The Only Honest Way Out of the Corona Crisis and the False Promises of the “Relax the Measures” Lobby
The exit strategy sold to us by the relax-the-measures lobby does not lead out of the corona crisis but instead to a second more severe wave of infection and makes the economic crisis a permanent one. This entails risks for everybody’s health as well as the economy. A realistic way out of the crisis would be #stopthevirus.
The calls for relaxing the measures are getting louder. The dynamics of this process are not characterized by a pause after individual relaxations. To the contrary, every relaxing of measures increases the vehemence with which further relaxing is demanded. If small shops are allowed to open, why are supermarkets not? If supermarkets are allowed to open, why are restaurants not? Well, and if restaurants can open why not hotels too? If more employees are required back at their workplace their children need to be taken care of which gets in conflict with closed kindergartens. Religious believers can barely endure that shopping is possible again but not attending church. From a human perspective all of this is more than understandable. The disappearance of all revenues through closure poses existential risks for bars, shops, freelancers and cultural institutions. I understand the desire of many parents to re-open schools and pre-schools and experience it as much at home that the combination of home office and homeschooling – as nice as it is to be at home with the kids – is demanding. Not even to think of parents with more than one kid or single parents.
The course of the release-the-measures lobby
The desire to re-open is completely understandable. Many politicians, like Christian Lindner, Armin Laschet but also the AfD now tie on this and enforce debates about a relaxation. This stirs up hope for a return to the old normal before Covid-19. This yearning is not alien to me as well. How delightful would it be if my parents could finally hug their granddaughter again? I am rooting for friends whose financial existence is threatened at the moment. Yet, what Lindner, Laschet, and co. sell us as an exit strategy does not lead out of the corona crisis. This wave of relaxing measures threatens to flush us into a second more severe wave of infections. This entails risks for everybody’s health as well as the economy.
Merkels course of a slowed down infection rate
Contrary to the lobbyists of easing the measures Angela Merkel banks on careful relaxations. Yet, basically the course of the federal government follows the same pattern: one step forward – wait and see – and then maybe one step back again. Back and forth – this is how you adjust the optimal volume on a volume control but does society work like this? I am skeptical and fear that the side effects are ignored. Already the constant debate about possible relaxations leads for many to the impression: Phew, now that everyone talks about easing we can all be more relaxed about protection from infection. Bit by bit, thus, all dams break in everyday life. (I admit that I observed this effect for me as well.)
Even if Merkel seems to be more reflective than Laschet, Lindner, and co, her course eventually does not aim at stopping the virus but rather to flatten the infection curve. In social media this strategy became known as #flattenthecurve. This course requires a reproductive rate around one. Which means that one infected person on average maximally infects one other person. This course has the advantage of not overwhelming intensive care units but the disadvantage that the partial restrictions will be extended over a longer duration. To boil it down: Angela Merkel, too, aims for a high level of infection among the population albeit a slowed down one. But is this really the right way?
The price of a high level infection rate
In the US the conservative politician Dan Patrick already announced publicly: Grandparents should be ready to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. This is dehumanized market radicalism thought through to the end. Until now the question how many human lives the restart of the economy is worth has rather been blocked out or argued away in Germany. The mayor of Tübingen, Boris Palmer, on the other hand, a couple of days ago took the same line saying that through the restrictions we “possibly save people which will be dead in six months anyway – due to their age or pre-existing conditions”. Following this argument we could basically leave any life-extending measures in medicine.
Others are less straight forward. Many who are for an end of the restrictions consciously or unconsciously bank on herd immunity. To achieve it, around 70 percent of the population would have to contract Covid-19; this means around 57 million people. One could mention the fatality rates now and calculate how many would die until 70 percent of the population contracted the disease. Depending on the fatality rate one assumes, the number of deaths corresponds to either the number of inhabitants of Erfurt (ca. 210.000) or more than double the number of Dresden (540.000). Possibly, in the end it will be ascertained that the one time contraction of the virus does not even lead to permanent immunity. Until now science has no verified cognition about this.
Some say that simply the risk groups, often the elderly, should be isolated so that economic life continues for the rest. But whoever thinks that being under age of 60 and healthy prevents a deadly course of the disease, unfortunately errs. Fit 50 year olds are given artificial respiration and there are 40 year olds that die from the consequences of Covid-19. Do we really want a society where all risk groups live in complete isolation? And where do these thoughts lead? Additionally one has to consider that the more people carry the virus the higher the statistical risk for older people to catch it while grocery shopping.
We also do not know enough about possible long-term damage in those who count as recovered. To a minor request the representative of the health committee of the federal government confirmed that there are cases of severe lung damage after recovery. A study in different university clinics is currently conducted on that.
And do we really think economy would flourish again if infection rates explode and the number of deaths is rising?
Zigzag course is economic folly
The institute for macro economy and business activity research argues that the (long-term) costs of an early relaxation will be far higher than those of a slow and sustainable easing of measures: “Way more harmful than the longer lasting contact restrictions would be a short lockdown followed by a new and longer phase of contact restrictions”. With such a zigzag scenario the sum of sales shortfalls and business closures would be especially high. And yes, such a zigzag course is looming for us: The rushed relaxation leads to higher infection rates which will force the government to lock down again. It is foreseeable already how the lobby for relaxing the measures in CDU, FDP and AfD will undermine resolutions to then be admonished again and everything starts all over. This is not how long-term successful economic governance looks like – and this is what matters if we want to get out of this crisis in a sustainable way.
To bank on herd immunity is economically questionable and has a high human price to pay: from hundreds of thousands to over a million dead and possibly severe long-term damage for the recovered. Since no one here seems to really be willing to pay that price the question is rather superseded. One form of suppression is to dismiss any thoughts about the price of herd immunity as fear mongering. Or it is hoped that a vaccination will soon be available. There is high pressure research for it but a safe and extensive implementation of it is unfortunately unlikely before 2021.
Consistent towards corporations
Does that mean we should remain in lockdown until then? No, there would be a way out of the corona crisis: to stop the virus. Is this realistic after all? It is, in any case, more realistic and economically sounder than the course of the relax-the-measures lobby and the slowed down infection of the majority of the population. This country needs to allow itself a stop-the-virus policy to avoid a long lasting combination of permanent pandemic and economic crisis.
Therefore, the reproduction rate needs to be lowered under 0.5. A rate around 1 is not sufficient to stop the virus in the medium term. To achieve this goal the federal government needs to have the courage to give big corporations tough targets. Businesses like Amazon, for example, know that they will get away with being sloppy in their protection of workers health. The installation of virus barriers (e.g. Plexiglas windows to protect sales assistants) should be obligatory. The non-essential production possibly needs to be shut down for a couple of weeks. Testing capacity needs to be massively extended in any case.
In short, the government has to decide to interfere with the economy. To give an example: since months an enormous demand for medical masks is foreseeable (the FFP2 and 3 models which effectively protect the wearer). A government which has the courage to govern the economy would have taken measures to increase the production of those masks either by giving incentives or, in a pinch, by interfering with the ownership rights in the production area. This is eventually about the health protection of the whole population.
The government also has to interfere when after the corona crisis the debate will be around who is to carry the costs of today’s necessary measures. There is a historical reference for this.
In 1952 Konrad Adenauer introduced a single property levy in the context of the burden sharing for the displaced and damaged of the Second World War. It accounted for 50(!) percent of the taxable base (property minus allowances) on property of 1948. The payment ensued over 30 years which in fact enabled a payment from revenues. This measure was an important precondition for the West German economic miracle in the 50s.
It is said that the corona pandemic is the biggest challenge since the Second World War. Therefore, we should let ourselves be inspired by this example and use this single property levy which is expressively allowed for in the basic law. We should mainly tax the richest one percent of the population for this. In no case may the costs of the crisis be passed on to those which today are celebrated as “system relevant” but mostly earn under average. To act against an economic recession it is necessary that after corona we say farewell to austerity instruments and debt brake and instead implement a future investment program for climate protection and social infrastructure.
Social protective umbrella
This way out of the corona crisis cannot start with relaxing measures but with an effective social protection for all people. Important parts of such an umbrella are short-time allowances which correspond at least to 90 percent of the former salary; a transitional allowance for all self-employed, freelancers, mini jobbers and artists who currently have no income; a 200 euro corona surcharge on all monthly social benefits and a corona parental allowance for all parents which can only partly follow their work in home office due to closed kindergartens and schools or a guaranteed continued pay.
This social protection should allow a policy of giving options to those which are hit the hardest by the restrictions. Naturally, there should be emergency care for children of single parents. More safe spaces are needed for people exposed to domestic violence. The occasional visit to a care home, strictly adhering to infection protection rules, must be possible: Either by open air visits guaranteeing the minimum distance or by installing boxes for visitors where the elderly can meet their grandchildren. Such a model is run in Saxony already. To make this a nation-wide solution the federal government has to fund the installation measures.
To exclude misunderstandings: To stop the virus does clearly not mean that infection protection should be abused as a pretext to sweepingly lever out any political protest or democratic basic rights as the right to assembly or labor right standards as the 8-hour working day. In the meantime, many initiatives have developed forms of protest which send clear messages and are still compatible with infection protection. Fridays for Future for example, instead of a demonstration with many people, chose a strong image of countless self-made posters on the lawn in front of the Bundestag.
Stopping the virus will not be easy but it is eventually the only honest way out of the corona crisis. The social protection necessary for this will initially cost us a lot. To stop the virus eventually will cost as way less than the false promises of those wanting to relax the measures and less than the imminent zigzag course of relaxation and shutdown – less euro and definitely less lives. Therefore, we need to get out of the spiral of the relaxation debate and start a serious conversation about how we can stop the virus, which drastic action towards corporations will be necessary and which social protection we apply.