Right at the start of her online dialogue with 14 mothers and fathers. Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed how massively the pandemic has affected families. "Everyday life has changed dramatically." Families have to cope with untold difficulties in the face of the crisis, said the Chancellor. That makes it all the more important for her to hear directly from parents about the problems they face at this first online citizens’ dialogue of the year.
"Enormous respect" for families
During the pandemic in particular it is clear that everyone has to rely on "families as the heart of our society". No state, she said, can replace what is daily practice in families. Where things don’t work, the state can only try to help, said the Chancellor during the dialogue. It would be good if certain structures like families were shown this "enormous respect" even after the crisis. It is only there that we see this special belonging, and warmth and love, added the Chancellor.
Angela Merkel pointed out several times how difficult it was for her to adopt the measures that were necessary, including contact restrictions. "I never, ever wanted to be in the position of having to make these decisions." The Chancellor gave mother and fathers hope with the pledge that, as soon as the numbers of new cases are low enough, nurseries and schools will be the first to reopen. That is the "light at the end of the tunnel".
For the moment, however, patience is called for, because parents cannot be expected to deal with constantly changing circumstances as nurseries and schools reopen and then have to close again. In view of the threat posed by mutations of the virus in particular it is vitally important that the numbers of new cases drop and stay low.
Living on a hamster wheel
One main focus of the dialogue was the strain on parents as a result of the end to mandatory in-person teaching in schools and the limited nursery services. Lars Jacobs, a single father of two from Karlsruhe, compared the pandemic with a "hamster wheel", that keeps getting smaller and smaller and turning faster and faster. With online schooling and working from home, parents have practically no time for anything else, and most definitely not for themselves. He reported that he had had almost no opportunity to exercise for ages, and the lack of physical activity made him feel "like a dumpling".
Katharina Bertram from Frankfurt told the Chancellor she was "at her emotional limit". Her seven-year-old daughter is in the first year of primary school and is not coping with online learning; sometimes there are tears. "My daughter doesn’t want me to be her teacher. She wants me to be her Mum," said the 43-year-old, describing her double role as teacher and mother.
Another father of four outlined the difficulties a family of six face when they are forced to stay home in a small flat for a prolonged period. And, he added, his youngest child still has no tablet computer, which is essential for online learning.
Many families face financial problems
A lot of parents stressed their financial worries. The lockdown has pushed up costs for many, with families having to buy electronic devices, for instance. Energy costs are also higher, as families have to cook more at home to replace the hot meals children would otherwise eat at school or nursery. In this context Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed to the financial assistance provided by the government, including another planned child bonus, which will be paid out this year.
The special situation faced by single parents was another focus. Eva-Maria Vogt, who works in Mainz, pointed out that single parents cannot share childcare. And their family situation often means that they receive only half of the financial support. The Chancellor promised to look specifically at this issue.
Social isolation is a problem
Almost all mothers and fathers at the dialogue raised the problem of social isolation and its impacts. One participant from Zwickau said that she is most concerned about older children and adolescents. The lack of opportunities to keep up their contacts, engage in sports and pursue their hobbies is depressing. Many young people’s school marks are slipping, while others are worried about what will happen after school.
Jihan Khodr raised another aspect of the situation. She is a mother of four and helps refugee and migrant families in Bochum. The current situation is particularly difficult for them, she reported, especially for parents who are themselves illiterate or who speak very little German. There is very little they can do to help their children with their online schooling. The Chancellor agreed that the situation for children in these cases must be particularly hard. There might be a possibility of more volunteers helping these families, she said.
A long way from normality
Angela Merkel also responded to the suggestion put by one father, that a family summit be held to look at ways of dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. She welcomed the idea. Even once schools and nurseries reopen, nothing will be normal yet, she said, because everyone will still have to deal with their own difficulties. Angela Merkel also believes that vouchers for private tutoring would be thinkable to support schoolchildren.
At the close of the one and a half hour dialogue, the Chancellor expressly thanked all mothers and fathers for their enormous dedication and their help in containing the pandemic. "That has really impressed me," said Angela Merkel. This time will remain indelibly engraved in all of our memories.
The online citizens’ dialogue with parents of nursery- and school-age children was the fifth in the series "The Chancellor in discussion". It is still to be followed by dialogues with people staffing helplines and crisis assistance hotlines, people working in the art and cultural sector, and people working for voluntary aid organisations. Each dialogue looks at the impact of the pandemic on people’s working and everyday lives.