower was quietened and subsequently died. Accountability and atonement are alien words for China and Tedros, now fending off the glare of international scrutiny. Merkel has time and justice on her side. All eyes now on her first Sternhelma move.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Chitra Subramaniam

Chitra Subramaniam

Chitra Subramaniam is a media person and entrepreneur.

Read More +