Covid policy in Germany and elsewhere in Europe has landed us in a capitalist dystopia: work is allowed, and everything else is prohibited. We need stronger fundamental opposition from the left to prevent this pandemic ending in a long-term ideological win for the conservative right.
This week, the German parliament approved the Bundes-Notbremse, a regulation that allows the federal government to override states and enforce stringent measures when and where Covid-19 infection levels rise. Besides closing shops and nail salons, theatres and gyms, a curfew is introduced: being outside between 10pm and 5am will not be allowed, except for work or in urgent circumstances. These measures come on top of existing limitations of personal life, such as a prohibition on meeting more than one person or receiving visitors after 9pm in Berlin.
Curfews to combat covid are not particularly original: European countries with a more statist political culture, like France and Italy, have employed them since the beginning of the pandemic. For Germany, however, having reckoned with its authoritarian past by strongly safeguarding civil liberties, the first national curfew since WW II means a new precedent. In the Netherlands, a country with a similarly anti-authoritarian political tradition, the enactment of a curfew in January led to a week of large-scale riots across the country, fuelling the legitimacy of extreme-right movements and covid deniers.
In Germany, resistance in the streets against further curtailing citizens’ personal lives is likely to (also) come from the left: autonomous left groups have already announced they will hold large-scale nighttime protests once the curfew comes into effect. The Interventionistische Linke argues: “The virus doesn’t go out for evening walks, it goes to work at daytime. A curfew is an authoritarian placebo. We need a solidary shutdown to close companies and schools, instead of locking people up in their homes.” The Zero Covid movement has been fighting for that for months: instead of symbolic measures, they want a three week shutdown of all non-essential parts of the economy to break the third wave, with ample financial compensation for all.
This would mean a substantial ideological break with current anti-covid policy as carried out in most European countries. Over the past year, we seem to have slowly landed ourselves in a capitalist dystopia: we still have to (go to) work, but almost everything else is prohibited. Shopping – another ‘essential’ part of the economy – is allowed as much as possible, but our private and intimate lives are likely to remain limited for the foreseeable future. Large corporations like Lufthansa have received billions to stay afloat, while half of Germans with a month net income of less than 900 euros say their income has decreased the past year. Governments propose no alternative to these policies: it’s either this type of perpetual semi-lockdown, or nothing.
Covid policy is largely devised with white middle class nuclear families in mind. Employers are suggested (but not required) to allow their white collar personnel to work from home, which does nothing against the thousands of infections among workers in Amazon distribution centres and slaughterhouses. Over Christmas, only partners and biological family members were allowed to meet in most of Germany, excluding anyone who has had to rebuild or redefine family over the course of their lives. And in the UK, lockdown rules have effectively made sex illegal for millions of people who are not in a long-term monogamous relationship. Anti-covid measures everywhere in practice protect certain classes and lifestyles over others.
Meanwhile, not white middle class families but marginalized groups are hit the hardest by the pandemic. A study in the Netherlands shows that people with the 20% lowest incomes are three times as likely to die from a covid infection as those with the highest incomes. Their working environment and housing situation are likely to play a large role in this, researchers say. People with a migration background are also found to be more at risk, as they are in the US. And queer and trans people across Europe are significantly more affected in terms of mental health and access to care.
In the face of those inequalities, the response by the mainstream left has largely been too little and too late. The Dutch left completely failed to policitize the pandemic in the elections last month. In Spain, the left Podemos-PSOE government’s anti-covid policy is largely the same as elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, the governing SPD codesigned current policy. Die Linke has supported shutting down non-essential factories and offices and opposed measures such as curfews – but they’re co-responsible for current policy in states such as Berlin, where companies have only been required to allow half of their employees to work from home since last month.
It’s therefore also up to extra-parliamentary activist groups and organizations to not leave opposition to the current capital-friendly semi-lockdown to the extreme-right. To push for breaking Europe’s third covid wave in a way that stops putting the working class and marginalized groups at risk; and to oppose repressive measures like Germany’s nationwide Ausgangssperre, which are yet another step towards atomizing us into private households and reducing us to our working lives for an indefinite amount of time.
This kind of opposition is not only crucial in the short term: it is about preventing a long-term ideological win for the conservative right, with tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths as collateral damage. If governments retain a strong grasp on citizens’ private lives and sanction only certain types of relationships, that has profound consequences for those living outside the norm. And if governments continue to successfully convince people there is no alternative to their present economic policy, there will be little in their way to impose austerity as soon as the pandemic is over.