Germany enters a deadly covid-19 winter

Chancellor Merkel (Photo: Wikimedia commons/Russian Presidential Executive Office)

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel sounded the alarm. Combatting the Coronavirus is a “task of the century”, but the results of the consultation between the Federal government and the representatives of the regional states on 14 October are unsatisfactory. While the Robert-Koch Institute, Germany’s public health institute, declared only a few days before that an exponential development of new infections could still be prevented, Merkel declared that the Federal Republic already finds itself in a new exponential phase.

The month of October has seen a sharp increase of measures to combat the virus, with bans on renting out hotel rooms to tourists from German “risk areas”, restricted opening hours, curbs on festivities and public events. But on 28 October the national government, together with the federal state prime ministers, decided on a “lockdown light” with the closure of bars, restaurants, sports facilities and further restrictions on social contacts.

It was quite clear that the virus would once again spread faster in the autumn.  It is therefore unforgivable that the governments and authorities, at all levels, have not prepared sufficiently for this and taken the necessary measures to fight Coronavirus.

 The situation is serious

There can be no doubt that the virus is spreading faster. Those who argue that the higher figures for new infections are just due to the higher number of tests are kidding themselves or are consciously denying reality. There is not just an absolute increase in the number of new infections, but also a relative increase, that is, a higher percentage of positive results in relation to the tests carried out. The so-called ‘Positive Rate’ has gone up from 0.74% to 2.48% in the last five weeks. There is also an increase in the number of people requiring treatment in hospitals due to Covid 19. The situation is therefore serious.  When Merkel spoke of the possibility of 19,000 new daily infections at the end of the year, many did not want to believe her. On 27 October the number was over 14,000 and it is clear that until the end of the year it could be much higher than the predicted 19,000. This would create a situation similar to that in France and force further drastic restrictions in public life, and would also threaten to overwhelm the capacity of intensive beds and lead to a collapse of the health service.

In this context, it is not a question of whether measures must be taken. Those who deny this are playing with the lives of thousands of people. The important questions are why we are in this (predictable) situation and what measures must be taken?

The current situation is particularly dangerous because the sequence of infections is out of control. As stated by the Neukoelln District Doctor (Amtsarzt) Nicolai Savaskan, in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper on 15 October, seventy per cent of infections in this Berlin district can no longer be traced back to the original infected individual. “Imagine a forest fire. We don’t just have a single fire; we have multiple flare-ups, not dozens, but hundreds.” The GP saw the situation in Neukoelln as a harbinger of the situation in the rest of the country’s cities. He was correct. On 28 October Merkel repeated what he said almost word for word; “We are now at a point where, on average nationally, we no longer know where 75 per cent of infections come from.”

Politicians and the media in the last weeks have declared the ‘flare-ups’ to be caused by private parties, Islamic weddings, irresponsible parties and behaviour by youth. There is a lot of evidence that private festivities play a role for the increased infection rate and there is some justification for restrictions. However, much points to the fact that restricting the public debate and measures to these issues only are at odds with the real situation, and politically motivated. The responsibility for the rapidly rising number of infections is put on the shoulders of individuals, who are expected to put the blame on other individuals rather than questioning the actions of the government.

Matthias Janson writes in ‘statista.de:’ “According to the Robert-Koch-Institute multiple infection clusters can be observed particularly in festivities in family and friend circles, as well as hospices and nursing homes, hospitals, asylum and refugee centres, common areas, various workplaces and among religious gatherings.  Multiple infections are also concentrated amongst those returning from holidays”.

This observation is given credence by the infections recorded in over a thousand schools and nurseries, the infection outbreaks in, for example, in the meat processing plants in Soegel and Emstek, in a DHL warehouse in Koengen and in dormitories in Schleiz and Bad Essen. These cases are not mentioned by the media outlets and Federal Minister for Health Spahn because they raise a lot of awkward questions. Particularly why restrictions should be limited to the area of individual free time and travel while there is a clear need to take further measures in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, refugee centres and workplaces.

But first to the question of why we are in this situation, why the state governments and authorities seem to have been surprised by the end of summer and have not prepared for the dangers of the colder season. The answer is simple: because they did not want to invest the necessary money to take effective measures, and because, after imposing a lockdown as a panic measure in March, they lifted the measures (except the requirement to wear masks and social distancing) primarily driven by the interests of the economy, which should be translated as ‘the profit interests of the corporations’.  Capitalism and a political system geared to the interests of the bosses’ profits is an obstacle to an effective fight against the pandemic.

Not only was valuable time wasted in January and February to prepare to tackle the pandemic, but also since the emergency was officially acknowledged in March the necessary measures were not taken and wrong decisions made.

Inadequate test capacity

First and foremost the test capacity was not built up to the necessary level. Even though it’s currently possible to carry out 1.5 million tests per week, this remains far below what is necessary. And there is chaos in the testing regime, with many people having to wait several days to receive positive test results, and tests going missing. Only 141 out of 167 laboratories are linked to the Corona warning app, and there isn’t even a single connected database for all laboratories carrying out tests. As a result little is known with certainty.

There is also no sensible decision-making process to prioritise who should be tested. It is necessary to take testing laboratories under democratic public control, for the state to set prices and prevent private companies from profiteering from the pandemic.

Due to staff shortages, the health authorities are unable to keep up with the spread of infections and contact tracing. Berlin has a shortage of two hundred jobs, with three health authorities not even having a doctor. One Berlin school which had a coronavirus infection was unable to contact the local health authority for an entire day. On top of this, there seems to be utter confusion as to who is responsible for what, at least in Berlin. A medical employee who became infected found that three health authorities were responsible for her and others infected in her workplace. If this wasn’t absurd enough, she received three separate instructions from each authority. Like many people working in the health service, she had to go to work despite having been in direct contact with an infected person, on the grounds that the quarantine only applied during her free time and not during her commute to and from work or while she was at work.

Nor has the situation got any better in the hospitals.  A nurse, Nina Boehmer, said during a TV show: “The situation with staffing hasn’t changed the situation with supplies and equipment has not changed. Even before the pandemic huge cost savings were being implemented in staffing levels and equipment. We are still working at the limits of our endurance.”

The ‘heroes’ of the health and public service were applauded, but no additional staff was employed. These workers only received small wage increases in the public sector wage deal agreed this week by the trade union leaders. No wonder that even Ulrich Frei, the Chief Medical Officer at the Charité hospital in Berlin, stated that there are sufficient beds, but not enough staff.

Army deployment

Now the army is due to provide assistance in the health authorities. We reject that they carry out their duties in uniform and under army command. This deployment in uniform is being carried out in order to get the population used to army deployments into the community; today in hospitals, tomorrow in schools and the day after on the side of police attacking demonstrators and striking workers.  The deployment of soldiers for use by health authorities and other civilian tasks in combatting the pandemic must be carried out in civilian clothing and under the authority of the relevant health authorities and other public authorities. We must reject the participation of the military in the civilian Corona Planning Committee, as happened in Offenbach, which is a step towards the militarisation of public services.

The deployment of the army is also used to divert attention from another issue – the staffing shortage in the health service and the urgent need to employ more people. It is necessary to create permanent jobs to build up resources to prepare for pandemics. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs in the last few months, there are plenty who could administer track and trace of infected people, as well as any petty officer in the navy.

Restrictions are necessary, however…

There is no question that as a result of the pandemic it is necessary and sensible to impose restrictions on movement. But it makes no sense that these should be restricted to the sphere of peoples’ free time. We agree that a lockdown should be avoided. But our reasons for this are different from those of Merkel, Spahn (health minister) and co.

For these ladies and gentlemen, it is a question of keeping the economy going. Money must continue to flow. For us, it is a question of safeguarding the mental and physical wellbeing of people, and particularly that of children and people with disabilities. A lockdown in autumn and winter would have much graver consequences than in the spring when it was possible to spend more time outdoors.

This means that it makes sense to implement restrictions in social and work life in such a way as to minimise the negative psychological repercussions. This means, for example, that only those sectors of the economy should be kept open which are essential for the supply of the basic needs of the population, and that health and safety rules are worked out and implemented by workers and trade union representatives to allow the responsible and safe running of workplaces. Workers in non-essential sectors should receive their full wages and could volunteer to be retrained to help in hospitals, to look after children and to help carry out Covid tests.

At the same time, production should be put under workers’ control and management and, to the extent necessary, be converted to the production of products to fight the pandemic, such as air filters and ventilators. Those companies that refuse to cooperate should be taken into public ownership.

Giving up going on holiday is a great sacrifice for people who work hard. For children and youth, this quite often means boredom and neglect. If sufficient test capacity had been developed early on in the pandemic, it would have been possible for holidays to take place in the summer and autumn under safe conditions. This did not happen, and under pressure from the tourist industry, the summer tourist season went ahead subject to the prescribed rules. People returning from holidays played an important part in the increase in infections in the last weeks and months.

A greater alternative choice of entertainment locally should have been offered, particularly for families and children. This could have included free access to theatres, sport and dancing courses for small groups, free access to museums, cinemas and other facilities, with specialist entertainment for children and youth, and weekend excursions for small groups. All this, with regular testing and hygiene rules, would have made it easier for people to forgo a foreign holiday.

The current ban on accommodation lets, imposed by a number of the federal states on people from high-risk areas, has met with a lot of criticism and confusion. In Lower Saxony, Saxony, and Baden-Wuerttemberg this ban has since been reversed. It is doubtful this measure makes much sense, even if it is designed to restrict movement. It is noticeable that this ban only applies to private travellers. Only in exceptional cases does it apply to business travellers.  Are these people immune to the virus or less infectious? This example shows clearly that quality of life matters little and business deals for the rich matter a lot under capitalism.

The list of failings and errors of governments and those responsible could be continued at great length. Why are there no hand sanitiser dispensers at every bus stop and underground station? Why are face masks not distributed free, or at cost price, in sufficient numbers, so that people don’t have to reuse the same ones for days and weeks because they can’t afford new ones?

Schools

Why have schools, nurseries and official buildings not been equipped with air filters? This could reduce the virus density in the air by up to ninety per cent. Even though everyone seems to agree that schools and nurseries should not be closed again, nothing was done to carry out lessons in a minimal risk environment. And now school children have to wear coats and scarfs in classrooms, to enable the windows to be opened every twenty minutes. If anyone believes this can be done for weeks and months, they also believe in Father Christmas. According to the SPD (Social Democratic Party) health expert, Karl Lauterbach, the fitting of air filters in all schools would cost one hundred euros per school pupil. This would require a sum in the tens of millions. In Germany education is run by the federal states and the Free Democrat education minister in the largest, North Rhine Westphalia, Yvonne Gebauer, puts the cost at 3,000 euros pro class (which based on the current class sizes wouldn’t be much more) and that would be “too expensive”. The fact that the state is unwilling to invest this money in order to allow the teaching of children with minimal risk, but at the same time, hands over nine billion euro to save Lufthansa, and many more billions to other corporations and capitalists, shows which priorities those responsible have. Profits go before people.

In the education system, the pandemic has exposed shortcomings but nothing was done to sort them out. And this is not just on the question of air filters. The teacher shortage leads to catastrophe under pandemic conditions. The headmistress of a Berlin primary school told the ‘Neue Zuericher Zeitung’ that the situation after the summer holidays was “dreadful, absolutely dreadful…we have too few staff to look after the pupils.” She speaks of teachers who “come to me crying and say: ‘I can’t take it anymore! I’m at the end of my strength’!” She demands: “let us go back to the small classes! It would be far more useful to teach half the lessons in smaller classes than continue with the current class sizes. The pupils need a lot of attention. They understand faster when they are taught more slowly. In the remaining time, the children must be looked after in school.  They could take life lessons or explore the city. The size of groups and the number of lessons must be drastically reduced. Everything depends on this. And for this we need more staff, otherwise, the system will collapse.”

The educations ministries have, however, put out the decree: “Eyes shut (and woolly hat on)!” It’s not the wellbeing of the pupils, parents and teachers that is being prioritised, but the maintenance of the current education system geared towards pressure to achieve high exam standards and the availability of parents for work.

Against who are the rules applied?

The media is spreading the impression that local authorities and police, for example in Berlin, are not enforcing current rules. This is done intentionally to prepare to give more powers to the police and introduce repressive measures. It is noticeable that the police are far more likely to take action against youth outdoors than against commercial places. Recently there was a new case of police brutality in Berlin-Friedrichshain which was filmed. Police repression is increasing and is leading to great disquiet amongst wide layers of youth. At the same time, early in October, over 2,100 police officers were deployed into Berlin from several states in order, amongst others, to forcibly clear a partly occupied building, ‘Liebig 34’. This deployment could turn out to be a major cause of new infections.  Due to this danger, all further increases in police forces and deployments in Berlin should be rejected.

In contrast, the trial for tax evasion in the ‘Cum-Ex Scandal’ was postponed due to Coronavirus and all 300 participants that took part in a celebration in the exclusive Brochardt restaurant, in May, went unpunished. Amongst them was the FDP (Free Democrat) chief Christian Lindner, who without wearing a mask embraced the Belarusian honorary consul who supports the Lukashenko dictatorship.

Whose interests are served?

It’s not first and foremost a question of being for or against restricted opening hours, orders to wear masks in official places or bans on renting out accommodation. The current pandemic does necessitate some restrictions. The problem is that the pandemic policy carried out by the federal and state governments is a class policy in the interests of the capitalist class. It is geared predominantly towards restrictions in the private lives of the working class and does not take the necessary measures to tackle the pandemic effectively. Controversial and passionate debates about individual measures deflect from the bigger question: who decides and in whose interest?

Hygiene measures in workplaces and educational establishments must be worked out, implemented and controlled by workplace representatives, trade unions, scientists, pupils, students and parents. Workplace representatives must have the right to veto and the power to stop production and work if hygiene measures are not adhered to or necessary measures cannot be implemented.

Mobilise the trade unions

No Coronavirus measures that put the interests of the working and middle class first can be expected from the established pro-capitalist parties. It is therefore the duty of the trade unions to finally mobilise against government policy and for a pandemic policy in favour of working people and health.  Due to the current policy of the trade union leaderships, it is necessary to apply pressure from below, to force a change in course.

The wage negotiations in the public sector, which finished this week, and those in transport (which goes on), would have been an opportunity to put the demands for an increase in staffing levels and health and safety measures at the very top of the negotiating agenda. The trade unions could have relied on solid support from wide sectors of the population for strikes and mobilisations. DIE LINKE (the Left Party) could play a decisive role, if it concentrated on a socialist opposition policy and the mobilisation of counter-movements, instead of flirting with the pro-capitalist SPD and Greens. A change, of course, is also urgently needed in DIE LINKE.

We need a society-wide movement for an emergency anti-Coronavirus programme in the interests of working people and those socially disadvantaged, whose central demand is that the banks, corporations and the super-rich should pay to fund the fight against the pandemic, and the costs of the economic crisis should not be placed on the shoulders of the working class. No one should lose their job or have to put up with a reduction in income.  Companies which plan mass redundancies or close workplaces must be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management. And the question must be posed about the system, starting with the health and education services. The market mechanisms and private sector involvement in these sectors must end, and investments worth billions must be implemented. But what applies to education and the health service also applies to the rest of society and the economy: The capitalist market does not work in the interests of the majority of people. Private ownership of the means of production and an economy geared towards profits only serve the tiny minority of capitalists. The pandemic must be a wakeup call – for a socialist change of society.

Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität demands:

  •  Control over school closures by democratically elected representatives of teachers, parents and students.
  •  A massive expansion of Corona Virus testing. Comprehensive linking up fast track tests and laboratory testing.
  •  Comprehensive introduction of air filters in schools and workplaces etc.
  • Additional payments to employees whose work puts them at greater infection risk
  • An immediate Coronavirus charge levied on millionaires. 30% from the first million onwards!
  • No multi-million bailouts for private banks and corporations. Those companies that get into difficulties as a result of the pandemic should be placed into public ownership.
  • We won’t pay for the capitalist crisis – no to job cuts and redundancies, to cuts in services and welfare, and workers’ rights. Trade unions and DIE LINKE must start opposing now.
  • Socialist democracy instead of capitalist chaos.

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