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Angela Merkel during her speech in the German Bundestag
Angela Merkel during her speech in the German Bundestag
Carl-Johan Karlsson

It is a speech that stands out from all those we've heard from world leaders in the 10 months since the pandemic began — a far cry from the fact-defying rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro or the cool logic of Emmanuel Macron.


As Germany reported a record 590 deaths in one day from Covid-19, Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to parliament for tougher restrictions to stem the spread. But rather than read a series of proposed new regulations or explain scientific recommendations, Merkel's plea was that of a political leader openly struggling before her citizens in the face of defeat: "If we have too many contacts before Christmas and it ends up being the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we'd really have failed. We should not do that."

And indeed, for someone whose 15-year leadership has been defined by a sober approach to the toughest of challenges, it was an unusual moment as the chancellor spoke directly to shopkeepers who would suffer from new lockdowns. "I really am sorry, from the bottom of my heart. But if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day, then this is unacceptable," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "What will we say when we look back on this once-in-a-century event — if we weren't able to find a solution?"

In my native Sweden (the champion of voluntary coronavirus measures) people's reluctance to heed government advice is partly due to weak political rhetoric. Like in the German federation, Sweden's 21 regions manage their own crisis response, which Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has conveniently used to dodge responsibility.


Merkel's speech was remarkable for the way she indeed stood up and said what she thought, but also for the inherent acknowledgment of the limits of our powers to make the right decisions. "I don't know," admitted Merkel, one of the few world leaders who is a trained scientist. "This is not my area of expertise. I don't want to interfere."


For nearly a year, politicians have tried to supply answers to a public that is increasingly losing both trust and patience. Merkel finally shared out loud a truth about the pandemic that most of us have known inside for a while: There is no good answer.

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