Germany: less "Thatcherism", fewer deaths

Submitted by AWL on 13 April, 2020 - 9:00 Author: A reader in Germany

Despite many years of public service cuts, privatisation (including of hospitals), outsourcing, cuts to social security, and so on, Germany still hasn’t really had full-on Thatcherism.

Remnants of the “German model” of so-called “social partnership” still exist. The number of hospital beds is much higher than in Britain, partly for that reason, and partly for another.

The private concerns, in some cases multinational, or church organisations, that have taken over many clinics across the country are a strong lobby, and they earn well from patients and their health insurance schemes (and even more out of private patients).

The German model of “social insurance” as opposed to a welfare state is based on government subsidies for your treatment by profit-oriented businesses. When the hospital is paid per day, it makes sense for the owners to keep people in as long as possible. And so more beds.

In a crisis like this, it is good that these beds exist, though Berlin is getting its own “Nightingale Hospital” in the city’s exhibition centre and mothballed hospital buildings are being rapidly refitted.

Housing here is generally of a much higher quality than in Britain. Damp is rare. People don’t die of the cold because they cannot afford to heat their flats adequately. Homelessness does exist, but homeless families do get housed, and not in squalid “hostels”. Pneumonia and transmission of the virus because of housing-related poverty must be fairly low.

Germany also does not have mass fake self-employment like in Britain (meaning fewer people are working when they should be at home). Cross-EU coordination may have helped.

Figures now suggest around 60,000 tests per day. At the start of the crisis it was difficult for patients with symptoms to get tested. Now the testing machines are gradually wearing out and getting test results often takes many days.

The relatively large amount of testing is possible not because of any technological developments from giant firms like Bosch and Roche, but because of 170 mostly private laboratories of various sizes across the country which can test for Covid-19.

There are however no national statistics, not even for the exact numbers of people tested or numbers of tests carried out. Some reports suggest the numbers of confirmed infections and deaths may not include people who are tested at GPs or cases from care homes, i.e. many elderly cases.

The federal and state governments – which do not do daily press conferences: those are left to the scientists – are keen to remind people that medically we are still in “the calm before the storm”.

A lot of the problems in Britain exist here, though quite possibly at a less serious level (and have improved over the last weeks). There is a severe lack of PPE, virus-killing disinfectant, and swabs. There have been incidents of elderly-care homes and indeed hospitals where a mass breakout has affected residents and patients as far as death.
There are other problems special to Germany: the lockdown decrees vary considerably across the country, and public health authorities in poorer areas are underfunded and lack vital staff.

For the time being, the federal government seems to be sparing no expense to keep social peace. Six weeks’ sick pay at 100% is normal, longer illnesses mean around two-thirds of previous earnings for 72 further weeks. In the crisis, the rules on Kurzarbeitergeld have been relaxed.

Kurzarbeitergeld is essentially a present to businesses, as it means workers can be (effectively) laid off on about two-thirds of their previous wage, paid for from the unemployment benefit system, without the workers becoming officially unemployed.

Kurzarbeitergeld for public service workers has now been raised to 90%, and the government is calling for pay increases for shop workers, health service workers, and careworkers. Most careworkers are not covered by union agreements because of their very low union density.

Schemes have been created to quickly aid small businesses, with fairly unbureaucratic and almost-immediate interest-free loans which will also be written off in the future if they cannot be paid back. Others who are not part of the usual benefits system have had schemes quickly developed for them. It is being discussed whether students who have lost their jobs will be able to claim unemployment benefit or get interest-free emergency loans, and those students who get grants or loans are now able to earn more (in “system-relevant sectors”) without deductions.

People can put off paying the rent or utility bills if they cannot afford to pay, which will be a reality for many on Kurzarbeit. Applications for certain benefits often to take a very long time. At the same time some health and safety and working-time rules have been “relaxed” to the detriment of working people.

The lesson for Britain: underfunded public services, along with benefit cuts and abolition of “red tape”, mean people – generally the poorest and the most vulnerable - unnecessarily die.

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