The Covid-19 virus has already sent shockwaves through economies in nearly every nation, but in Germany it appears to have been too much to handle for one state minister. Thomas Schäfer, finance minister of the German state of Hesse, was found dead Saturday in an apparent suicide, as Al Jazeera reported.
Schäfer’s body was discovered on a railway track between Frankfurt and Mainz. He reportedly left behind a note detailing the reasons which explain what led to the 54-year-old minister taking the irreversible action, according to Deutsche Welle.
In His Prime
Schäfer was in the prime of his 20-year political career. He had served as finance minister for 10 years and was rumored to be a frontrunner to replace state premier Volker Bouffier in the event Bouffier had decided to not run for re-election in 2023. Schäfer was a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
Bouffier said the stress from the coronavirus crisis had been a contributing factor in Schäfer’s mental health.
“His main concern was whether he could manage to fulfill the huge expectations of the population, especially in terms of financial aid,” said Bouffier. “He clearly couldn’t see any way out. He was desperate, and so he left us. That has shocked us — has shocked me.”
CDU Chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer echoed the sentiment of shock and tweeted that the news left the party “sad and stunned.”
In Schäfer’s final weeks, he worked “day and night” to soften the impact to German businesses and workers, Bouffier said. Frankfurt, Hesse’s largest city, is the home of Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, and The European Central Bank.
“It’s precisely during this difficult time that we would have needed someone like him,” Bouffier lamented.
Better Than Most
Although the German economy is hurting badly — as all nations are during the pandemic — so far Germany has weathered the storm better than other states. As of Tuesday afternoon, Germany has recorded 68,180 total cases and 682 deaths for a mortality rate of 1% — almost half the current coronavirus mortality rate in the USA. In fact, of countries with over 10,000 cases, only Turkey has a comparably low mortality rate (1.55%).
National efforts organized by Merkel have earned her the support of the public. While her party has fallen into disarray lately and may well be in its last days of power, 89% of the general public supports the government’s handling of the crisis, according to a poll by ZDF television. Furthermore, support for her party’s bloc has risen 7% since the crisis, according to a Forschungsgruppe Wahlen poll.
Merkel’s strong response nailed the right tones at critical moments to rally Germans to fight the invisible-but-deadly enemy.
“This is serious — take it seriously,” she told her compatriots. “Since German unification — no, since World War Two — there has been no challenge to our country in which our acting together in solidarity matters so much,” she said last week.
Germany’s rapid response from the onset undoubtedly prevented more deaths. Almost immediately, travel to China was banned and the patient’s company was closed to isolate the virus. Most importantly, the state concentrated its efforts on testing in the early days of the disease, a reaction that was polar opposite from America’s handling of the crisis.
Solid Financial Measures
The German federal state also introduced a 1 trillion euro stimulus package for businesses, so the response and support at the national level is certainly there. However, it wasn’t enough for Schäfer who seemed to see no alternative to taking his own life. As a state finance minister, perhaps he felt a sense of personal responsibility, even though the level of the crisis is beyond the scope of any one person bearing the blame. It goes to show the importance of personal support and encouragement for each other during these difficult times.
Maybe he was troubled with the resulting fallout after the crisis subsides and governments recoil from the sticker shock when they have time to peak at their pocketbooks. However, Germany had ran on a surplus for half a decade and Hesse’s state finances were solid. In 2018, it received strong S&P Global Ratings on its finances.
Schäfer’s apparent suicide was merely another sign of how distress over Covid-19 has gripped the world. He didn’t cause the virus or spread it. In fact, he was working diligently to keep the economy afloat. COVID-19 can make even those far away from the worst of the crisis feel deeply personally affected, however, as was the case with Schäfer.