This coming Sunday will mark the end of an era. Germany’s second-longest-serving Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel will stand down after sixteen years. Since I moved to Germany in 2013, all I’ve ever known is Merkel. And in that time, I confess – I’ve caught feelings.
As a member of the British Labour Party since the day I turned 16 and the daughter of a former Labour Councillor, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, bleeding-heart socialist. If you were to cut me open, I’d have ‘fuck the Tories’ written throughout like a stick of Blackpool rock. And yet, on Sunday night, I may well find myself shedding tears at the departure of a Conservative politician.
So how did it happen that, with such a background, I fell for Angela Merkel?
Our type on paper
I’m not alone in holding a candle for the woman born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954. In objective terms, Merkel has been good for Germany and largely good for Europe. At the beginning of her tenure in 2005, GDP per capita in Germany was below that of the UK and France. It now outstrips both of these countries.
That rise was partially thanks to a controversial legacy inherited from the previous administration. But Germany’s comparatively swift recovery from the 2008 financial crash came as a result of Merkel’s understanding of and reliance on her country’s inherent economic and social strengths. Likewise, Germany has weathered the coronavirus storm better than other nations because of a healthcare system that has been well looked after and the presence of sensible public debate.
Merkel’s political scorecard would be admirable at any time, not least at a time when the world has found itself in an ever-quickening spiral of disarray. But that’s not the reason I fell for her.
A first flush of love
For me, there are two clear incidents that have marked Merkel out as the most extraordinary politician of the era. The first, rather obviously given my creed, was the manner in which she managed the refugee crisis of 2015.
As Syria’s civil war escalated and the region collapsed into chaos, hundreds of thousands of refugees began the gruelling journey to and through Europe. The European response to the development was embarrassingly fractured. While Merkel’s Germany opened its borders, many other nations pulled up the drawbridge, leaving millions of desperate people stranded. Germany processed 1.4 million asylum applications between 2015 and 2017. By comparison, the UK processed fewer than a hundred thousand.
Worthy though it clearly was, Merkel’s decision to give sanctuary to traumatised people fleeing conflict was not wholly driven by compassion. Like many European countries, Germany has an aging population. The influx of young, fit and eager workers is likely to be viewed a boon in years to come.
And that’s exactly why I admire her: she’s good, but she’s also smart, and she’s a brilliant politician because she recognises when these qualities align.
The same can be said of the second incident that made me fall for Merkel’s political charms. It’s one that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive.
The seven year itch?
The introduction of same-sex marriage has long been overdue in general and, in a social democracy like Germany, especially so. This was in no small part due to Merkel’s hesitancy to bring the issue to the floor of the Bundestag. For this, I would be the first to criticise her.
However, the vote on equal marriage eventually came and was passed in 2017. In full Merkel-tradition, it was almost certainly a politically-calculated move, again the serendipitous alignment of ‘good’ and ‘smart’ (the alternative view being that it was a slip-up). The vote took place three months before the General Election and, in allowing it, Merkel neutralised a key campaign issue of the opposition centrist and left-wing parties. She gave her party a free vote, framing it as ‘one of conscience’. Merkel, herself, is believed to have voted against the bill, despite having expressed a shift in her attitudes in recent years.
At the end of the day, Merkel is a conservative, the daughter of a pastor, raised in then-Communist East Germany. As the leader of the country’s Conservative party, the CDU, and with an eye to the dangers posed by the emerging right, as well as critics and traditionalists within her own party, Merkel had little option but to vote against, knowing that the proposal had sufficient support to pass regardless.
This incident might have put me off Merkel by raising exactly the wrong kind of red flag. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In admitting that the world was evolving, and she with it, and in allowing her party to vote freely, it was a prime example of what has been Merkel’s defining characteristic on the world stage: behaving like a grown-up.
Unlike so many of her peers, she has been precisely what she was elected to be – a public servant. Not a petty, thin-skinned, self-serving narcissist, but a genuine representative of a diverse people.
Merkel has always trodden the fine line of trying to antagonise as few people as possible on all sides. By making concessions rather than remaining entrenched in dogma, it has enabled her to form a series of functioning governmental coalitions that took her country from the ‘sick man of Europe’ to the continent’s leading economic and political power. That is grown-up politics.
I’m happy to admit that Merkel has been far from perfect. It would be remiss of me not to highlight a number of her failings.
With the exception of the same-sex marriage and adoption votes, social policy (as one might imagine after sixteen years of Conservative government) has been woefully neglected. The New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne highlighted how regressive laws on sexual assault still are. Access to abortion is still not in line with World Health Organisation recommendations (there remains a compulsory ‘cooling off period’ after a procedure is requested and women are mandated to undergo counselling). The tax system still heavily favours marriage, leading to fewer women engaging in full-time employment. Reproductive assistance is hamstrung by outdated legislation. All of these aspects require the progressive touch of a more liberal administration.
Furthermore, despite economic successes, Merkel has been old-fashioned in her approach to technology, specifically digitalisation. If Germany wants to maintain its competitive edge in the new world, this is an area that demands immediate attention from the new leader.
Finally, there are plenty among my ilk who have viewed her as something of a tyrant, throwing her country’s economic might around Europe in order to subjugate the periphery. Her handling of the Greek Debt Crisis came in for especially heavy criticism. While her approach in that particular crisis was tough (to say the least), the Euro and the European Union project survived as a result.
The end of the affair
As she prepares to step down, Angela Merkel’s popularity ratings have seldom been higher, and that comes as no surprise.
In a world of Johnsons, Trumps and Bolsonaros, Merkel has been stability over recklessness, rationality over conspiracy, and dignity over egotism. At a time when weak men and even weaker morals seem to have been the order of the day, she has been a beacon of compassion, graciousness and professionalism.
But Merkel is not just decent by comparison. At any time in history, she would have been recognised as an effective and thoughtful leader.
And most importantly, for me at least, she has taught me that while my ethics may be fixed, how to apply them can be flexible. She has reminded me that humility is the most effective form of leadership, reinvigorated my interest in ‘proper’ politics, and even brought me out of my shell as a writer and activist.
I’m not alone in fearing for the post-Merkel future. One of the worst possible outcomes would be a CDU/CSU victory – all the damage of another conservative-led government without the moderating force of Angela Merkel.
The Social Democrats and (less so) the Greens are polling well (at time of publishing…) so there are grounds for optimism. Much as I’ll miss Merkel personally, it is more than time for an actively progressive, rather than a sluggishly modernising government.
Weigh in! How do you think history will remember Angela Merkel? What are your wishes and expectations for the new government in Germany?
I didn’t want to read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for two reasons. First, it’s technical – it’s ‘the science bit’ of the UN body’s most recent assessment. But mostly I didn’t want to read it because I knew it would be scary, and not just hide-behind-the-sofa-scary, rather proper, “Code Red for Humanity”, existential-collapse-scary.
But eventually, I did read it and, yes; it was just as terrifying as I had anticipated. But, to my surprise, it was also encouraging and strangely liberating. So if, like me, you can’t bring yourself to look at the report just yet, read on for the lowlights and – unlikely as it may seem – a message of hope.
What is the IPCC report?
The IPCC is currently in its Sixth Assessment Cycle. The report published earlier this month is Working Group I’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and presents the ‘Physical Science Basis’ of climate change.
Ultimately, AR6 will include reports from two further working groups, on the impacts of climate change (due in early 2022) and how to mitigate climate change (due in autumn 2022).
What does the report say?
Much as I’d expected, the report doesn’t make for easy reading in any sense of the word. In short, it presents the science of climate change as we know it, summarises the specific environmental effects of climate change thus far, and presents scenarios on how things might go in the future.
Most importantly, it states that “it is unequivocalthat human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. Humans have caused a rise in global surface temperature of over 1ºC since 1850, and that rise in temperature has (already) resulted in a rise in sea levels, the acidification of the oceans, and the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
After a rundown of our transgressions to date, the IPCC goes on to model five different scenarios for our future, depending on levels of climate change mitigation as well as a number of socio-economic assumptions.
Scenario 1 is something of a pipedream – it would only be achievable if, tomorrow, we started running our cars on unicorn farts. Scenario 2 is aligned with the requirement of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2ºC. Scenarios 4 and 5 are the hell-and-damnation options, in which we fail to cooperate and instead do the bare minimum to reduce (or even increase) CO2 emissions, and in which we see global warming of up to 6ºC. Unlike scenario 1, these scenarios are not out of the question.
Under every one of thescenarios, global surface temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050. The report adds that, without “deep reductions in CO2”, by the end of the century, global warming will exceed 2ºC. The last time a global temperature increase of 2.5ºC was sustained was 3 million years ago. For context, that’s a million years before Homo went erectus.
The report then illustrates how different increases inglobal temperature affect different regions to different extents – that’s to say, a 2ºC rise in global warming would generate a mean increase of 3ºC in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has already seen record temperatures this year, and a greater than 6ºC increase in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, with that same 2ºC rise in global warming, incidents of extreme heat, which would naturally have occurred every 50 years or so, will occur every three or four years and be more intense. Likewise, incidents of heavy rain will occur twice as often and be 14% wetter. That information is of particular poignancy in central Europe, where more than 300 people died last month in some of the most extreme flooding in living memory.
Clarification of the regional impacts of the global system is a particular strength of the report. You can frighten yourself even more by playing with the IPCC’s interactive map to see how different variables might affect different regions. This tool makes it starkly clear that nowhere on Earth is immune to climate change, and that life as we have enjoyed it is changing irrevocably.
Finally, there is some good news! The five scenarios presented illustrate that humanity still has the power to influence how bad climate change will become. Furthermore, with a sustained period of net negative CO2 emissions, we could, eventually, reduce the global temperature (though many of the impacts of global warming cannot be undone for at least several millennia). Whether this is feasible is clearly moot, but it’s an important reminder that all is not lost, even at this juncture.
Why is this report different?
Firstly, this report is irrefutable documentation of the progress and potential of climate change. It’s confirmation of the scientific consensus, of what most of us knew but were reluctant to admit and what vested interests have been trying to explain away. In this report, there’s nowhere left to hide – not behind the sofa and not behind the quirks of the Holocene. Bearing in the mind that the report had to be signed off by the world’s superpowers (and heaviest polluters), this is highly significant.
Second, this report matters in a positive way. With the five scenarios, we’re actively rejecting the idea that climate change is a binary – we’re screwed vs. we’re not screwed. Besides being excessively simplistic, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking plays into the hands of climate deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists who would prefer that we accept what’s been done and carry on regardless because we’ve nothing left to lose.
That simply isn’t true. Damage has been done and damage will continueto be done. The issue is now one of extent. This is an opportunity to stop the rot, to make peace with the fact that scenario 1 and our pristine planet are things of the past, and to acknowledge that we still have the power to tame, albeit not to prevent, climate change.
For me, this report is different because there’s a certain amount of liberation when theoretical doom becomes tangible, measurable disaster. How we go forward from here will be the subject of the IPCC’s autumn 2022 report and I, for one, won’t be hiding from it.
Coronavirus restrictions are set to be lifted completely in England in less than a week’s time. With the number of Covid-19 cases at its highest since January, this counterintuitive move will inevitably lead to a further rise in cases, more deaths and more incidents of the life-limiting morbidity associated with ‘long Covid’.
Much has been written about the British government’s ongoing indifference to keeping its citizens safe. But in the absence of competent, responsible leadership, it’s worth reflecting on the role of the individual, not only to protect others, but to protect the legacy of humanity’s fight against disease.
Vaccines: humanity’s greatest achievement
Vaccines are one of the greatest (if not the greatest) human discoveries. Vaccination programmes are the finest example of global human cooperation. At the start of the twentieth century, life expectancy in the developed world was just 47. By the end, it was 77. Vaccination played an enormous role in this astonishing advancement.
At the beginning of that period, for example, more than 60,000 people in Britain fell ill with diphtheria every year, resulting in about 6,000 deaths. At least two of my infant ancestors were among them. Polio, meanwhile, very nearly killed my grandmother and left her father disabled for life. Smallpox was ravaging the world.
Today, babies, including my own daughter, are vaccinated against diphtheria, polio and four other deadly diseases at a routine trip to the GP. As a result, there was a single recorded death from diphtheria in the UK in 2019. Since its launch in 1988, The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced cases of polio across the world by 99 per cent. We now talk about smallpox, a disease that killed 300 million people in the twentieth century, in the past tense.
A large part of such regression is the result of so-called ‘anti-vax’ movements, peddling misinformation and conspiracy. This is abhorrent, cruel and exploitative and must be tackled as an imperative. But what is also concerning at this point in our history is the potential for simple complacency to become a factor in walking back the gains we have made, particularly in this pandemic.
Our response to Covid-19 thus far has been especially impressive. The gene sequencing of the original virus was achieved within a single day, while the production of several effective vaccines began within months of the first confirmed cases. Almost a billion people worldwide have been fully vaccinated just 18 months after the first lock-down began. Again, these are achievements of cooperation, but our continued success now depends on people recognising their individual power.
‘Typhoid Mary’ – the world’s first known asymptomatic carrier
The case of ‘Typhoid Mary’ is a prime example of how the apparent wellness of a single individual can conceal a devastating vector of disease transmission.
Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Ireland and emigrated to the United States at the age of 15. There, she became a cook in the kitchens of wealthy New York families. Over a seven year period, several members of those families, as well as other domestic staff, fell ill with typhoid fever. Eventually a pattern emerged with Mary at the heart of it.
Mary Mallon was the first known case of an asymptomatic carrier of disease – and a ‘super-spreader’ to use modern parlance. Although she never exhibited symptoms of typhoid, herself, it is believed that she infected at least 53 people, three of whom died. From this, she acquired the sobriquet ‘Typhoid Mary’.
The story of Mary Mallon is particularly tragic because she was forcibly quarantined for much of her life, obliged to give samples against her will. Germ theory was still not fully understood or supported, and Mary refused to believe that she could be the source of the outbreaks, even up until her death in 1938.
Although Mary’s treatment was highly ethically questionable, it did reveal that a person who does not show symptoms of a disease can still carry and pass on that disease. This theory has been borne out repeatedly in the cases of tuberculosis, HIV and, latterly, Covid-19.
The power of the individual as part of a whole
Mary Mallon’s trail of destruction was utterly unintentional. Today, we know about asymptomatic carriers, how diseases spread and how vaccines work in populations.
No vaccine is one hundred per cent effective. Vaccination programmes work because the proportion of vaccinated people is sufficient to reduce outbreaks, so that populations no longer come into contact with disease in the first place. A successful vaccination programme protects both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The latter group avoids contracting diphtheria not because they’re lucky or strong, but because the people around them have actively behaved in a way that protects them. Vaccination success depends on the willingness of individuals to cooperate with other individuals in the interest of the community.
Mary Mallon’s case is especially pertinent today because, as with asymptomatic typhoid, it is entirely possible for a person who is double-vaccinated against Covid-19 not only to become infected, but to spread the disease inadvertently.
Half of the British population is now fully vaccinated. At the same time, the more contagious Delta variant (as well as its eager cousins, Eta, Kappa and Lambda) is wreaking havoc despite our efforts. The current raft of vaccines does seem to work against variants but there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so. Vaccination is vital, but it is only part of a puzzle that is built as much on personal responsibility as on scientific progress.
Covid-19 has so far killed at least four million people, including my own grandmother, and has touched the lives of millions more. It will continue to do so unless we acknowledge our own role in the ongoing story of humanity versus disease. As the vaccination roll-out continues, as case rates eventually stabilise or decline, and as more and more restrictions on our everyday behaviour are lifted, it behoves us to remain as vigilant and thoughtful as possible.
Now is as good a time as any to reflect on lessons from the past and proceed in the vein of human cooperation that has brought us to this point. That’s what’s at stake come July 19th.
Weigh in! Will you still be wearing your mask after 19 July? What are your thoughts about the lifting of restrictions in England?
When the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Department of Mental Health and Substance Use published the first draft of its Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030 last week, a single clause in the 37-page document drew heavy criticism.
In it, the WHO appeared to be advocating that women of childbearing age should not be allowed to drink alcohol. At all. Regardless of whether they were, or intended to become, pregnant.
Specifically, the document stated, ‘appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age…’ (p.17)
Of course, had the line simply read, ‘prevention of drinking among pregnant women,’ it’s unlikely that anybody would have batted an eyelid. But the suggestion that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant should be prevented from drinking alcohol is, not only offensive, it has potentially damaging ramifications.
The idea that a woman who is not pregnant should be forbidden from engaging in an activity open to the rest of the population purely on the off-chance she falls pregnant is, in the first instance, discriminatory. Worse is the implication: that women of childbearing age are primarily reproductive vessels, seen as secondary in their rights and life choices to a hypothetical foetus.
Half a sentence in an obscure draft may not seem like much. And perhaps the authors ‘misspoke’, focused, as they must have been, on their task of reducing the morbidity associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It’s unlikely that they intended to impair the bodily autonomy of several billion people.
But even if it were a mistake, this is really not a time to playing fast and loose with the language of human rights. A woman’s right to decide what to do with her body is under threat. Last month, the Governor of Texas signed into law a bill that not only prohibits abortions after as little as six weeks (before some women even know they’re pregnant), but has the potential to allow private citizens to sue abortion providers. In Poland, a member of the EU, a near-total ban on abortion is being enforced. As many of the report’s critics pointed out, the statement was reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s (mercifully-still-fictional) Gilead.
It is worthy of note that the beginning of the draft action plan does offer a disclaimer: ‘The information in this document does not necessarily represent the stated views or policies of the World Health Organization. The responsibility for the interpretation and use of the material lies with the reader’.
Yet it’s not difficult to imagine how hard-line conservatives and the pro-life contingent would interpret it.
Let’s remember that the action plan is still in its draft form, and following this furore, I would be extremely surprised to see the offending clause appear in the final draft. However, it has been a useful reminder that we cannot afford to be sloppy in how we express issues of human rights. By doing so, we play into the hands of those who believe exactly what the WHO has suggested (deliberately or otherwise) – that a woman’s exclusive purpose is to produce offspring.
Just in case the WHO is still considering including the clause, you can voice your objections at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Weigh in! What are your thoughts on the WHO’s report? How can we ensure that authoritative organisations with health mandates consider their social responsibilities?