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The path of compromise has failed - #zerocovid now

by TI

Starting in March 2020, various members of ADH have been analysing the pandemic situation in several articles, thoroughly criticising the political decision-makers’ actions. Six demands were made, the implementation of which should end the pandemic as soon as possible and secure the livelihood of the people in crisis at the same time. 

Even at that time, however, it was foreseeable that a path of compromise would prevail in Europe along the lines of “flattening the curve”. As we can currently observe, this did not lead to the desired results. Neither has the pandemic been completely stopped, nor has it been possible so far to bring the infection rate below a value of R = 1 constantly as well as permanently. While the spread of Covid-19 in other countries such as China, Vietnam, New Zealand or Australia has been stopped almost completely by decisive political action, corpses continue to pile up in parts of Europe, including the german federal state of saxony. 

Easy come, easy go

Everything could have turned out so well. In summer, many people in Germany and Europe thought the pandemic was as good as over, resulting in well-attended beaches and city centres. Well, the so-called AHA rules on keeping your distance and washing your hands  were still in force and major events were cancelled, accompanied by the Chancellor’s warning”not to gamble away what we have achieved now”, but all in all it seemed like normality was back. In autumn, as if no one could have foreseen it, the new infections in Germany and Europe increased more strongly and uncontrollably than ever before. How could this have happened? 

This is hardly surprising. Let’s take another look at the beginning of the pandemic: Italy was the first European country to be caught completely unprepared by the pandemic, a situation complicated by a health care system that had been largely privatised over the past decades. This was a serious warning signal to German politicians and citizens. There was a kind of rational panic and citizens began to reduce contacts and protect themselves even before the first measures came into force. Within the German population, the approval ratings for significant restrictions on everyday life to combat the virus were up to 95% at that time and the pressure for the German government to act was correspondingly high. Politicians therefore used the time to divert attention from their past mistakes and to gain time.

Although there were more beds for intensive care patients in Germany than in Italy, the German government was very well aware that in an unchecked pandemic situation there would never have been enough capacity in the intensive care units in Germany either. In recent decades the German hospital landscape has also been privatised, economised and consequently cut to the bone – following the ideas of neoliberalism. Therefore, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lack of everything that would have been needed to adequately protect the hospital staff as well as the population. There were neither masks, protective clothing and disinfectants, nor respirators and testing capacities. Jens Spahn and Angela Merkel knew about this. In order to prevent an overcrowding of intensive care units and a resulting mass death in Germany, the government therefore had no choice but to go into the first so-called “lockdown” and enact contact blocks.

Even then, this path was taken extremely reluctantly, as the interests of the economy were always to be safeguarded – not only in Germany, but all over Europe. There were spontaneous strikes in factories in Italy in March for a reason. Many workers were afraid of contracting Covid-19 at work. But in Germany, too, not everyone was in home office during the first “lockdown” and work continued wherever possible. Thus, the success of the first “lockdown” in Germany is largely due to the “rational panic” of the citizens and their resulting withdrawal from the public and social life, and less to the decisive action of the German government.

After the largest gaps in supply had been covered at the end of April 2020 – i.e. toilet paper, self-sewn masks and disinfectants were available in sufficient quantities – and the contagion rate could be temporarily pushed to a value below R = 1, the government in Germany immediately began with the first relaxations, while the infection ash continued to waft. Driven by companies, the political camp of the liberals, the petty bourgeoisie whose existence was threatened, and anti-authoritarian forces of all stripes fundamentally distrustful of the state and the government, all that remained of the measures by the summer of 2020 were cancelled major events and the AHA rules. Meanwhile, appeals not to squander the successes continued into autumn. Until all of a sudden the “successes” were completely squandered and the capacities of intensive care were slowly reaching their limits. How could this happen?, everyone suddenly asked themselves again. As if no one had predicted the second wave of the pandemic for Europe.

While other countries, especially in Asia and Oceania, achieved clear successes with strategies of hard lockdowns or at least through consistent contact tracing based on contact clusters, combined with rapid local quarantine measures and simultaneous mass testing, German policy completely slept through the summer. The introduced corona warning app has done little to reduce the incidence of infection. Especially since it is only used on a voluntary basis and it is not at all suitable for tracing infection chains. There is no testing strategy including nationwide mass testing and local quarantine measures, and the tracking of contact clusters, which worked well in Japan, at least for a long time, is still not used in Germany.

Thus, a flattened curve – achieved mainly through the discipline of the citizens at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic – finally turned into preventable mass death.

Trapped on the path of insanity

The responsibility for this lies with a government that continues to fiddle around and loses itself in senseless actionism, with which it is slowly but surely putting even the last remaining supporters of the first “radical measures” in a bind to explain them to the sceptics. For the measures introduced are no longer comprehensible, as the following list makes clear:

  • Without proof that infections were actually disproportionately occurring in restaurants and cultural institutions, the latter were first closed again and contacts in the leisure sector were restricted, while shopping centres, schools and day-care centres remained open [document with date].
  • When that wasn’t enough, retail, schools and day-care centres were also closed (albeit with emergency care continuing on an unknown scale), while operations in factories, on construction sites and open-plan offices continue unrestricted to this day, unless the bosses take pity on the people and send them into mobile working where possible. Even on public transport, people no longer seem to be able to catch the disease, unlike in March 2020…!
  • There were various exemptions over Christmas concerning churches and chuch services, which church services stood out in particular.
  • For some time now, curfews have also been in force in communities with particularly high infection rates. Here, too, the government successfully continues to lose sight of the actual goal of contact reduction. What exactly are they hoping to achieve by stopping people who drive their cars at 2 a.m., fining them 250 euros, or punishing people for walking their dogs?

All of this is happening in the light of the far too slow vaccination coverage of the population, which, if it continues at the current pace, could drag on for years. And it is not yet clear for how long it will protect the vaccinated and whether it can also protect against infection (even if current studies suggest that it can). In the meantime, the mutation pressure of the coronavirus is increasing, which is evident from the new covid mutations that are now appearing more and more frequently. It is uncertain whether the vaccination will really remain effective for all the mutations that are now appearing. That enough people will be vaccinated without being forced to do so is also uncertain at present. By now, the first ministers and prime ministers are calling for compulsory vaccination for certain professional groups such as nursing staff and doctors.

The question of why the willingness to vaccinate has fallen so sharply in recent months, on the other hand, is unfortunately asked far too rarely, even by the political left. If it were asked, it would probably be clear that there is a strong correlation between diminished trust in government and diminished willingness to vaccinate. Due to the political actions of the last few months described here, this collective malaise is also difficult to address through rational arguments.

One last try?!

While the German government, like other European governments, continues to walk the path of madness and desperately searches for a way to keep as much of the economy running as possible and to avoid having to publicly admit to its own failures of the past months, we should finally stop telling this government what it wants to hear and start forcing it to act again by putting pressure on it.

The #zerocovid initiative currently offers the right approach. It is already publicly present in many European countries, including Great Britain and Germany, and advocates for “a common strategy in Europe” to “effectively combat the pandemic”. Oriented, among other things, on the Australian pandemic response strategy, #zerocovid calls for, as a first step:

1. Collectively down towards zero: The first goal is to reduce infections to zero. To avoid a ping-pong effect between countries and regions, all European countries must act quickly and simultaneously. (…) To achieve this goal, we need a solidary pause of a few weeks. Shutdown means: we restrict our direct contacts to a minimum – and that includes at the workplace! Measures cannot be successful if they focus only on free time but exclude working time. We need to shut down areas of the economy that are not urgently needed by society for a short period of time. Factories, offices, plants, construction sites, schools must be closed and compulsory work suspended. This pause must last until the above goals are achieved.

In doing so, the initiative is about taking the people of Europe with them. They therefore go on to explain:

It is important that the employees themselves design as well as jointly enforce the measures in the companies. With this call, we also urge unions to stand up resolutely for workers’ health, to support workers’ commitment to their health, and to organize the necessary large and collective pause.

The safety and care of people during the required shutdown is also on the initiative’s agenda:

2. Leave no one behind: People can only stay at home if they are financially secure. That’s why a comprehensive bailout package is needed for everyone. The people who are hit particularly hard by the effects of the shutdown will receive special support – such as people with low incomes, in cramped housing conditions, in a violent environment, homeless people. Congregate shelters must be dissolved, and people who have fled must be housed in a decentralized manner. People who do a particularly large amount of care work during the shutdown are to be relieved by community facilities. Children receive tutoring online, in small groups if necessary.

By making these demands, as well as pointing out a perspective that could make life much more pleasant again for many people in Europe in the near future, #zerocovid also offers the opportunity to win back sceptics (not Ken Jebsen and other uncapturables). To this end, it is important to emphasise that this complete lockdown can be the last one and that this has already been successfully implemented in other countries such as Australia. On the other hand, it is important that trade unions and other relevant social actors actually support the initiative publicly, but above all also very concretely on the ground, so that people really go along with it. Appeals from a government that is no longer trusted will not help.1

Finally, the possible failure of the European shutdown should also be addressed. This is an important point for the argumentation strategy that has not yet appeared in the campaign. Because even if there are enough examples that show that such a failure is unlikely if the strategy is consistently pursued (see China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia), it cannot be completely ruled out. This is exactly why it is important to talk about it with critics, to take their objections seriously and to persuade them to join in. Because if, after 4-6 weeks of a consistent shutdown with strong citizen participation, we really do not succeed in bringing the pandemic events in Europe under control, then we must seriously talk about abolishing all useless compromises and find ways to live with the virus and effectively protect risk groups. There can be no permanent “business as usual”. The collateral damage is simply too high for that.

Therefore, no more compromises. No more “flattening the curve”. Just stop the curve. #zerocovid now.

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