Friedrich Merz of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) addresses a news conference in Berlin. File picture: Annegret Hilse/Reuters
Friedrich Merz of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) addresses a news conference in Berlin. File picture: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU rival Merz tests positive for coronavirus

By Joerg Blank and Rachel More Time of article published Mar 17, 2020

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Berlin - One of the top names in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and a possible contender to become future head of the country, Friedrich Merz, on Tuesday told dpa that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

Merz, a long-standing rival of Merkel's whose policies lean further to the right, is one of three candidates currently vying for the top role in her conservative party.

"A coronavirus test carried out on Sunday came back as positive. I will be in home quarantine until the end of next week," Merz said.

"Luckily I only have mild to moderate symptoms," the 64-year-old said, adding that he was cancelling all appointments and following the local health authority's instructions.

Merz is hoping to take over the party reins from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was seen as Merkel's hand-picked successor until she succumbed to a number of gaffes since her election in late 2018.

There is a strong chance that the new CDU leader will be the conservatives' candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor of Germany in next year's election, when she plans to bow out of politics.

The coronavirus pandemic has already disrupted the race for the CDU leadership, after forcing the party to postpone its special conference to elect a new head from April 25 until an unknown date.

Merz' diagnosis has also raised questions about which high-ranking CDU functionaries he has had contact with.

Armin Laschet, another one of the three CDU leadership contenders, responded with a curt "no" when asked by journalists whether he has had direct contact with Merz in recent days.

As in many countries across Europe and elsewhere, life in Germany has changed dramatically in recent days in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Drastic measures have been taken to reduce people's movements, with schools shut across most of the country, border controls in place and strict advice against socializing.

Germany stepped up its advice against travel on Tuesday, with the government issuing a global travel warning in response to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said up to 50 million euros (55.6 million dollars) would be spent on special flights to bring thousands of German tourists home, speaking of an "airlift."

The government's agency for disease control has upped the threat posed by the outbreak across the country from "moderate" to "high."

Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler said the reassessment was based on increasing infections and warning signs from public health facilities and hospitals.

Berlin plans to build a new hospital for up to 1,000 Covid-19 patients, the city's health minister said.

The facility is to be built on the Messe Berlin exhibition grounds in cooperation with the army, minister Dilek Kalayci said.

An increasing number of infections in Germany cannot be traced back to known cases.

Over 6,000 infections have been confirmed in the country so far, including 13 deaths.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, Laschet's running mate in the CDU race, on Tuesday appealed for patience as hotlines dealing with requests for coronavirus testing were overwhelmed.

He noted that over 100,000 tests were carried out in the past week alone by medical facilities covered by state-supported health insurers.

The coronavirus is also taking its toll on the German economy, with economists' forecasts taking their hardest-ever hit since the ZEW research institute began conducting its closely-watched surveys.

The ZEW economic indicator for March plunged by 58.2 points on the previous month to minus 49.5 points, marking the indicator's farthest fall since it was launched in late 1991.

A drop into negative territory shows an overwhelmingly negative outlook among analysts.

The crisis is broadly expected to drag Europe's largest economy into its first recession since 2009, according to ZEW President Professor Achim Wambach.

dpa

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