Hot Air and Wrong Priorities
By Marx21 editorial office
The German government has decided to gradually end the partial »lockdown«. However, it is setting the wrong priorities with its exit strategy and risks a renewed increase in infections. From the marx21 editorial office
The federal and state governments on Wednesday decided on a series of steps easing corona-related restrictions in Germany. The government claims that the health of the population is the highest priority. But the medical and social measures in the text of the resolution do not do justice to the seriousness of the situation.
Germany lacks the most basic materials to provide essential health protection for the population and especially for risk groups, such as health workers. There is a lack of billions of FFP masks and protective clothing, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of disinfectant, millions of test kits and reagents to enable mass COVID-19 testing, respiratory equipment and adequate staffing and funding for the health system.
The government’s social measures are also insufficient. They help corporations more than employees. Unlimited loans are being made available to corporations and social security contributions are being waived. But there is no real social rescue package for the people. Millions of people cannot live on short-time work benefits. These must be increased immediately to at least 90 per cent.
There is also a lack of a danger bonus and more staff in systemically important professions. And as long as schools and daycare centres are closed, parents who look after their children need a wage guarantee.
Too early to exit
While these giant construction zones are not being tackled at all, or completely inadequately, by the German government, the epidemiological situation in Germany remains highly dangerous. Although the exponential growth of the virus seems to have stopped for the time being, the number of cases continues to rise. It is not yet possible to speak of a containment of the coronavirus.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) also still classifies the risk to the health of the population in Germany as high, and very high for risk groups. Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) also believe that »it is too early to relax restrictions«. They write: »Here, the stricter the measures, the faster the target value will be reached«. With its »exit strategy«, the federal government is risking the emergence of a second wave of infection and thus thousands of deaths again.
The imbalance begins with the setting of priorities: It is wrong to introduce an exit strategy now, because the medical and social prerequisites for it are lacking. The fact that the federal government is now planning to resume school operations of all things is just as counter-productive as allowing business operations in the retail sector.
According to preliminary figures from the Federal Statistical Office, school closures due to the corona pandemic affect about 8.3 million pupils at general education schools and 2.4 million pupils at vocational schools. In a recent study, the RKI found that the closure of schools and shops has been an effective measure against the further spread of the virus. Now these measures are to be eased.
The German Education Union (GEW) warns against premature school opening
But the schools are currently not at all prepared to operate under corona conditions. Nurseries, primary and special schools cannot be operated while maintaining distance from the children.
The GEW therefore demands that schools should only be opened if minimum health standards are guaranteed. These include: liquid soap, warm water, disposable towels and disinfectants, as well as protective clothing such as high-quality face masks, advice and precautions for employees, as well as regular basic cleaning and the renovation of toilets. As emphasised by GEW chairwoman Marlis Tepe:
»If these standards cannot be guaranteed, the schools must not be opened,«
At the same time, it is true that many families, especially those with low household incomes, suffer from the closure of schools and daycare centres. They must not be left alone with the double burden of work and childcare. Emergency care, social services, advice centres and state support must be expanded quickly, taking into account infection prevention. Possible losses of income must be compensated for by state guarantees of remuneration.
Economic interests vs. health protection
The population must be protected from the social distortions caused by the »lockdown«. Social interests and health protection must not be played off against each other. But the federal government obviously has other priorities. Recently, parts of the economy had exerted massive pressure to end the partial »lockdown«. Contrary to the warnings of the HZI, the federal government has now given in to the pressure.
This sentence by Angela Merkel at the press conference was significant: »We did not stop economic activity, only where there was public traffic«. This is exactly the line the government is continuing to take. The text of the resolution says: »Even in the pandemic, we want to make safe work possible as comprehensively as possible in industry and small and medium-sized businesses«.
The federal government is acting in a highly contradictory manner because it somehow wants to reconcile the interests of industry and the health protection of the population. However, this does not work, as the resolutions reveal. The successful fight against a pandemic is robbed of its effectiveness if it follows the logic of capital.
Important measures now, and before the »lockdown« is gradually ended, would be to massively increase testing capacity, to equip health authorities with considerably more staff and to really minimise the chains of infection in workplaces. This is the only way to get the pandemic under control, because: a) people infected with COVID-19 can be detected in the first place, b) contacts can be traced and medical care provided and c) no new sources of infection arise.
While at the press conference these measures played almost no role, the detailed text of the resolution gives more details. However, these do not cast a good light on the federal government’s crisis strategy.
Far too little test capacity
Keyword test capacities: The government claims that laboratories in Germany can perform about 650,000 COVID-19 tests per week. Apart from the fact that the reports of the RKI have so far only stated test capacities of 390,000 per week at peak times, the figure of 650,000 is still far too low.
The Association of Towns and Municipalities has demanded that tests be increased from the current 60,000 to 500,000 per day by the end of May. That would mean 3.5 million tests in one week: an increase of 438 per cent. But even this number is still far too low for mass testing.
Epidemiologist Tim Colbourn of the UCL Institute for Global Health in Great Britain comes up with quite different figures in his calculation of necessary test capacities. He calls for »laboratory capacity and the reagents necessary to perform 10 million PCR tests per day (one per week for 68 million Britons)«. For Germany, the number of necessary capacities for mass testing would therefore be about 12 million per day.
In the text of the federal government’s resolution there is basically only hot air. There is neither a concrete target nor a date by when the test capacities should be increased by how many samples. At present, test capacities are not even close to sufficient to test even risk groups on an ongoing basis, for example employees in the healthcare system.
In 2018, there were about 5.68 million employees working in the German healthcare system. If the German government were to have these people tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis, it would be able to test exactly seven per cent of employees every week with available capacities.
An epidemiological impasse
Already, only people who show symptoms are being tested. All others are being rejected. In addition, it is not certain how testing capacity will develop. The laboratories lack material: This starts with the test kits (swab tubes and swabs) and ends with the so-called reagents needed for the tests. Andreas Bobrowski, Chairman of the Professional Association of German Laboratory Doctors (BDL), concludes (31.03.2020): »The desirable area-wide testing is currently illusory«.
The federal government is aware of the problem, but obviously does not want to make a big deal about it. The resolution states without obligation: »The federal government secures additional testing capacities for Germany by purchasing test equipment and – as far as possible in the current world market situation – by securing individual kits, reagents and consumables through tripartite contracts with the participation of the federal government as a guarantor of acceptance«.
This is more than meagre. The federal government is apparently unwilling to do everything necessary to be able to carry out mass tests for COVID-19. This is an epidemiological dead end and a public health scandal.
Broken health departments
Keyword health authorities: The health authorities responsible for infection control have been cut to the bone in recent decades. Since 1995, the number of doctors in the health offices has fallen by 33 per cent. Warnings from employees that the authority can no longer guarantee protection against infection due to a lack of staff have been ignored.
The federal government now promises to create considerable additional personnel capacities in the local public health services. The text of the resolution talks about at least one team of five persons per 20,000 inhabitants. This would mean 20,000 additional jobs for the whole of Germany.
But even that is far too little. Epidemiologist Tim Colbourn reckons with one responsible person per 1,000 inhabitants. In terms of the whole of Germany, that would be 80,000 additional jobs.
These people may be laymen who are unemployed, including those who have been laid off due to the lockdown, such as in the travel, entertainment or sports industries. No prior public health experience or skills beyond a minimum level of education and knowledge of the local environment are required, provided they have been resident in the area for at least one year.
The federal government now intends to use the Bundeswehr for this purpose. This deployment of the Bundeswehr in the interior is to be rejected. The military budget has been growing disproportionately for a decade – by more than ten billion euros in the last five years. This money is lacking elsewhere, for example in healthcare or disaster control.
While the Bundeswehr is specifically named, the resolution also lacks a concrete agreement on when and how many people are to be employed by the health authorities. This is irresponsible and negligent.
Health protection for employees
Keyword: chains of infection in workplaces: The »lockdown« initiated by the federal government was from the beginning anti-social and coloured by the needs of the capitalists. Therefore, chains of infection are not all interrupted, especially in the factories.
This leads to grotesque situations: It is forbidden to meet with acquaintances, even with masks and hygienic distance. However, if your boss decides that you should continue to work in the factory or office, it is allowed to use public transport and to work without a mask and hygienic distance. After producing the added value for the capitalist, »social distance« is the order of the day again.
The federal government remains committed to this capitalist line. The resolution hardly mentions any concrete points on the question of health protection for employees. Appeals remain: »Employers have a special responsibility for their employees to protect them from infections. Chains of infection that arise in the company can be quickly identified. For this reason, every company in Germany must implement a hygiene concept based on an adapted risk assessment and company pandemic planning«.
Horror at the absence of profit
How are chains of infection that arise during operation to be quickly identified when test capacities are so low? This is sheer nonsense! While there is a catalogue of fines for violations of the ban on contact in private life, entrepreneurs are not obliged to actually implement health protection.
With the planned opening of shops and the maintenance of production even in non-systemically relevant economic sectors, the employers‘ associations have prevailed. The most important demand of the car industry was: »Car dealerships open again soon!« A quotation from the man with the long beard fits this demand of the car industry:
»Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. (…) and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged«.
A worker would have to work 157 years to earn the average annual income of a DAX chairman. In this country, the richest 40 people have the same wealth as the poorer half of the population. The 1% risk our health for their profits. They find their advocates in the media, scientific institutions and of course in the federal government. Welcome to the neoliberal pandemic fight!
This article first appeared in German on the marx21 Website. Reproduced with permission.