German slaughterhouse cases rise, triggering fears of a second wave

By Sascha Meyer and Stella Venohr, dpa
Berlin (dpa) – The rising number of coronavirus infections at a slaughterhouse in western Germany has led to calls for the owner to step down, amid concerns about a second wave of infections in the country.

There were 1,029 cases at the Toennies slaughterhouse in the community of Rheda-Widenbueck in North Rhine Westphalia on Saturday, when it was shut down for 14 days.

However, Clemens Toennies, the owner of the company, insisted on Saturday that he would lead it out of the crisis, in response to a call by his nephew Robert Toennies on Friday for him to step down.

Trust in the company has fallen to “zero” said Thomas Kuhlbusch, the head of the district crisis team, as the outbreak threatened to force a new regional shutdown.

About 60 people gathered outside the Toennies factory on Saturday to protest against the consumption of meat and against the unsafe conditions they say workers are forced into. Several covered themselves with fake blood, but police said the event went off peacefully.

Health authorities meanwhile sought to bring the situation under control and sent an additional 40 members of the German army to the community to join 25 soldiers already in the region.

Several members of the new team are fluent in Eastern European languages, since many of the infected slaughterhouse staff are Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

All of the workers are now in some form of quarantine but the measure may not be enough, as workers could have infected friends and family members who might have, in turn, spread it even further.

Officials in North Rhine Westphalia are set to discuss the situation on Sunday.

The state was one of the first to be severely hit by the coronavirus earlier this year. Its premier, Armin Laschet, has also been one of the German leaders pushing most vigorously for a relaxation of coronavirus guidelines.

Germany has recorded relatively few infections and deaths due to the virus, with 189,135 cases and 8,883 deaths.

But the Toennies outbreak – along with other smaller ones in Berlin, Kassel and Magdeburg, for example – is raising worries that the country is about to see another spike.

And on Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s disease and control centre, recorded 601 new infections in the last 24 hours, and reported that the rate of infection has ticked back up to a point where each infected person was infecting one other.

However, RKI officials also noted that many of the new outbreaks – like the slaughterhouse or at a group of apartment blocks in Berlin – are still isolated and, because the rest of the country is doing so well, are distorting the overall figures.

Amid these concerns, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged residents in Germany to use a coronavirus tracking app designed to “recognize and break up infection chains,” in her weekly video message on Saturday.

“The more people who participate, the greater its usefulness,” she said.

The Corona Warn app was released this week after months of preparation and design. It works by storing information about the users’ movements on the phone, and also keeps track whenever it comes into the proximity of another phone carrying the app.

However, due to high data volumes, there are questions about how useful it can be, since older phones might have trouble coping. There is also resistance from privacy advocates against a system that tracks people’s movement.

The app’s use is voluntary. Germany has a strongly ingrained tradition of personal privacy due to its experiences with state spying on its citizens during the Nazi era and by the government of the former East Germany.

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