Please stop telling me that everything‘s fine in Germany
Updated: May 1, 2020
It’s happened again. A message was sent to a pro-Corbyn chat group, asking us to sign an open letter to Angela Merkel 2. The first paragraph of the letter (addressed directly to Merkel) goes like this:
“Throughout the coronavirus outbreak – as so many times before – you have shown leadership for your country. Both as a chancellor and as a physicist you grasped the depth of the sanitary emergency and the challenges it represents to Europe as a whole.”
This is a fairly typical reflection of a narrative that has been developing around Germany’s response to the Coronavirus. The group has also seen Twitter messages boasting that “Germany has got testing spot on.” 3 On another Facebook page, someone posted a photo of Angela Merkel with the caption "The real leader of the free world".
These groups and Facebook pages identify themselves as left-liberal and were mainly set up around Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign. Their members generally reject everything that Merkel's neoliberal party, the CDU, stands for. And yet, at the moment, the German government seems to be beyond criticism.
This view appears to be shared by German citizens; Merkel’s popularity has sky-rocketed, so much so that she is reconsidering her decision not to stand for re-election 4. And yet, the casting of Merkel as saviour both ignores the very real problems that are largely shouldered by working class people, and lets off the hook the neoliberal structures which are chiefly responsible for where we are.
Look, on one level, I totally get it. The blond buffoons in the White House and Downing Street have handled the situation with such arrogance and ineptitude that almost by default the situation in Germany is better than in the States and Britain. Instead of Johnson and Trump banging on about “herd immunity” (Eugenics for beginners), they should be protecting their people. But do we really want to set the bar so low that we will accept any leader who is not quite as bad as them?
Testing – the impressive statistics...
If we want to look at how things really are in Germany, let’s start with the testing. At first glance, the statistics look good. Germany has the highest number of Intensive Care Units (ICUs) outside the US (according to Der Spiegel, there are 40,000 5).
The relatively small number of seriously ill patients means that the German system has been able to cope so far, and was even in a position to offer beds to patients from Italy and France (although this is changing, and the Green-led State government of Baden-Württemberg is now refusing to accept patients from neighbouring Alsace 6).
Germany is also currently second only to the US in critical care beds per capita. 7
According to some graphs which have been widely publicized 8, the number of tests per million people carried out in Germany does look impressive, especially when compared to some other countries.
...and the grim reality
And yet the widely accepted belief that everyone in Germany is being tested is simply not true. One friend’s young child had bronchitis for three weeks and was denied a test. Another friend showed all the symptoms but was told to just stay at home.
Still other friends report similar stories. One says,
“A friend of mine was at Kater Blau in early March, the weekend someone who tested positive also attended. The clubgoers from that weekend were advised to get tested. After spending 5+ hours on hold each day for over a week, with over 2 dozen doctor’s offices, health centers, and government offices in Berlin, not ONE of whom picked up, my friend simply got sick (and then better) assuming she had the virus.” 9
These anecdotal reports reflect a wider truth that most people are still not being tested. Even now, the Berlin Senate Department for Health recommends testing only for people who meet the following requirements:
“if you have even mild symptoms, such as a cough, sneezing, or a sore throat, and …
… you had contact within the last 14 days with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19, or ...
… you have an underlying medical condition and/or your respiratory symptoms get worse (shortness of breath, high fever, etc.), or …
… you work or volunteer in a place in which you come in contact with people who are at higher risk (e.g., the elderly, people with underlying medical conditions).” 10
(emphasis in original)
“In that same period [late January], Singapore was setting up health screenings at airports, issuing work-from-home guidelines and releasing plans to monitor travelers returning from abroad. Independent labs in Korea were rushing their tests out the door.
‘They were ready, and they just churned out the kits,’ said Dr. Jerome Kim, of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.” 11
In contrast, report Apuzzo and Gebrekidan, “many countries have tightened restrictions on who gets tested. In Germany, where the first approved test was developed, only doctors can prescribe one.” 12
The Icelandic government has announced that it is allowing everyone to be tested and isolating people quickly if they test positive. 13 This is a world away from the current situation in Germany.
According to worldometers.info, Germany has tested just under 1.1% of its population (10,962 per million). This puts it 25th on a list of countries for which the statistics are available 14. The fact that countries like China are missing from the list could suggest that the real position is even lower. In short, while it can’t be denied that Germany is doing much better than some of its neighbours, there is still a long way to go.
What is to come?
Germany has still not seen the worst of the virus. According to the much-reproduced graph from the Financial Times (below), while the daily death rate is sinking in Southeast Asia and levelling off in Southern Europe, in Germany (as in the UK and US), death rates are still rising. 15
Kate Connolly in the Guardian reported that a leaked confidential scientific study commissioned by the government estimates that “around a million people in Germany – which has a population of just under 83 million – were likely to become infected, and around 12,000 would die”.16
Connolly quotes Lothar Wieler, the head of the government’s main public health advisory body, the Robert Koch Institute: “The fact is that Germany started testing early on and has tested broadly. That way, many cases but also milder cases have been detected, and they did not generally include the elderly.”17 According to Wieler, this has distorted the figures so far.
It seems that the German figures have been further distorted because the first recorded cases affected tourists returning from ski resorts like Ischgl in Austria 18. These people were tendentially in better health and wealthier than those affected in other countries. This meant that they were physically better equipped to combat the virus and got first dibs on testing and higher quality treatment. Time will tell how much these factors have skewed the statistics.
Connolly goes on to report that “many working on the testing frontline report concerns about a lack of materials and inefficiency, as well as a shortage of staff, forcing many people to work seven-day weeks.” 19 And this is where creeping privatisation comes in.
German hospitals have suffered decades of privatisation, and health workers and patients are paying the price. Government investment has also been cut. This year, when nearly every part of the German budget was increased, the health budget was reduced by nearly 5% 20.
Health trade unionists in Berlin were recently compelled to issue a series of demands 21, which include sufficient protective clothing and equipment, testing of health workers and refinancing of the health service. And while the German system of health insurance works more or less for people who are insured, it lacks the egalitarianism of the NHS. Many people are not covered at all.
Officially 80,000 people in Germany have no health insurance, meaning that they would be personally liable for all treatment costs. Many of these people are homeless or “illegal” immigrants 22. A report by Zeit Online suggests that the true figure of people without insurance may be ten times as high as the official statistics 23.
The “everything’s going fine in Germany” narrative undermines the campaigns here for safe working conditions, for health coverage for all, and for the right of sick people not to risk further infection. These are demands which directly challenge the policies of the Merkel government.
Dealing with the crisis
If you look at how the German government has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, the similarities with places like Britain and the US outweigh differences. Although there is much talk about social distancing, non-essential workers are still forced to commute to work on overcrowded transport. As little as possible is allowed to get in the way of profit.
As in other countries, there are two countervailing tendencies in the discussion around lockdown. One comes from a government with authoritarian tendencies, whose Home Secretary is still Horst Seehofer, a man who once claimed that Turkish and Arab migrants are no longer needed in Germany and that “we do not need any more migrants from other cultural centres.” 24
(While we’re on the subject, it has helped “Mutti” Merkel to play good cop alongside more authoritarian figures like Seehofer and former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the man who ruined Greece. She gains the international plaudits for liberalism while repressive politics are still carried out on her watch).
The German government is keen to use the police to control people’s movement. And, not for the first time, German police are paying particular attention to darker skinned people. In scenes familiar to anyone who uses the Berlin transport system, people of colour are regularly singled out for harassment.
On the other hand, it is seen as being perfectly fine to work hand-by-jowl alongside people who may well be already infected. Many “non-essential” workers are still expected to work, and it is up to employers to decide whether to allow home office work. 25 Even in workplaces where workers have been infected by the virus, the supervisor has the last say on whether workers must go in. 26
In one aspect, the situation in Germany is much worse than elsewhere. If you’re sent home from work in Ireland, Denmark, or the Netherlands you still get 100% of your salary. Even Boris Johnson offered to pay laid off workers 80% 27. In Germany you get just 60% (67% if you have kids) 28. Many bar and restaurant workers, who earn most of their pay in tips, will be receiving much less.
There are some German jobs where this so-called “Reduced hour compensation” (Kurzarbeitergeld) is much higher. Workers at H&M and Primark receive 100% compensation. This is not down to government benevolence, but because they, through their trade unions and works councils, have successfully fought for themselves and challenged their management’s policies and a bosses’ government which has always sided with big business against trade unionists. 29
The Coronavirus and Gentrification
One of the first victims of the Coronavirus lockdown was the campaign against gentrification. A mass demo had been planned for 28 March, organised by Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen 30, a well-supported anti-gentrification organisation. This demo was reluctantly, but understandably, cancelled, and a planned popular referendum in Berlin, calling for the expropriation of the big landlords, must reassess its strategy.
And yet the attacks on tenants’ rights go on. Many people who have been laid off cannot afford to pay the rent. They do not have the economic weight of companies like H&M, Adidas and Deichmann, who unilaterally decided to stop paying rent. 31
Just before the crisis started, the Berlin government passed a new law – the so-called “Mietendeckel” or rent cap. This came into force on 24 February, and should have forced landlords to reduce rents. Nevertheless, Berlin news service rbb reports that “even after the law took effect, over 90% of rented flats in Berlin are being offered for prices above the rent cap.” 32
As a result of the Coronavirus, another law has been passed limiting the ability of landlords to evict tenants 33. But, as Thom McGath from Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen says: “They should have just had a rent moratorium and cancelled rent instead of putting the burden on renters to still be obligated to pay the rent back later. How are they supposed to pay that with so many people in Kurzarbeit?” 34
People in Germany are looking at rent strikes organised in Spain 35 and the USA 36 with interest, but so far we haven’t managed to emulate these great campaigns. We’re noticing that landlords are profiting from the crisis while tenants struggle to scrape their rent, but there’s little real organised resistance yet. But these are still early days.
Will the EU survive?
The Coronavirus crisis also has implications for German leadership in Europe. Germany was the country which profited the most from the Euro crisis, making billions from the enforced bankruptcy of Greece 37. Until very recency, German hegemony within the EU was virtually unquestioned.
Yet when Angela Merkel refused to even contemplate Eurobonds to deal with the Corona crisis, she was denounced by Steffen Klusmann in Spiegel Online for putting the EU into an “existential crisis” 38. Now I have no love for either the German state or the neoliberal EU, but until recently both seemed indomitable. Now, neither is able to offer a clear way out of the crisis.
Whatever happens, we’re not in Kansas any more. The narrative that developed during Brexit that an EU under German leadership was both necessary and inevitable, is long gone. As the EU seems prepared to abandon Italy, even the Financial Times is reporting that “there is a rising feeling among even its pro-European elite that the country is being abandoned by its neighbours.”39 Whatever happens, when we come out of the Coronavirus crisis, the whole discussion about international solidarity and the role of the EU will have shifted.
As Pater Kapern said to the German World Service, Deutschland Funk:
“In the Corona Crisis the EU countries have decided on going it alone nationally instead of cooperation and sharing interests. This is the absolutely wrong path. If it carries on like this, it could be about sheer survival – for the European Union.”40
Angela Merkel may come across as a more reassuring authority figure than Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, but her government is driven by the same dash for profits. To see her as a role model is to obscure the real divisions in society. Hers is still a neoliberal government which prioritizes the protection of big business at the expense of people’s health.
To my friends in Britain and the States, please continue your fight against the reckless Johnson and Trump governments. But Angela Merkel is not your friend. The left-liberal articles about how great Germany is are reminiscent of the special pleading which urges people to support Joe Biden because it’s better to have “our” sexual predator in the White House. We deserve much better than that.
As Tina Lee, editor of the Migration Voter41 website says:
“Yes, Trump and Johnson are nightmarish fascists, but Germany's response has also revealed a great deal about the dividing lines in this society and it’s not very flattering. The idea that is better here than in e.g. USA is very similar to the argument that misogynists use to shut you up complaining about sexism: ‘At least you're allowed to drive! Try living in Iran and see how you like it!’"
“It’s not a race to the bottom, and Germany has something UK and USA don't: the largest surplus in the world. (UK and USA have the highest deficit.) And yet we are expected to show gratitude for not being murdered on mass. This is really moving the Overton window on the right about what we can expect from our elected governments.”42
It is wonderful that people are congregating on balconies to show their support for the British – and German – health service workers. But this should not devolve into uncritical support for our neoliberal governments. Safeguarding health requires us to concentrate instead on struggles by health workers to improve the conditions in hospitals, and to reject a system which is only motivated by profit.
Phil Butland is a British socialist who has lived in Germany for 25 years. He is joint speaker of the Berlin LINKE Internationals group. This article was written for www.theleftberlin.com.
1 Thanks to Noemi Argerich, Elizabeth Berman, Adina Danes, Georgiana Darcy, Charlie Hore, Anja Ilić, Tina Lee and Emily Pollak for comments on an earlier version of this text.
9 Personal correspondence
20 Source: German Bundestag
34 personal correspondence
42 Personal correspondence