Bodies pile up in east Germany's Covid hotspots

Bodies pile up in east Germany’s Covid hotspots where many locals believe ‘the collateral damage of lockdowns outweigh the benefits’ while others blame ‘ignorance’ for soaring deaths

  • Caskets for Covid patients are piling up in east German regions such as Meissen 
  • One local crematorium saw 1,400 bodies last month, twice more than December
  • Germany struggles to contain the virus despite imposing lockdowns last year
  • The country reported 2,040,659 infections and 46,633 deaths as of Monday

Bodies have piled up in Germany’s coronavirus hotspots, including the eastern city Meissen, as the country struggles to bring the virus under control.

Meissen, along with other places across old east Germany that are generally poorer, older and more supportive of a far-right opposed to lockdown are the worst hit by the pandemic in the country. 

Many locals believe ‘the collateral damage of lockdowns outweigh the benefits’, but others blamed the soaring deaths for the ignorance of local government that had failed to act quickly.

On Monday, Germany reported 7,141 new cases, bringing the tally to 2,040,659. The death count now stands at 46,633 after recording 214 new deaths today. 

An employee moves coffins, some marked with ‘infection risk’ as others have ‘corona’ scrawled in chalk, in the mourning hall of the crematorium in Meissen, eastern Germany on January 13

‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Joerg Schaldach, manager of a Meissen crematorium , whose furnaces cremated 1,400 bodies last month, double the figure from December last year. 

More than half had died of COVID-19 and Schaldach expects some 1,700 cremations in total this month.

‘People are dying alone in hospital without a loved one holding their hand,’ added Schaldach, standing in the main hall cleared of chairs used for funeral services to make way for caskets. 

‘People get just a phone call: ‘deceased’. A farewell at the coffin is not possible, all they get is an urn.’

Like many east German regions that had a relatively mild first wave, Saxony, home to Meissen and a stronghold of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, has the second highest 7-day incidence rate in Germany, almost double the national average of 136 per 100,000 people.

The neighbouring eastern state of Thuringia, where the AfD is also popular, is now Germany’s worst hot spot, taking over from Saxony last week.

Coffins of people who died from the coronavirus are seen in the Meissen crematorium

‘If the Saxony government had acted earlier, we would have had the pandemic under control. But now we are a national problem,’ said Frank Richter, a lawmaker in the Saxony parliament for the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

‘The pile of bodies in Meissen is bitter medicine against ignorance.’

Detlev Spangenberg, an AfD lawmaker in the national parliament from Saxony, said the party should not be blamed.

‘We’ve had a lockdown since November and the numbers are not going down. It’s nothing to do with the AfD,’ he said late last week. ‘We are just saying that the collateral damage of lockdowns outweighs the benefits.’

The governors of both Saxony and Thuringia had in September opposed efforts by Merkel to introduce restrictions after the summer in anticipation of a second wave of COVID-19, only to acknowledge recently that they had made an error in judgment.

A worker pushes a coffin, among other coffins of people who passed away from Covid-19 in the Meissen crematorium on January 15. Germany Monday reported 7,141 new coronavirus cases

On the deserted streets of Meissen, a city of 28,000 famed for it porcelain industry, people had different explanations for the dramatic surge in infections, ranging from naive complacency to scepticism partly promoted by the AfD.

‘It sounds strange, but I noticed that young people follow rules like wearing a mask and keeping distance more than old people,’ said Jenna Schmidt, a 27-year-old waitress at a local restaurant shuttered since November.

‘When numbers started to rise in October, you’d hear old people say, ‘oh I’m too old, I’ll die soon anyway’,’ said Schmidt, walking with her toddler in the snow in the main square that is usually bustling with tourists.

‘It’s attitudes like this that got us here.’

At the crematorium, men working around the clock unloaded caskets marked with pieces of paper stating the deceased’s name, date of birth and death and address. Almost all were in their late 60s or older. Some had lived in care homes.

Bodies have been piled up in Germany’s coronavirus hotspots, including the eastern city Meissen, as the country struggles to bring the virus under control. A coffin is cremated in the crematorium in Meissen, Germany on January 11

‘There is a lot of panic and hysteria,’ said Roswitha Zeidler, a 60-year-old who works as a cleaning lady in a hotel. ‘Old people die all the time. I’m sick and tired of all the restrictions and predictions. I just want my life back.’

Merkel and state leaders will hold talks on Tuesday on whether more restrictions are needed when a hard lockdown expires on January 31.

Germany, which imposed a lockdown in November that was tightened early last month, recorded just over 7,000 confirmed new infections on Monday and 214 deaths, roughly half the figures from a day earlier.

While limited testing and lower death reports at the weekend may have played a role, Health Minister Jens Spahn said the trend was downward but the numbers remained far too high.

Ute Czeschka, an independent member of the Meissen city council, said another factor that contributed to infections exploding in eastern German states like Saxony was their proximity to the Czech Republic and Poland, two hot spots on Germany’s eastern border.

A view of the market square amid the pandemic in Meissen, east Germany on January 15

‘Many of our health care workers and doctors come from hot spots like the Czech Republic,’ said Czeschka. ‘So this didn’t help. But the main reason we got here is that, until recently, many people did not believe in the virus. Now they do.’

SPD lawmaker Richter said that the scepticism of the coronavirus promoted by local AfD leaders, who during the summer showed up at anti-lockdown protests not wearing masks, had encouraged people to flout hygiene and distancing rules.

‘Fighting a pandemic is like a team trying to win a soccer match,’ said Richter. ‘You can’t win if some players are trying to score an own goal.’

A study by the Forsa research institute found that only 19 per cent of AfD supporters believed the federal government’s information about the pandemic was credible and less than 30 per cent of men who support the party followed distancing and hygiene rules.

This compared with 75 per cent and 65 per cent respectively for the whole population.

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