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Germany: Riding a political roller-coaster instead of fighting the pandemic

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The stalemate goes on. After the federal and state governments, under pressure from the business community, had proposed a range of relaxations at the beginning of March, the self-proclaimed "Team Cautious" around Chancellor Merkel, the Bavarian Prime Minister Söder and Berlin Mayor Müller announced on the night of 22-23 March that they were slamming on the brakes. The Corona policy, although unchanged in substance, would now lurch in the other direction.

After all, we are in the middle of a third wave of the pandemic. Steadily rising incidence levels, consistently above 100 per 100,000 population over seven days, at the end of March and very likely to continue upwards, prove this, as do the changes in the virus itself. The far more infectious and life-threatening mutant B. 1.1.7, the so-called British, has also become the predominant one in Germany.

Caution?

Within a few hours, "team cautious" turned out to be "team short-sighted". The "Easter break" conjured out of the hat before the government summit, which was never more than a vaguely defined possible work-free Maundy Thursday anyway, was withdrawn again on 24 March due to pressure from the business community, but also from the ranks of the conservative parties.

The so-called "emergency brake", that is the cancellation of some partial openings introduced at the beginning of March, was supposed to take effect if the incidence value reached 100. But the Easter break turned out to be a bad early April Fool's joke. Its rollback is fuelling a veritable leadership crisis in the bourgeois camp. As this article went to press, another government statement followed, complete with an apology from the chancellor. An additional federal-state summit is probably also planned.

While the Merkel cabinet received broad approval in the opinion polls in spring 2020, just less than a year ago, because of its successful crisis management, this bonus has long since been squandered. Fewer and fewer people trust this government to provide an answer to the burning questions of the pandemic as well as the social hardships. And rightly so!

The policy of Merkel and Co has ended up as just a repackaged "business as usual". Thus, at the federal-state summit, if we disregard the Easter posse, the existing lockdown was extended until 18 April.

The question of school and day-care centre closures could be avoided to some extent, since the Easter holidays fall in this period anyway, so they are closed for a fortnight. The opening of domestic tourism was much more controversial. The five coastal regions wanted to enforce special regulations. Even if they finally gave in, the example illustrates the "continuity" of the zigzag of the Corona policy. Given the current government crisis, a renewed push to open tourist facilities could well be swift.

Cause

The prevailing bourgeois Corona policy pits public health protection against business profit interests. They combine into an inconsistent, incoherent whole, that neither meets the needs of the population for health protection and social security nor fully satisfies the calls of capital for freedom of business.
That this contradiction determines the whole policy of the government was once again shown by the decisions of the federal-state summit.

When the Easter break, that is, a work-free Maundy Thursday, was announced, it was left open whether this was a holiday under labour law. Did it mean that people working from home also had a day off? Would workers be paid for the day, as with normal holidays? It was also unclear whether those who have to work in the health sector or in public transport, for example, should receive holiday bonuses. Such "minor details", which mainly concern the interests of wage earners, were to be announced later by the federal government.

Now that this day is off the table, the lockdown will continue in its present form. Restrictions will continue to be imposed above all on those areas of life that affect our leisure time, that is, people's opportunities for regeneration. Secondly, the responsibility for the implementation of the measures and for the negative financial and social consequences continues to lie with the individual, is essentially individualised.

Those who have to live in cramped flats will have to continue to do so. Poorer families, single parents, people with relatives in need of care will have to take on more "personal responsibility". Women in particular have to do more private housework. Childcare is imposed on parents and here again mainly on women.

While citizens are regularly and cheerfully exhorted to be "reasonable", which most of them are anyway, that does not apply to the sector that is crucial for the capitalist economy, as it has not since the beginning of the pandemic. There has long been no talk of a lockdown in industry, in banks and insurance companies, in open-plan offices and slaughterhouses. Not only industrial production, but also a significant proportion of clerical workers, for example, in open-plan offices are excluded from protective measures like masks and social distancing that are obligatory, for example, for schools or in the retail trade.

Tests like those for schools only exist for industrial groups on a voluntary basis and, as for example at BMW in Leipzig, only for the core workforce. The company declares itself not responsible for the temporary workers, although they account for some 50 % of the people working there. So, the Easter lockdown is pure window dressing in the crucial areas of capitalist surplus value production. These are and remain exempt from all closures, even from the usual hygiene regulations.

Two things, however, are new about the current situation; firstly, the health crisis has developed into a political crisis, as the election results in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate showed. Secondly, the rising third wave of the pandemic threatens to claim thousands more lives, despite the vaccination of the over-80s.

Left alternative

In view of this looming catastrophe, a left policy to combat the pandemic and the crisis is more urgent than ever. It would have to start exactly where politics stops in the interest of capital: with the demand for the temporary closure of all areas of the economy that are not essential for daily reproduction, in order to reduce the number of infections and thus massively reduce and bring to zero the number of illnesses, long and serious consequential damages as well as hundreds of deaths per day.

At the same time, this would have the advantage that we would not have to live for as long under a gruelling permanent lockdown, which confronts millions with the alternative of health or securing their existence. A solidarity lockdown would thus offer much more general and controlled opening options after a temporary shutdown of the economy. In addition, it would also have to go hand in hand with an expansion of socially necessary paid reproductive work, that is, securing care for those in need of care, expanding the health system, opening up schools and day-care centres and operating them in smaller groups/classes so that parents are not only relieved when they have to work.

The policy of solidarity lockdown, as advocated by the #ZeroCovid initiative, represents a substantial, fundamentally different strategy from that of the federal government, all the bosses' organisations, the liberal opening fanatics and the right-wing Corona deniers. It would combine the temporary Europe-wide closure of all non-essential sectors under workers' and trade union control with demands for social protection for all, the expansion of health care, the end of private control over vaccine production and distribution, and for the financing of these measures through the taxation of profits and large fortunes.

Liberals and the Right

The dramatic aspect of the current situation is, on the one hand, that the pandemic will continue to spread under the current measures. On the other hand, it is also open who, which social force, will change the balance of power in their favour given the weakness of the government.

In view of the development of recent months, the bourgeois-liberal opening fanatics, who are screaming for even more freedom for capital, hope to be able to use the situation according to their ideas. Their recipe is: testing, opening, vaccinating and above all "personal responsibility".
For months, bourgeois papers, but above all the business associations, including their economic and social science institutes, have been beating the drum that we have to learn to "live with the virus". In an influential study by the Institute of German Business, the acceptance of death is presented as a social challenge: "This is socially challenging because it demands something like virus-specific readiness and ability to cope with limited health consequences and limited mortality, to endure them." (Bardt/Hüther, Out of the Lockdown into Normal, p. 10) This pseudo-philosophical version of Social Darwinism serves as an ideological repackaging for the policies of, above all, the business associations, the liberal Free Democrat Party and the other "open up" campaigners.

The Alternative for Germany, AfD, the right-wing corona deniers, lateral thinkers and conspiracy theorists of all kinds do not bother with such considerations. The crisis is driving forward their supporters, mainly from the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes, even if their complete ignorance of the pandemic may (still) be putting many off. As the demonstration of 20,000 people in Kassel showed, the right is currently forming this social despair into a political force, into a reactionary, petty-bourgeois mass movement that turns the pandemic into the spawn of a "Merkel dictatorship" or a conspiracy of Gates and Soros. The impending ruin of these strata in times of pandemic and crisis is being directed by the right into a bogus cause. The fundamental irrationalism of the movement becomes an ideological justification for its pseudo-radicalism.

And the left?

In the face of this situation, initiatives like #ZeroCovid have become socially defensive in recent weeks, although they represent a strategy of solidarity in the interest of the mass of the population. The increasing numbers of infections and deaths may change the prevailing mood but, at the same time, reactionary criticism of any policy to fight the pandemic will also become radicalised, like that of the so-called lateral thinkers.

Fundamentally, however, the initiative must maintain its demands and at the same time make a targeted attempt to pull the workers' movement and the left out of their passivity in the face of the pandemic. To this end, #ZeroCovid should define its focus more clearly and concretise its politics.

In the trade unions, in social movements, we must continue to call for the solidarity lockdown, for a policy that combines health protection and the struggle against the burdens of the pandemic and the crisis and their passing on to the population. The worsening situation puts the demand for a Europe-wide "solidarity shutdown" on the agenda if we want to push through health protection and social security.

A policy to fight the pandemic, oriented towards the interests of the mass of people, must therefore be a class policy. It can only be fought for through mobilisations against capital, governments and the political right wing, through a social movement rooted in the workplaces, schools and universities, public services, hospitals, neighbourhoods, cities and rural areas.

Ideological struggle

The toleration of an "acceptable" number of deaths as a "social obligation" by (neo)liberal, conservative or right-wing ideologists of capital, the right-wing populist talk of the "Corona dictatorship" or the equation of the free movement of goods with freedom par excellence, all make it clear that the struggle for the Corona policy is also a form of class struggle on an ideological level. It is necessary to expose the contempt for humanity and the cynicism of all those who speak of a return to normality and thus want to get the population in the mood to accept the death of thousands in Germany and millions worldwide as the normal state of affairs.

Above all, it is necessary to show what the purpose of this barbaric enterprise is: namely, to spread the idea that there is no alternative to accepting such a policy. We must make it clear that behind the costs of citizens' freedom, the interests of capital come to the fore. More, we have to make it clear that the question of the Corona policy, of imposing a solidarity shutdown in the interest of the working class, is also about the question of which social force, which class, will reorganise society itself in such a way that fighting the pandemic no longer appears to be counterposed to "freedom". This requires understanding the struggle around the demands of #Zero-Covid in the larger context of the revolutionary struggle for the expropriation of capital and the establishment of a global, democratically planned, economy.

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