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COVID-19 Outbreak Among Romanian, Bulgarian Workers Threatens Germany's Lockdown Strategy


Romanian employees of the Toennies slaughterhouse are seen under quarantine at their residences in the Suerenheide district of Verl on June 22.

There's been a huge COVID-19 outbreak in Germany in the cramped company-provided housing for Romanian and Bulgarian slaughterhouse workers.

That mass infection at a slaughterhouse that employs at least 6,500 workers in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia -- many of them Romanians or Bulgarians -- has helped cause Germany's coronavirus reproduction rate to rise sharply over the past week.

That has led the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health to raise a pandemic alarm. It warned on June 21 that the overall reproduction rate of coronavirus in Germany had jumped from 1.79 to 2.88 within the previous 24 hours.

The warning suggests that for every 100 people who contract the virus in Germany, another 288 people will become infected.

To keep the pandemic under control in the longer term, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the reproduction rate should be kept below 1.0. The WHO warned on June 21 of fresh outbreaks around the world that could force renewed lockdowns and/or other tight restrictions -- including in Germany.

So far, the German government has stuck to its policy of gradually reopening the country as a whole while seeking to stamp out local outbreaks.

But the Toennies slaughterhouse in the town of Rheda-Wiedenbrueck raises the possibility of renewed restrictions across Germany, which has been seen as successfully limiting the spread of the disease and keeping its death toll relatively low.

The Toennies meatpacking plant and slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck
The Toennies meatpacking plant and slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck

As of June 22, Germany had reported a total of more than 191,600 laboratory-confirmed coronavirus infections in the country, including about 8,900 deaths -- relatively low numbers for a country of some 83 million people.

With other countries watching Germany for lessons to guide their own public-health policies, the reaction of German authorities could influence decisions on rules elsewhere in the months ahead.

In fact, Germany has been gradually easing its public-health restrictions in recent weeks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had argued that lockdown measures should remain in place longer. But Merkel has come under pressure from regional politicians who argue that the country needs to reopen its economy.

'Local' Lockdown

At the Toennies slaughterhouse, German Army troops were called in during the weekend to test the entire staff -- with more than 1,300 employees testing positive for COVID-19 since last week.

Local authorities have forced 7,000 employees and their families into quarantine in the cramped, company-provided accommodations where they stay.

Police and other security officials have been deployed to enforce the lockdown, and local authorities have closed nearby schools.

An ambulance is parked outside the residences of the Toennies workers under quarantine on June 22.
An ambulance is parked outside the residences of the Toennies workers under quarantine on June 22.

Meanwhile, North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet has called upon consular officials from Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland to organize translators who can explain the targeted lockdown to Toennies workers from those countries.

"There are 1,300 properties where staff and their families live, and where we need to observe the quarantine rules," Laschet said on June 21.

North Rhine-Westphalia is the most populous of Germany's 16 states. It includes the cities of Cologne, Duesseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Bochum, and Bonn.

The Toennies outbreak isn’t the only outbreak German authorities are trying to keep in a "local" lockdown. Further south, in the town of Goettingen, in the state of Lower Saxony, a recent outbreak was reported among about 700 residents of a crowded tower block.

Health authorities required police reinforcements to maintain a lockdown order at the crowded apartment building after a riot broke out on June 20.

"Around 200 people tried to get out, but 500 people complied with quarantine rules," Goettingen police chief Uwe Luehrig said.

Romanian, Bulgarian Workers

The slaughterhouse outbreak is not the first to hit Romanians and Bulgarians who travel to countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and France for jobs at meat-processing plants or as temporary seasonal farm workers.

In March and April -- when Germany's borders were closed by the pandemic -- authorities in Berlin declared that food production was essential to the country.

That declaration cleared the way for special flights that transported tens of thousands of temporary workers to Germany from Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland -- despite lockdowns, border closures, travel restrictions, and flight bans across Europe.

RFE/RL correspondents confirmed that dozens of those flights took place without adequate health precautions such as mandatory masks and social-distancing measures.

A coronavirus outbreak in late April among the employees of a slaughterhouse in Birkenfeld in southeastern Germany highlighted the plight of workers from Romania and Bulgaria who live in company-provided dormitories.

RFE/RL has confirmed that at least 200 Romanians became infected there, including one patient who died from COVID-19.

On May 11, Romania's Foreign Ministry confirmed a coronavirus outbreak among Romanian workers at another meat-processing facility in Coesfeld, which is also in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Rheda-Wiedenbrueck
Rheda-Wiedenbrueck

North Rhine-Westphalia Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann told Deutsche Welle that the workers' shared accommodations in tight quarters likely contributed to those outbreaks.

"Hundreds got ill in the abattoirs," Romania's ambassador to Germany, Emil Hurezeanu, told RFE/RL on May 21.

Hurezeanu cited what he described as "a whole chain" of subcontractors who negotiated pay and accommodations for the workers.

"Employers didn't check out the living conditions," he told RFE/RL. "They [just] paid by the hour."

Still, despite the latest slaughterhouse COVID outbreak among foreign workers in Germany, state-level officials appear hesitant about whether to reimpose a wider lockdown in the country.

North Rhine-Westphalia's governor declared on June 21 that there was no reason to shut down the area surrounding the Toennies slaughterhouse because there was "no significant jump" of the virus among the population beyond the company's employees.

German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil told ARD television on June 22 he expected the firm to do everything it can to limit the damage.

Heil is calling for an examination of whether the firm can be held financially liable for the outbreak. He said German authorities would also "examine what civil-law possibilities" the company might face.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, Deutsche Welle, and ARD-TV
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