Covid 19: The biggest crisis in German post-war history

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents in Germany by county, on 20 March 2020 (Wikimedia commons/Ythlev)

Below is the first of two articles on Germany and the covid-19 crisis. The second article, which will be published on Wednesday 15 April, will discuss the campaigning work of Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität (CWI Germany) during the covid-19 crisis.

On 28 January, the first case of a coronavirus infection was reported in Germany. Nevertheless, nothing happened for more than a month to stop the spread or to take decisive precautions. At the end of January, the federal health minister, Jens Spahn, declared that Germany was “well prepared”. People celebrated carnival at the end of February without worrying about the risk of infection. However, there were over 1,000 infections by 9 March, over 10,000 on 19 March. The first two deaths occurred on 9 March. By 12 April, there were officially 120,479 people infected and 2,673 deaths from Covic-19.

In the media it was sometimes pointed out that in Germany the number of deaths is relatively low compared to those infected. A possible explanation is that in other countries the number of deaths recorded as being linked to Covic-19 is higher. Another is that in Germany the average age of infected persons is lower and in this age group the mortality rate from Covid-19 is generally lower.

Government measures against the pandemic

The threat has long been underestimated. As recently as 28 February, the Robert Koch Institute, the German government’s central body for disease surveillance, assessed the danger in Germany as “low to moderate”.

Since Germany is organised on a federal basis, responsibilities are divided between the federal government, the states and the municipalities. Therefore, the measures differ regionally.

It was only at the beginning of March that government Minister Spahn called for people to refrain from travelling to particularly endangered regions. Cancellations of major events began, and in mid-March, schools and nurseries were closed. A “comprehensive ban on contact” followed on 22 March. No more than two people may be together in public (unless they live together in the same household). In some federal states, people are now only allowed to leave home for “good reasons”. Compliance with these regulations is monitored with draconian fines. But still millions of people go to work to factories and offices, for work that is not immediately essential. They have to squeeze into public transport for the journey to work and back home (and some of the transport timetables have even been thinned out).

At the same time, we are flooded with appeals to stay at home in our free time and, if we do have to leave home, to keep a distance of 1.5 or 2 metres from other people. People are sometimes harassed by the police in public parks, even if they stick to such regulations. This is to distract us from the fact that, for the ruling politicians, profits continue to be more important than our health. The responsibility for health protection is individualised.

We are, of course, in favour of people not endangering their own health or the health of others, and measures of “physical distancing” are necessary. But we are opposed to the idea that people who behave in a health-conscious manner and those who do less so less (often because of their stressful jobs) should be turned against each other. Such a splitting of the working class only plays into the hands of those in power, whose policies are the greatest health threat. More importantly, under the control of the capitalist state these restrictions of civil rights can become permanent and limit the democratic rights of the working class in the long run, possibly complicating future class struggles.

There are far too few tests. Even people who have symptoms are often not being tested if they are not considered as high risk or have had contact with infected people. The demand for a large increase in the number of tests has become central. Despite the fact that the number of tests has gone up, it is still not sufficient. The capitalist system is obviously unable to produce enough resources and capacities to do the necessary testing. The same goes for protective face masks and other protective clothing. There are not even enough of those for the health sector workers and doctors. As production of these goods has largely been moved to Asia there has been no domestic production. The government does not act in the necessary way to make sure that production in German factories is converted to the production of masks and protective clothes. This is something which is entirely possible but is much too slowly starting in Germany.

The capitalist class also uses the crisis to limit workers’ rights. For example, in the federal state of Bavaria, a number of workers’ safety regulations in regard to working hours have been worsened by the conservative state government.

This spring, the largest NATO manoeuvre in many years was planned. Around 38,000 soldiers, 20,000 of them from the US, were to play wargames, as close as possible to the Russian border. Apart from the fact that this action was, in any case, a provocation, the large scale troop transportation across Germany and central Europe initially went ahead at a time when school closures and other measures to reduce the risk of infection had already been taken. Eventually the troop transportation was stopped. However, the manoeuvre was not cancelled completely. It will be carried out on a smaller scale with the troops already on site.

At the same time, the crisis is being used to expand the German army’s domestic deployment (although it is only permitted under certain conditions under the country’s constitution).

The situation in the health sector

Compared to other countries, the situation in the health sector may look good. But, as a left-wing writer once said: “When the sun is low, even dwarfs cast long shadows”. In recent decades, health care has been cut back internationally, as part of neo-liberal policies. After the crisis of 2007-2009, the German government massively pushed for cuts in countries in southern Europe, which are now having devastating consequences. It is not as catastrophic in Germany. But there have been cutbacks, here, too. Since 1991, 470 hospitals have been closed and 168,000 beds cut.

In 2004, the then SPD (Social Democrats) and Green Party coalition government introduced per-case lump sums (Diagnosis Related Groups or DRGs) in hospitals, according to which hospitals are financed by fixed payments per case treated. Health care in Germany is financed by a combination of compulsory health insurance and state funding. The SPD/Green coalition’s aim was to reduce state funding, and beds, by financially pressurising hospitals to quickly discharge patients. This also meant that hospitals are financially penalised for keeping free capacity to use in emergencies.

Now the government is trying to increase the number of intensive care beds. Hospitals are to receive 50,000 euros per newly created bed, but the cost will be 85,000 euros each.

But not only beds are needed, but also staff. Already there were not enough of beds. Minimum health staff numbers, which were won after hard struggles, were abolished. A considerable part of the additional intensive care beds, are, in reality, beds which were previously not used due to lack of staff. Now the workload is simply increased for staffs, which are already under additional strain due to the need to take the necessary protective measures against Covid-19 infection. A higher workload must lead to a situation where, on the one hand, necessary hygiene rules are in danger of being neglected and, on the other hand, extra burdens on the employees causes more risk of illness and severe disease. The Robert Koch Institute has said that over 2,300 healthcare workers are infected or in quarantine because of Covid-19.

Due to poor working conditions and the low pay that nurses receive, after training nurses remain in the profession for an average of less than eight years. There are 200,000 former nurses in Germany. To encourage these people to return to the profession requires paying them a decent wage. Instead, Armin Laschet, the state prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (by far, Germanys biggest state), who is a candidates to succeed Merkel as CDU (Christian Democrats) party leader, intended to force people trained as health professions to work in healthcare, without changing their poor pay and conditions. After massive protests, Laschet had to cancel his plan.

Consequences of the shutdown

The government and the media try to convey the idea that “we are all in the same boat”. But being stuck at home in a large, comfortable house, with a garden, is not the same as being stuck in a small flat. One politician called on Germans to go simply into our own garden instead of public parks. This is reminiscent of the infamous advice given the by 18th century queen of France, Marie Antoinette, when she reportedly told the starving masses to “eat cake” when they did not even have bread.

The closure of schools means that children have to learn at home. Schools are trying to provide services via the internet, but not all households have internet or computers. The differences in the educational background of parents are now having an even greater impact.

Being locked up together also leads to an increase in domestic violence. But even before the crisis, there were too few places in women’s shelters.

The working class is affected by the crisis in different ways. Some have lost their jobs because companies in the service sector, for example, have closed down. Another part of the working class has to work at home and, at the same time, they need to look after children who cannot go to the nursery or school. Some workers continue working in jobs, such as care-work or in the food sector, and are exposed to the risk of infection. If they have children, they often have to organise their childcare on top of that. In addition, there is the emotional burden of existential insecurity.

The situation of the poorest of the poor has also worsened. The social cutbacks of recent decades have led to a sharp increase in the proportion of people who depend on food banks. Many of them were closed down during the crisis because of the danger of infection (not least because many of the volunteers working in food banks belong to the higher risk group, in terms of age).

For homeless people, the calls to stay at home must sound like scorn. For those of them who previously had small incomes from selling street newspapers, this has practically disappeared when there are far fewer people on the streets.

The government continues to try to deport refugees. Yet most countries refuse to accept refugees, anymore. The German government does not refrain from locking up refugees in deportation prisons, i.e. exposing people, who have not committed any crime, to an increased risk of infection.

The Bundestag (federal parliament) was so “generous” to approve the reception of 1,600 unaccompanied refugee children from the completely overcrowded camps on the Greek islands but during this measure’s implementation the numbers shrank from 1,600 to “up to 50”, and still no refugee child has arrived in Germany.

At the same time, Germany’s closed borders are opened very quickly to allow 40,000 workers from Eastern Europe to come to harvest asparagus (and asparagus is by no means a staple food in Germany.)

The government’s measures against the consequences of the crisis

The first measure was a relief of the short-time working allowance, which came into force on 14 March. The short-time working allowance is intended to ensure that companies that temporarily reduce or stop production can keep their employees by having the state pay money for them. It is connected with massive losses of income: employees receive 60 per cent (if they have children 67 per cent) of the income. Some companies were forced to increase the amount of money to 90 per cent. In return, the companies do not have to pay the social security contributions for their employees.

On 19 March, the government approved 40 billion euros in aid for very small enterprises.

Then on 25 March, the Bundestag approved a 600 billion euro rescue package, as part of a supplementary budget (which “is particularly aimed at large companies” – Finance Minister Scholz). New debts are due to total 156 billion euros (there had been budget surpluses in previous years). In addition, the above-mentioned aid for very small enterprises and money for hospitals was approved. However, a suspension of per-case lump sums in the hospitals, financial aid for employees who are unable to work because they are caring for their children, supplements for employees in health care, retail and logistics, were all rejected.

The core idea of the crisis measures is to pump money into the “top” so that it can seep down. On 4 April, Economics Minister, Altmeier, complained that many commercial banks were not passing on state loans to small businesses in need, arguing that their creditworthiness was unclear. He said that the instrument was precisely intended to gap this unclear situation. Therefore he called the behaviour of the banks “not O.K.”

However, opinion polls show that the government is strengthened in the short term because it comes across as acting with determination. The CDU/CSU coalition has made a real leap forward in the polls. The polls also show support for the contact restriction measures. However, polls that only ask whether the government should do more or less, and not whether it should do something else, are of limited value. The polls also show that the vast majority of the population does not expect any negative consequences for their personal economic situation. If this turns out to be a fallacy in the coming months, it will, of course, have an impact on consciousness. According to the polls, the population is currently even more optimistic than before the crisis!

Trade unions during the crisis

The trade union leaders support government policy. Among other things, they welcomed the extension of the short-time working scheme. In the public sector, there are no legal regulations for short-time work. If the service sector trade union ver.di had simply done nothing, municipalities that had to close facilities, such as public swimming pools or theatres, because of coronavirus, would have been obliged to employ the workers elsewhere or pay them full wages. Instead, ver.di entered into collective bargaining and, in a few days, it negotiated a short-time working scheme for the public sector, which is better than the statutory short-time working allowance in the private sector. Yet it still represents a retreat from the previous situation where public sector workers would get full pay.

This is the result of the ‘social partnership’ ideology of the trade union leaderships, who believe that the well-being of the capitalist economy and its state is the precondition for the well-being of their members. Of course, workers are in a stronger negotiating position when the economy is growing. But in capitalist crises those trade union leaders who see no alternative to capitalism end up agreeing to employers’ demands for a worsening of their members’ wages and conditions in the hope that the capitalist system can come through the crisis. This puts the main burden of capitalist crises onto workers, while the ruling class are hardly touched, at all.

On 6 April, a draft bill was published which extended the maximum working time to 12 hours per day and 60 hours per week and reduces rest periods between shifts from 11 to 9 hours. Negotiations with the chairman of the DGB (trade union federation) and the chairman of the services trade union ver.di resulted in food sales and delivery services being excluded from this regulation. But the length of this new regulation was extended by one month, until the end of July. Neither ver.di nor the DGB voiced fundamental criticism of this move. The only such criticism came from the unions in the building (IG BAU) and the food, beverage and hospitality (NGG) industries.

Prior to the impact of Covic-19, the end of January saw, with the active participation of Sol members, the foundation of a network of militant trade unionists (VKG), which is now opposing this policy of the trade union leaderships. The crisis shows how urgent was the foundation of VKG.

Left party (DIE LINKE)

Even in the months before the covid-19 crisis, the development of the party DIE LINKE was mainly in the direction of increased adaptation to working within capitalism. This development continued during the crisis. Even if the party leadership is partly critical and makes demands that go in the correct direction (although being not radical enough), the party, as a whole, and especially the parliamentary group in the Bundestag, is not at all visible as an opposition. The fact that DIE LINKE has fallen in opinion polls in the short term may have been partly unavoidable: people feel threatened by covid-19 and have the impression that the government is acting. Of course, most people do not immediately notice that this government does not forget the class struggle from above, for a minute. But what will happen when they notice it and begin to move into opposition? If DIE LINKE does not offer a combative programme, and socialist alternative, a political vacuum will be created, which conspiracy theorists, right-wing populists, fascists etc. can fill.

Economic crisis

The consequences of the covid-19 crisis for the economy are not yet foreseeable. But it is clear that they will be severe. Towards the end of March, leading economic research institutes presented to the government a report that they estimate that the economy will shrink between 2.8 per cent and 5.4 per cent, this year. This would mean that the decline would be less than in the last Great Recession, when it fell by 5.7 per cent in 2009. However, although these experts are called “economic wise men”, they do not deserve this title, at all. In particular, they notoriously tend to underestimate the dynamics of the economy (whether upwards or downwards). Other forecasters are less optimistic. The Ifo Institute has predicted that the economy will shrink by up to 20.6 per cent in the case of a partial standstill lasting three months.

German industry has already been in recession since last year, mainly because of its heavy dependence on car and other exports. The main factor that saved the overall economy from shrinking was consumer demand. Now both supply and demand are collapsing massively. If in the coming weeks the belief that the crisis will not have a negative financial impact on peoples’ individual economic situation turns out to be an illusion, this would weaken consumer demand beyond the coronavirus crisis.