Germany reckons with second wave risk

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BERLIN — Is Gütersloh where Europe’s battle to prevent a second coronavirus wave starts?

A regional lockdown announced Tuesday affecting more than 500,000 locals near Germany’s industrial heartland offers a laboratory for how Europe can manage new outbreaks of COVID-19.

That includes thorny questions of how to administer those measures in local communities and whom to blame for contagion.

“At the moment it’s a local outbreak,” said Ralf Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and surveillance at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. But if the approach fails in Gütersloh and in other towns such as Göttingen, where a tower block is in quarantine, he warned, Germany will “probably have a second wave.”

Ground zero in Gütersloh is a slaughterhouse owned by Tönnies, a meat-processing company. Of around 7,000 workers at the facility, more than 1,500 have tested positive in recent days. So far, local transmission into the general population has been limited, local authorities insisted on Tuesday — the same day the lockdown was announced, followed by an extension of the measures to the neighboring district of Warendorf.

Police are being deployed for mobile test facilities while the new lockdown — effectively returning the districts to the quarantine introduced nationwide in March — will run until June 30.

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“The purpose is to calm the situation, to extend the tests now to determine whether the virus is already widespread among Tönnies employees or not,” said Armin Laschet, the region’s premier and a potential contender to replace Angela Merkel as federal chancellor.

The situation shines a light both on efforts to manage the health crisis and on working standards in Europe at a plant dependent on imported labor.

Peter Liese, a conservative MEP and trained doctor, cited the cold temperatures in meat-packing facilities such as the Tönnies plant. “This is normally conditions in wintertime … when it’s more dangerous to be infected.”

Working conditions are also to blame, he said, pointing to cramped workers’ housing and the firm’s reliance on temporary contracts that, among other things, deny sick leave. Liese said he’s teaming up with colleagues to push the European Commission to do more to address these issues.

The point was echoed by Ansgar Gerhardus, a professor at the Institute for Public Health and Nursing Research at the University of Bremen. For him, it’s no coincidence that other large workplaces like Mercedes-Benz or Bayer — where people work in close contact but are offered sick days and better contracts — have avoided similar outbreaks.

“It’s high time to look at these conditions … controls have to go up,” Gerhardus said.

He added that the infection must have been circulating for a while for so many people to test positive now, as “one person can’t have infected 1,500…

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