German federal and state governments continue “profits before life” policy despite high death toll and spread of Omicron variant

“The current developments are still very worrying, the number of serious illnesses and deaths will continue to increase and the available intensive care treatment capacity will be exceeded regionally. The situation can only be improved by intensifying contact restrictions and rapidly increasing vaccination rates.” This was how the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) described the current state of the pandemic in Germany in its latest weekly report.

Coffin in a crematorium in Meissen (AP Photo / Markus Schreiber)

On average, between 50,000 and 60,000 people are newly infected with the virus every day—more than twice as many as at the peak of the second wave last winter. On Friday, the RKI even reported over 70,000 cases within 24 hours. The number of deaths is also at a catastrophically high level at around 500 a day. Germany’s total death toll since the beginning of the pandemic surpassed 105,000 on Friday.

The situation in hospitals is especially dire. The number of COVID-19 patients receiving intensive care continues to rise and is now just under 4,900. This number has more than tripled since mid-October. The German Hospital Association (DKG) is already warning that the highest number of ICU patients during the second wave of 5,762 will be reached again.

There are currently fewer free intensive care beds than at any other point in the pandemic. The share of free intensive care beds is only 10 percent nationally, which is considered to be the limit of the hospitals’ ability to respond. Regionally, some hospitals are already overloaded. More than 75 percent of planned operations have been postponed (including cancer operations) and COVID-19 patients are being moved to hospitals in federal states with lower infection levels.

The intensive care doctor and scientific director of the Divi intensive care register, Christian Karagiannidis, told DPA that the situation worries him, especially due to the Omicron variant. In the intensive care registry, only 921 available intensive care beds were specifically identified for COVID-19 on Wednesday afternoon.

Schools are a central driver of the infection wave. The 7-day incidence among 5- to 14-year-olds is currently 1,100 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. This means that more than 1 percent of students in this age group are newly infected every week. According to the Conference of Education Ministers, 103,000 students are currently infected—more than four times as many as a month ago. One in 40 students was in quarantine due to being infected or a contact person within the past week. There were also 7,700 COVID-19 and 4,000 quarantine cases among teachers. This number has also more than quadrupled in one month.

The situation is all the more dangerous, since the even more infectious Omicron variant, which is spreading worldwide, has also been found in schoolchildren in Germany. On Wednesday, eight COVID-19 cases were reported at a Düsseldorf high school, one of which was confirmed to be the variant first detected in southern Africa. Another case was confirmed in a schoolboy just 50 kilometers away in Dinslaken. In the Kleve district, two children had to be hospitalized after being infected with the variant.

All the scientific findings available to date about Omicron indicate that it is not a “mild,” but a highly contagious and aggressive variant. In view of the severe symptoms experienced by children due to Omicron in South Africa, it is to be feared that the variant is “not harmless,” warned the virologist Christian Drosten on Tuesday on NDR Info. “It could be that the severity of the disease is not only not reduced. It could even be that the severity of the disease is worse.”

The variant has the “worst combination” of properties: immune escape and improved fitness - a variant that can both evade the immunity of people who are vaccinated or have recovered from the disease, while also being more contagious. The variant is spreading so quickly that it will be “our problem” as early as January, according to Drosten.

The governments that are responsible for the current situation are also aware of the dangers posed by this situation. On Wednesday, the new Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (Social Democrats, SPD) declared, “We have to assume that the omicron variant is particularly dangerous for children—unfortunately that is the case—that the Omicron variant not only spreads faster, but unfortunately affects children more and will therefore also lead to more hospital admissions.”

The dire situation and Lauterbach’s own statements underline how urgent a hard lockdown is in order to contain the infection rate and end the mass deaths. The ruling class, however, opposes all measures which in any way jeopardize the profits of big business and the stock markets. The first measure of the traffic light coalition—even before they officially took over the business of government—was to end the “epidemic emergency” and thus the legal basis for the necessary measures. Lauterbach voted for the repeal and has since then repeatedly spoken out against the closure of schools and businesses.

This is the maxim of all parties in the federal parliament and the federal and state governments. The federal-state meeting on December 9 did not decide on any new protective measures and only agreed to further evaluate the situation. The Conference of the Ministers of Education (KMK) spoke out explicitly on Friday in favor of keeping schools and universities open. “For the education ministers of the federal states, continuous face-to-face teaching at schools ... continues to have the highest priority,” declared the official document of the KMK. The same applies to the “face-to-face” courses at universities.

The most recent “improvements” to the Infection Protection Act, which were passed in the federal parliament on Friday, will not even begin to help contain the pandemic significantly. In addition to workplaces and schools, fitness centers, indoor swimming pools and football stadiums with up to 15,000 spectators can remain open regardless of the infection rate. Only restaurants, bars and clubs can be closed again under the amended law.

The focus of the measures is on vaccination. From mid-March, a vaccine mandate for healthcare personnel will come into force. Vaccination is an important tool in combating the pandemic and, as part of a strategy to eradicate the virus, can have a major impact. However, as part of the current “profits before life” policy, it cannot have any appreciable effect in ending the pandemic.

This is true for a number of reasons. To begin with, the government’s announcement that it is accelerating the vaccination campaign is nothing but a farce. In fact, fewer than 70 percent of the people in Germany have been vaccinated twice, which means that almost 25 million people have no protection whatsoever. Only 18.7 percent or 15,555,364 people had received the urgently needed booster vaccination as of Friday. Millions of people who are desperately trying to get a vaccination appointment have to wait until January or February due to a lack of capacity.

The vaccine mandate in the healthcare system will come into force so late that it will not be a means of containing the currently rampant fourth wave of the pandemic. In addition, a strategy that relies solely on vaccination will lead to the emergence of new, even more contagious virus variants. With Omicron, people require a third vaccine dose to have protection against infection and the pharmaceutical companies are having to adapt their vaccines. If the virus continues to spread freely, it is only a matter of time before another variant completely undermines the protection provided by current vaccines.

Nevertheless, the “profits before life” policy, which has already cost tens of thousands of lives in Germany and threatens many more, is supported and implemented by all government parties and the trade unions. In essence, it corresponds to the agenda of the right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has long called for the lifting of the “epidemic emergency” and the end of all lockdown measures. Significantly, the established parties have left the running of the health committee in the new parliament to the AfD.

These dangerous developments underline that workers and young people must intervene into political affairs themselves to fight the pandemic. The meeting of the Network of Rank-and-File Committees for Safe Education last Wednesday showed how resistance to the catastrophic consequences of the official pandemic policy is growing. The decisive task now is the establishment of independent rank-and-file committees in schools and workplaces to take up the fight for safe jobs and education and the global elimination of Covid-19. The focus must be on the measures that the WSWS formulated in a recent statement:

· All non-essential production must be stopped immediately until the coronavirus is under control. Workers must continue to receive their wages and, if possible, work from home. If that is not possible, they must receive full sick pay.

· Small and medium-sized enterprises as well as service providers must receive full reimbursement for their loss of earnings caused by the temporary shutdown of non-essential production.

· Closing schools and teaching in digital form. Billions have to be made available to give every child and young person a modern laptop, high-speed internet and a safe and comfortable learning environment at home.

· The public health system must be massively expanded and strengthened with tens of thousands of new employees. Anyone infected or exposed to the coronavirus must have access to medical care to monitor symptoms and be able to safely quarantine.

· Billions must be made available to set up a global vaccination program. The distribution of the vaccine must be carried out by scientists and public health experts charged with protecting the entire world.