Is Germany Dealing With COVID-19 As Well As We Think?

May 5, 2020

Despite the hype around Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, testing kits are still scarce, medical teams are overworked, and unemployed workers receive less compensation than in other European countries.

Despite the hype around Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, testing kits are still scarce, medical teams are overworked, and unemployed workers receive less compensation than in other European countries.


People travel with protective mask in the public transportation in Berlin, Germany on April 28, 2020. Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany has been hailed as one of the best in the world. The New York Times and other international media praised Germany, and called Chancellor Angela Merkel “the leader of the free world.” Insomuch as Germany has gotten the spread of the pandemic under control, it’s partly due to government policies, a strong healthcare system, and also due to the fact that the German government runs a budget surplus, and has resources that can be quickly diverted to deal with the crisis.

One of the most praised points of German policy is the issue of transparency. Every day, the Robert Koch Institute of Disease Control issues a statement and updates the public. Here’s the statement from Tuesday by Professor Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert

Koch Institute: “[foreign language 00:00:52]… ” “What’s good is that the hospital capacity remains large. We have enough intensive care beds and ventilators, based on the current situation, and I underline ‘current.’ We do not foresee any shortages.” “[foreign language 00:01:08].” “So far, we have been able to get through this epidemic relatively well together, and together is important to me. This virus continues to be in our country, and is here to stay for the months to come, but so far, we are successful.” “[foreign language 00:01:31].”

But maybe the so-called success of Germany in handling COVID-19 is a lot of hype. After all, thousands of people have already died, and the German economy ground to a screeching halt. In his article titled Stop Telling Me That Everything is Fine in Germany, Phil Butland tells the part of the story which is rarely acknowledged in the international press. And today we are joined by Phil Butland. He’s originally from Bradford, U.K., but he’s lived in Germany for 25 years. He’s a joint speaker of the Linke Berlin International Group, which politically organizes non-Germans living in Berlin. He joins us today. Phil, thank you so much for being here.

Phil Butland: Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to talk to you.

Kim Brown: So, can you start off by telling us about how you have been affected by the pandemic, and by the subsequent lockdown in Germany?

Phil Butland: Well, me personally is actually, it’s a biggie, because I’ve been sacked. They closed down various departments where I worked. I’ve been handed notice and told I don’t have a job anymore. There’s quite a lot of people who are like this. On a more general level, people are staying inside. The world has stopped. Okay, that’s for most people. But there are other people who are still forced to go into work, who are working under unsafe conditions. They reopened the schools this week, and so there’s a tension here between people trying to hide from the virus, and the attempt to push German business to carry on as normal.

Kim Brown: You say that you lost your job as a result of the lockdown caused by the pandemic. I’m curious, what is the German response to those who are unemployed? I know here in the U.S. we have, I think the number is at 26 million people who have applied for unemployment benefits, but state unemployment websites have been crashing, and therefore payments have been delayed. So, what has been the German governmental response to the unemployment issue there?

Phil Butland: Well, okay. There’s unemployment, and there’s people who have been sent back home, which are two different things. People who are sent back home come back to work after the thing is over. The German, they get [inaudible 00:03:57] of the wages, which I think it’s lower than the States. It’s the lowest rates in Europe. It’s lower than what the [inaudible 00:04:03] government in Britain is offering. The unemployment isn’t starting to hit much, but we’re going to see much more of it. I don’t know how many people. It was quite a complete surprise to us. I rather feel that our case, as in another, it’s not that we’re being sacked because of the virus. It’s because the virus is being used by some companies who would find it hard to get rid of people in other ways.

Kim Brown: So, the German healthcare system is widely praised. First of all, it has the highest number of intensive care unit beds outside of the United States.

Phil Butland: Yeah.

Kim Brown: There are many small hospitals that are within easy accessibility to large portions of the population. But in your article, you show that Germany has been slashing its healthcare budget. What are the reasons behind that action?

Phil Butland: Well, I mean, maybe to look at why Germany has so many beds, and the hospitals have been going so well. Hospitals are run on a state basis, not on a national basis, and there’s been various competition between different states, which has led to empty beds. This has caused the states to crack down, and to… And as I say, it’s not a new thing. In the last year, health was cut by 5%, but [inaudible 00:05:27] of the budgets went up. But we’re having 10, 20 years of privatization and cuts in different hospitals. In Berlin, which I know best because it’s where I live, a number of the hospitals which used to belong to the state have been semi-privatized. There’s been companies set up which formally belong to the state, but don’t have to give the same conditions.

So, yes. On the one hand, there are the free beds. On the other hand, the conditions for health workers have been terrible, and have been getting worse for more than the last year. What’s this mean? I guess now that the health workers are going on to 12 hour shifts and things, they are being put into a terrible condition, and work in wards which are already understaffed. What they’re doing is marvelous, but they really deserve a lot more government support than they have been getting.

Kim Brown: So, the lockdown is being enforced differently in different parts of the country. But you argue that living in Berlin, from your observations, and maybe from what you’ve heard or seen anecdotally, that Berlin police are more likely to detain people of color for violating the curfew. Why do you think that is, and why do you think that’s not a bigger story internationally?

Phil Butland: I think people are confusing that there are two different lockdowns going on. The one lockdown is what I’d call their lockdown, which is we have a very right-wing home office minister, interior minister, who has never been a friend of refugees, never been a friend of people of color. We also have [inaudible 00:07:15]. Germany is not unique in having a racist police force, but we do. And so, something which is part of daily, if you use public transport, you see people of color being rounded up generally. It’s now police and authority are feeling more able to do what they’ve been doing already.

The thing which is complicated is what I call our lockdown, which is that there is a push to… A lot of people were having to go into work. Even if you had a case of COVID-19 in your workplace, your boss could call you into work and say you’ve got to go into the workplace. With the schools now, and with the opening of small, middle-sized shops, there’s a big pressure for people to use public transport, for people to go into crowded workplaces, even though that they’re unsafe. And so, I think there’s a feeling of people who are reacting against this pressure, that they have got to put themselves in unsafe situations, and to, in a sense, accept that, “Oh, the police and the authorities must know what they’re doing,” because people feel very, very unsafe. So, it’s a situation where divisions which were already there are exacerbated, because people don’t know what to do. People feel powerless, and want someone to solve this problem for us.

Kim Brown: Finally, Phil, I want us to circle back to the economic crisis that the pandemic has caused, and furthermore, about the efforts used to curb infections in Germany. Because, you know, Germany commands more resources than any other nation in the E.U. How generous is Germany being with its neighbors, with its sister countries in the European Union, as it relates to sharing medical equipment, donating medical equipment, tests, et cetera?

Phil Butland: One thing before I answer that. Just, it’s overstated how well Germany is doing. I checked the figures today, just to make sure it’s still [inaudible 00:09:39]. Tests per million people, Germany has just under 25,000. That’s 31st in the world, between Slovenia and Singapore. Deaths per million, it’s a joint 22nd highest in the world. There have been over 6,000 deaths. So, the German rates are middling. It’s probably not as bad as the States, but it’s nowhere near as good as places like New Zealand and Iceland.

In terms of dealing with other countries, at the beginning, there was help with people in Italy and in France, who were allowed to use German hospitals. Regional governments have explicitly stopped that now with anti-foreigner rhetoric. We also have the case of Euro bums, which was an attempt to get the E.U. to solve this absolute crisis going on in southern Europe, in places like Spain and Greece, who were already suffering from the economic crisis, and who now have got pandemic in the country. It was German and Dutch governments who absolutely said, “The E.U. is not going to give any financial help to these people.” And so, while there’s been the odd cases of opening the hospitals, what’s most important to the German government is the German economy, and German control of the E.U. What we saw with Greece a few years ago is now being used for the bounds of power between Germany, and places like Spain and Italy.

Kim Brown: If you could for us, Phil, describe the German social safety net. I’m curious how generous Germany is being with its own citizens who are facing forced time off, reduced hours, unemployment, low income for freelancers. How does this compare… Whatever the German response is, how does it compare to other E.U. nations, and who is doing it the best in the European Union, in your opinion?

Phil Butland: Well, there’s what’s called [inaudible 00:11:38], which is the money you get for not going to work, and Germany stands at 60%, or 60%, 70% if you have kids, and Germany’s the worst. It’s the worst in Europe. It’s lower than Britain. It’s lower than Scandinavia and other countries. In terms of social securities, in general, your first year of unemployment is great. After that, you are again worse. Worst position in Europe. And in terms of… What was I going to say? I’ll come back to that when I remember what I was going to say.

In comparison with other countries, I really don’t… Now, I’m from Britain. I know the situation in Britain is horrible. I really think that all the European countries are carrying a profit motivator, that their main motivation is profit. So, I don’t think it’s a question of wanting to be like another government, another country. It’s wanting to be somewhere where the main concentration is on people’s health and well-being. It seems that places like New Zealand and Iceland, neither of which is in the E.U., are doing just slightly better. Spain seems to be doing okay. But I don’t think any other country has got it really right.

The one thing I was going to say before, which I think is important. The German health insurance is pretty good, if you’ve got health insurance. The official figures are that 80,000 people don’t, and that’s mainly refugees and the homeless. Unofficial figures, about 800,000 people don’t have health insurance, and so they’ve fallen through the gaps. In the States, I know you’re not going to find that scandalous, but someone from Britain who grew up with the Health Service, the fact that 1% of the population is absolutely having to pay all their costs from this, it appalls me. Maybe this is European privilege over the terrible situation that you have. But basically, the people who have been covered best are the middle classes, and the other people are suffering and will start to suffer more as this goes on further. Again, it’s the people who are being forced into work, and not the people who could do a home office from home. It’s construction workers. It’s people who work on the airports and things, which is crazy. They are the ones who are being put into danger.

Kim Brown: We’ve been speaking with Phil Butland. Phil is originally from Bradford, U.K., but he’s been living in Germany for the past 25 years. He is the joint speaker of the Linke Berlin International Group, which politically organizes non-Germans living in Berlin. His piece is titled Stop Telling Me Everything is Fine in Germany. It is a very good critique of how the German government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Phil, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you.

Phil Butland: Thank you. Just if I can get to the last plug in, my article and lots of other articles are on the website theleftberlin.com. We welcome anybody who comes and comments and engages in the dialogue.

Kim Brown: Absolutely. Real News gang, be sure to visit that website. Again, thank you for watching The Real News Network.