The question of whether to support, oppose or remain defeatist about Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the state divides not just the left, but our own collectives. The following report and thoughts do not represent an AngryWorkers position, but hopefully they’re another small contribution to the debate. We’ve already published this translation of a text by Sergio Bologna on the notion of a neoliberal kind of individual ‘freedom’ that is attached to much of the discourse and ideologies around the vaccine.
On a recent trip to Hamburg to visit old friends and comrades, I encountered another facet of the debate – this time concerning the Covid Passport, which restricts entry to unvaccinated people to public spaces like bars and restaurants. Bologna makes a distinction in his text between ‘freedom-loving anti-vaxers’ and those who are (rightly) nervous about the implications of state infringement on our movements and access to services based on our vaccine status. This is a pertinent issue in Germany, where this practice is fully in force and encountering a visibly vocal minority.
The small group of the comrades I visited in Hamburg had written a leaflet against these current covid restrictions (called G2/G3), which relate to different categories based on your vaccination status. Depending on the category you belong to, either G2 or G3, you can either access certain spaces or not. Within our own circles, some criticised the leaflet for giving too much leeway to anti-vaxers or knee-jerk ‘anti-state’ reactions. Personally, I appreciated the fact that the comrades had tried to engage with the current discontent about the state sanctions ‘from a working class point of view’, trying to understand what was actually moving people to take part in the protests.
I can understand peoples’ frustrations with the ongoing hassles that covid forces on us (although maybe not so much in the UK context, which has the most lax rules compared to other European countries – so far). But it really shows up if you want to travel abroad. Getting to Hamburg was stressful and expensive, paying 80 Euros extra for two flimsy tests, queuing in front of former fast-food stalls that had been converted into ‘test-centres’ by some start-up company, downloading yet another app, having to tell lies on UK and German government forms about where my friends live and where I would be staying. A hassle yes, but I’d have difficulty calling it ‘oppression’ or even a step towards a future digital dictatorship necessarily…
My trip happened to coincide with a big anti-G2/G3 demo in Hamburg. The comrades who had written the leaflet critiquing the covid passport restrictions (which has been translated below) were planning to attend, so in the spirit of research, I went along to see who was there and what was going on. The place is swarming with cops in riot gear. And the demo is big, between 15,000 and 20,000 people, this is the fifth protest, numbers have doubled each time. There aren’t many banners or placards from ‘organisations’; most people have self-made placards or just came as they were. Just looking at people, it isn’t easy to categorise them. Most of them don’t look too middle-class, neither hippie nor esoteric. Sure, some guys seem like hooligans, but the majority are just pretty ‘normal’, which includes Turkish women with headscarves. The official slogan of the protest is, ‘Leave our kids alone’, against the mandatory vaccination of children. Lefty critics of the demo immediately drew a parallel to QAnon. The most common word used on the self-made placards is ‘freedom’ and they kept on playing an awful song from the 90s with the same title. There was a lot about ‘rights’, ‘the constitution’ and ’no divisions’. There is a single German flag. Lots of references to the dystopia of 1984, but I didn’t see any arsehole wearing a Star of David. They announce from the loudspeakers that the cops have imposed the wearing of masks and that people should follow the orders, ‘even if wearing toe-rags doesn’t make a difference’, despite all evidence to the contrary. The next speaker complains about the fact that the G2/G3 sanctions have had a negative impact on small shops and that ‘the movement’ should try to involve more small shop-owners. Not too surprising!
I finally manage to find my comrades in the crowd. They have their own placards, emphasising that we should struggle collectively for better healthcare and better conditions as workers, rather than letting them divide us into vaccinated and unvaccinated people. They are level-headed people, a former docker turned warehouse worker, a nurse, a railway worker. One of them tells me that at work, covid rules have clearly divided the manual from the office workers. The white-collar workers are happy to meet with the boss in confined spaces without a mask on, on their one-day a week in the office when they come in rather than work from home. The same guys bully the ‘uneducated’ manual workers when they find them without a mask in the yard. He himself has been vaccinated, but he says that the cops have started to kick homeless people out of the trains and stations into the cold when they can’t show a covid-pass. The training courses for refugees are cancelled and people with mental health issues don’t get one-to-one support – if they are not vaccinated. He also tells me that as a group they haven’t had a public meeting for two years now, because they don’t want to check peoples’ vaccination status – something that they would have to do in order to get a venue.
The comrade who worked as a nurse and is now in medical teaching decided not to get vaccinated. She tells me that she tests herself each time she meets people, but that in order to go to work she wouldn’t be able to use home-tests. She would have to queue every day for up to an hour at a test centre. She says that up to now she was able to get these tests at her school for free, but that going forward she will have to go to a test centre and pay for the test. I suggest that we go and have something to eat after the demo in a restaurant near the station, but she reminds me that without the vaccination pass she wouldn’t be able to enter.
Whatever you might think about the effectiveness of vaccinations, the rules around them don’t seem too effective. A comrade who works as a physiotherapist was talking about how, if they’ve had the vaccine, they don’t have to self-isolate anymore (and stay off work!) after coming into contact with a patient who is covid positive, as was the case before. The fact that vaccinated people can get covid, as well, and infect others, is ignored.
Another speech from the loudspeaker van. The speaker complains that the lockdown has been imposed without consideration and has created more harm. More depression, alcoholism, untreated cancer. “This compares with 6,000 people over 60 who died with covid”. Statistics are bandied around quick and fast. Another speaker emphasises that the state had cut 150 intensive care unit beds in Hamburg hospitals, at the same time as imposing the G2/G3 rules. But these are the only references to collective issues. Unlike in Trieste in Italy or in France there is no group of workers demanding anything. Neither are there organised groups of petit bourgeois who want to keep their shops open. In an article I read on the flight to Hamburg, it said that the opposition to the G2/G3 restriction is most prevalent amongst FDP voters, the neoliberal party. To me, it didn’t seem like the protestors looked like they wanted to defend ‘the market logic’ as such. The feeling I get is that people are just fed up with the restrictions and with the arrogance of the state, but without really making the effort to think or articulate the need for alternatives. A lot of people complain about how their protest is presented in the media…
The demo comes to a halt. “Nazis raus!”, some Antifa shout at us. “Fucking morons!”, I think. ‘Nazis raus!’, the demo shouts back at them. The Antifa retaliates with “We will all vaccinate you!” There were surely some Nazis in the demo, some Reichsbuerger and what have you, but I think they were a pretty tiny minority. The Antifa will tell you that they dominate the social media and the Telegram channels which are used to mobilise for the demos. That might be true, but since when does social media dominate reality? The whole experience leaves me even more puzzled. I think that no working class revolutionary can stay away from bigger ‘self-organised’ protests against pretty draconian state measures. At the same time, the idea of ‘Freiheit’ that was carried in the demo has something ruthless to it. The fumbling continues.
Comrades in other towns had different impressions regarding the character and composition of these protests. In Dachau, a smaller town in Bavaria, there were no migrants in the demo and people seemed pretty middle-class. Efforts of the Stalinist MLPD to give the demo a ‘working class content’, by talking about workers’ issues with the G3 rules were ignored and the focus was on conspiracy theories around Soros and Gates. There was no use in talking to these people, also because they treated anyone wearing a mask with hostility. The demo seems in the hand of the right-wing AFD.
Introduction from comrades in Hamburg to their leaflet
There is a state of emergency in many hospitals in Germany. For several years, the trade union Verdi, together with regional alliances that campaign for more staff in the care and health sector, has been trying to enforce better minimum staffing levels in hospitals. In February 2020, Verdi threatened to go on strike in several hospitals, including at the University Hospital of Schleswig-Holstein. Due to the corona emergency at the beginning of March 2020, the strikes were called off by Verdi.
In summer 2021, there were large demonstrations by healthcare workers in Berlin and finally workers at the Charite and Vivantes hospitals went on strike in early autumn. [This has been a long-running campaign that always got close to strike but was then called off by the unions at the last minute.] Management’s usual strategy of passing on the cost pressure from the permanent hospital staff to the outsourced service workers doesn’t seem to be succeeding so smoothly anymore: in many cases, trade unions have tried to bring the outsourced workers back into the respective collective agreement of the general workforce. There is a lot of sympathy in society; everyone knows that the healthcare system is being driven to the wall by privatisation and cost pressure.
But now it’s back to a corona state of emergency. Nobody talks about strikes anymore. Instead, unvaccinated personnel are to be forced out of the industry. There are calls for German armed forces to ‘help out’ in hospitals and nursing homes.
This is how the state of emergency works: instead of ensuring (and funding) conditions and infrastructure that are oriented toward social needs, an existing problem is escalated, e.g. through austerity measures. The result of this is that a ‘crisis’ quickly aggravates into ‘catastrophes’, which trigger ‘state of emergencies’ in response. The state of emergency, although authoritarian, doesn’t really solve the problems, mind you! No, it only diverts the general discontent towards a scapegoat. This scapegoat is used to demonstrate how things will be in the future: it is not healthcare that has to be oriented to the needs of all people, but vice versa, people have the duty to adjust to whatever scarce resources are allocated by the political administration or management. Those who do not, or cannot, comply for whatever reason will be punished. Today it is the duty to be vaccinated, tomorrow to stop smoking, eating fatty food, lack of exercise is your own ‘fault’ that leads to punishment or exclusion from certain services. Of course, for the political administration it won’t be enough that people do adopt allegedly healthier ‘lifestyles’ simply out of self-interest; it has to be controllable, through vaccination certificates, fitness trackers and the like. Refusal of treatment, cost sharing, individualised health insurance rates, this is how it will continue.
As is usually the case, we have to look abroad to see more hopeful political initiatives. For example, in recent months on the squares of Trieste a fairly broad movement, mobilised largely by dock workers, was active against mandatory vaccination at the workplace, for an expansion of outpatient healthcare, and so on. Mind you: not against vaccination per se, but against the political measures that come along with it.
No to the extortion! No to G 1,2,3…+-…!
Continued payment of wages in case of illness and quarantine, breaks from work, free masks from the employer – many workers in Italy had to fight for such things at the beginning of the corona epidemic. They’ve experienced the fact that a certain standard of health and safety is not always given as a gift. This also makes them much more suspicious of government measures: the compulsory vaccination card (‘Green Pass’) at the workplace serves companies only as a pretext to be able to, once again, drop the stricter health and safety measures on the shop-floor. Why continue to take elaborate precautionary measures if I only have to employ ‘healthy’ people in the company?
Here in Germany there is hardly any public discussion about the increasing pressure to be vaccinated. The non-vaccinated remain largely invisible and the vaccinated are happy that, for them, the disease seems to be over and life as we knew it is back. Unfortunately, this will only be a brief illusion. The prime motivation of the Green Pass and other state measures, such as exclusions and monitoring, is not really medical. The state is increasingly transferring its sovereign tasks to private companies. If the state itself were to make specifications by law, they could in principle be challenged in civil courts. This is not possible with private companies. Take data protection, for example: there is no central government database on vaccination status – but there is an obligation to provide information to practically everyone. Data protection is therefore a thing of the past. Take freedom of speech, for example: media corporations are empowered to delete content or make it untraceable as they see fit. It is almost impossible to take legal action against them. Freedom of expression can now only be exercised within my own four walls. For example, a company actually has a duty of care towards its employees. Today, this is turned around and the employer is obligated to employ only ‘healthy’/‘harmless’ people by definition – this absolves the bosses from having to provide health and safety and welfare.
There are no simple answers to the question of how to find a way out of the crisis. We first want to start an open and collective discussion again about the society in which we all live.
– Is now a good time for you to push for better working conditions?
– Does the rampant Green Pass regime bring more security in everyday life? Is it an expression of greater consideration for health hazards at work? Do I myself want to be constantly monitored?
– Has the health (primary, clinical) care system worked well for you in the last two years?
What have the past almost two years brought us in our lives, what do we expect for the future?
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