In its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the German ruling class has shown it prioritises the preservation of profits over the wellbeing of working people. Against their hypocritical talk of “national unity”, we say: fight the virus with socialist measures – along with the diseased capitalist system itself!
Natural catastrophes and pandemics like the coronavirus outbreak are heightening class conflicts. All of capitalism’s deficiencies and contradictions are being revealed. The choice between “socialism or barbarism” is forcefully posed.
The coronavirus pandemic is causing the most profound restrictions on Germany’s public life since the Second World War. Its rapid spread, however, is no inevitable, “divinely ordained” force of nature. Above all else, it is the expression of an organic crisis of the capitalist system as a whole. Many deaths could have been prevented, but health services, cut to pieces by austerity, are stretched to their limit even in less-extraordinary times. Furthermore, to avoid threatening companies’ profits, containment measures were taken hesitantly and half-heartedly.
The first instinct of the governments of all nations which have experienced outbreaks of the virus, from China and Iran to Italy, the UK, and Germany, was to deny, play down, and minimise. This is because decisive containment measures (curfews, halts to production, closures of schools and borders) would cause big business to lose billions. This comes at a time when the world economy was already teetering on the brink of a crash.
Coronavirus and economic crisis
Stock markets have been in freefall since the beginning of last week. In less than a month, the German index DAX’s value fell by a third. Three weeks’ crash annihilated all of last year’s gains. Reacting to the US Federal Reserve’s announcement that it would spend 1.5 Trillion dollars to stabilise financial markets, the DAX fell by 10 percent in a single day.
It is important to understand that the coronavirus is only the trigger, not the reason, for this economic crash. The economic “recovery” after the crisis of 2008 was enabled only by racking up record debts across the world, helped along by extremely low interest rates. This recovery, moreover, solved none of the underlying problems and therefore only prepared the ground for a deeper slump in the future. The Marxists have been explaining this for years. Record debt and low rates were a powder keg, primed to explode and tear apart the world economy in response to any accidental spark. This spark has now been provided by the coronavirus, but anything else could have been the trigger (read more here: Capitalist system in meltdown).
The capitalist class and their hirelings in government are well aware of the real situation. Economic growth in Germany has been stagnating for a year. The car industry (and thus also their numerous suppliers) are registering a reduction in demand. More than half a year ago, many German industries already announced they were going to cut tens of thousands of jobs. This is another reason bourgeois governments were hesitant to take decisive measures aimed at containing the virus.
Enforcing curfews or closing schools (and hence requiring parents to care for their children) would mean many people couldn’t come into work. This means big business would lose out on billions of euros in profits. Closing shops and reducing demand, or closing borders and restricting the flow of commodities and labour between countries means big business would mean the same. It is possible to contain the virus, if decisive measures are taken. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong are showing this in practice. They prevented the virus from spreading exponentially by intervening relatively early and decisively.
Looming catastrophe in healthcare
The German health service has been stretched to its limits for a long time. Health secretary Jens Spahn from the Christian Conservatives (CDU) attempted to reassure the public, claiming there were enough ICU beds and respirators. But beds and respirators won’t save lives if there aren’t any nurses to staff them. Brutal austerity and privatisation have caused an acute lack of personnel in recent years. Even in “normal” times, this is having catastrophic effects. Already, 76 percent of ICUs are regularly removing beds because there are too few staff. Recently, the well-known Charité hospital in Berlin had to cancel child surgeries, due to lack of staff. No country in Europe has a worse nurse-to-patient ratio than Germany. This means nurses are often overstretched: there is simply no time for basic hygiene or even a semi-humane relationship with patients. This is despite the hundreds of hours of overtime nurses, who often have to be ready at a moment’s notice, are amassing.
As if all of this weren’t bad enough, secretary Spahn recently annulled regulations (only six months old) setting upper bounds to the patient-to-nurse ratio in areas such as intensive care, geriatrics, trauma and heart surgery as well as stroke units. “Removing [these regulations] wholesale is the wrong thing to do. They were introduced because higher patient-to-nurse ratios are dangerous”, warns Sylvia Bühler, member of the executive committee of German trade union ver.di. “Fighting the coronavirus requires more, not less, personnel.”
The austerity of recent decades has torn dangerous holes in other areas as well. The wave of closures of small hospitals continues unabated. In the Hansestadt Havelberg (in the federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt), for instance, the healthcare corporation KMG wants to cease operating a hospital, in order to open a more profitable geriatric care facility in the building instead. In Wolfhagen, near Kassel, a hospital’s closure was prevented by enormous pressure from below only a few days ago. In many smaller hospitals, laboratories were the first thing on the cost-chopping block, rendering them unable to quickly test for the coronavirus. As recently as 2018, secretary Spahn welcomed the closure of 623 A&E departments.
Already, surgical masks and gowns are running out in numerous hospitals nationwide; already, fundamental measures to ensure hygiene aren’t adhered to. It is better for one’s sanity not to imagine what could happen when, as is already the case in Italy, thousands of patients requiring intensive care start arriving in hospitals over the next one or two weeks.
In the meantime, the capitalists owning these hospitals continue to make handsome profits. Since 1992, the share of private hospitals in Germany has grown more than twofold, from 15.5 percent to 37.1 percent. In some federal states, nearly half of all hospitals are in private hands, and the high (or low) watermark is Hamburg, with 70.7 percent of its hospitals being privatised.
Socialist measures against the coronavirus
It is still possible to prevent the death of tens of thousands of people, but this requires the working class to take control of the situation:
- Close all non-essential companies without loss of pay for the employees. If the capitalists are unwilling to do so, workers must go on strike to enforce the closure. If we’re deemed fit to work, we’re fit to strike!
- Instead of generous bank bailouts funded with public money, bail out working people, those in self-employment, welfare recipients and pensioners!
- The battle against the coronavirus is revealing the grave and life-threatening shortcomings of for-profit healthcare. Stop and undo all austerity and privatisation in healthcare. Invest in healthcare, especially in the employment of additional nurses, instead of forking out billions to big business!
- Requisition all strategically important enterprises for the production of medically necessary products. Free health and safety measures for employees in these sectors. Concentrate the research and synthesis of pharmaceuticals, and the entire medical industry, in the public sector, democratically controlled by employees, patients, specialists and public representatives. Research and development have to serve patients’ wellbeing, not the profits of the 1 percent!
- All relevant issues in essential companies to be determined by workers and their representatives.
- We call on workers to expose big business’ speculation and profiteering. Companies found to be engaging in such behaviours must be expropriated without compensation.
- People losing their income due to the coronavirus must not be made homeless, and their – possibly vital – ability to communicate with others must be preserved. Suspend rents and telecommunications fees for those in need!
- Create a central database of all empty hotels, flats, office spaces and real estate projects. Where necessary, requisition them to provide supplementary housing and hospital space. Prioritise the needs of socially and physically vulnerable social groups: families in small flats, the homeless, and victims of domestic violence are entitled to be allocated safe and healthy living space.
“National unity”, social partnership, and class struggle
At the present moment, big business and their political representatives are trying to conjure a spirit of “national unity” in the fight against the coronavirus. They argue that the virus threatens all of us, that “we’re all in the same boat”, but this is incorrect! Even (or especially) with the pandemic raging, class differences are coming starkly to the fore: while the government is promising literally unlimited aid to big business, workers continue to be herded into public transport and unsafe workplaces. Should they be sacked, they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills; their lives will come unstuck. If they catch the disease, they might struggle to be treated in overcrowded hospitals. Meanwhile, the super-rich are sitting pretty in their landed estates, safe in the knowledge they will receive state-of-the-art medical treatment in private clinics.
There is no way around a decisive struggle against the capitalists and their profits if we are to contain the virus effectively. This must be based on the socialist measures listed above. Therefore, the working class must act independently and take charge of the situation.
However, at the present moment, the traditional mass organisations of the working class are basing themselves firmly on the “social partnership”, that is, they are basing themselves firmly on capitalism. They support the government’s measures and demonstrate their unity with big business. A joint statement released by the German trade union council (DGB) and the association of German employers (BDA) reads: “the social partners put their joint responsibility in the corona-crisis over their differences.”
Dietmar Bartsch, parliamentary leader of the Left Party, also supports the government’s economy-stabilising measures. On German radio, Bartsch affirmed that he expressly shared the government’s position that any measures necessary to keep the economy going in the face of the virus’ spread must be taken. He believes categorically that now is not the right time for opposition parties to make fundamental criticisms of the government’s measures. At the moment, special consideration should be given to the hardest-hit, such as employees in hospitality, artists, or the tourism sector – according to Bartsch.
In this manner, the working population is hung out to dry and left rudderless by its reformist leadership, just at the time when it is most crucial to raise painful topics, such as the great economic crisis of 2008/9. Back then, the state shelled out hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to save big business and the banks. However, instead of taking control of the banks and making the billionaires foot the bill, Germany’s working masses were rinsed for it. Austerity and privatisations were carried out using the pretext of the “debt brake”, elevated to constitutional status. Commerzbank, in deep financial troubles, received 18.2 million euros from a 2009 rescue package. Additionally, the federal government agreed to underwrite 15 billion euros worth of customers’ money. The state could have easily used this to “legally” take control of the entire bank, but the government satisfied itself with a share of 25 percent plus one.
Incidentally, the Left Party argued for the nationalisation of the big banks back then. This demand is now more pertinent than ever. We need effective control over the banking system. However, the party’s leadership now shy away from reiterating this demand.
Even though the call for national unity may have some, limited, effectiveness at this point, as the crisis develops, the shortcomings of capitalism and the bourgeois state will be revealed more openly and pressingly than would be the case under “normal” circumstances. The economic crisis, long in the making and triggered by the virus, will mean attacks on the working class’ standard of living.
Many capitalists are already using the coronavirus as a pretext for the – sometimes unlawful – sacking of employees, to lower wages and demand more flexible hours, while cutting across any potential defensive measures, such as strikes and demonstrations. Furthermore, bosses’ associations and their political representatives are exploiting the coronavirus to go on the attack and claw back the labour movement’s past achievements. There is no trace of “joint responsibility in the corona-crisis” here!
In this vein, more and more federal states are weakening rules preventing trucks from driving, and workers more generally from working, on Sundays. Bavaria’s conservative Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU – the CDU’s sister organisation in Bavaria) extended shops’ opening hours. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks can now remain open until 10pm on working days, and, for the first time ever, until 6pm on Sundays. Allegedly, this is to ensure the population remains well-supplied with toilet paper, pasta, and tinned foods.
Hubert Thiermeyer, from ver.di’s Bavarian branch, however, warns that “extending grocery stores’ opening hours does not increase people’s security; to the contrary, they endanger it.” He warns that these extremely taxing measures weaken people’s health and immune systems, increasing the danger of spreading the coronavirus. Instead of longer opening hours, he demands “hygienic safety measures, clear social distancing rules for customers, and sensible measures to ease the strain on employees.”
Bosses in many companies are exploiting the fears, confusion, and lack of information of intimidated employees to coax them into agreeing to a reduction of working hours (and therefore pay), unpaid holidays, and to waive their rights to compensation and employment protection. The DGB advises that employees “don’t agree to waivers or contractual changes that the employer may demand due to the coronavirus-crisis. Always seek advice from the factory committee and your union first.”
Volkswagen, celebrated in the bourgeois press as a fortress of “social partnership”, is now revealing its especially ugly face. They are closing, effective immediately, their subsidiary Sitech, hitherto responsible for the manufacture of car seats. The reason for this is not to protect employees from the coronavirus. In fact, Sitech is being shut down because the workforce fought back against the bosses’ plan to increase the working week to 40 hours, without a corresponding increase in pay, of course. Management now intends to import the seats from faraway countries with lower wages.
Such attacks will heighten workers’ class consciousness, in Germany just as in other countries. Already, coronavirus-related strikes have erupted in Italy, Spain, Britain, and Canada. Vehement class struggles will shake the world when the virus-crisis ends, at the latest. Germany will be no exception.
The coronavirus outbreak has finalised our entry into a new historical epoch, an epoch of heightened class struggle, of crisis, war, revolution, and counterrevolution. There is no way back to the stability of the “good old days”. New layers of workers and youth will enter the political stage and become radicalised. This represents vast opportunities to build the Marxist tendency.
The coronavirus’ devastating outbreak gives expression to the deep crisis this system is finding itself in. Tens of thousands will die, just so that a few super rich capitalists can continue making profits off all our labour. The coronavirus can only be combated with socialist measures. It is high time for those who run society, those who now are giving their last to fight this virus, in a word, the working class, to take power into our own hands!
The Spark is part of the IMT (International Marxist Tendency). We are revolutionary Marxists. We trust only in the abilities and reason of our own class. Our comrades will participate in all socially necessary activities, taking responsibility and making sacrifices. We will respect and argue in favour of the sanitary and hygienic measures. We are reorganising our political work, but we will not cease it. To the contrary, we will continue it with renewed vigour. We will hold online meetings, and distribute our publications electronically.
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