Vaccines, violence and the far-right: A visit to Germany's COVID infection capital

A protester holds up a poster reading "Against Coronazis" during a demonstration against the government's coronavirus curbs, earlier this month in Leipzig, Germany. Credit: STRINGER - AFP
As pressure in Germany grows to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, residents of Saxony are grappling with the highest infection rates, the lowest rates of vaccination – and a rise in antisemitism related to the pandemic

By Danel Lushi, Leipzig, Saxony

Frauke and Peter are confused. On Monday, new coronavirus regulations are taking effect in the German state of Saxony, and they aren’t exactly sure what that means for their little book store. It will remain open, but from now on they may have to politely turn away unvaccinated customers.

“In the spring, bookshops were like shops for food. And I hope this will apply to ours also. We don’t know, we don’t know,” Frauke tells Haaretz, in a mixture of English and German.

Saxony is located in the eastern part of the country and Dresden is its capital. It was the first German state to draw up rigorous regulations for contending with the current wave of COVID-19. The rules are so stringent that people who are unvaccinated are no longer allowed to enter leisure and entertainment venues including cafes or restaurants, even when presenting a negative coronavirus test. Last week, the authorities announced that they were going to expand these restrictions, which are called 2G, so that they would cover places of business not considered to be essential.

But what particularly worries Germans, as well as citizens of other European countries, are the harsh steps being taken by Austria, which declared a lockdown last week that applies not only to people who refuse to get vaccinated: Due to the worrisome rise in infection rates, a total lockdown is due to start Monday – encompassing the country’s entire population. Efforts to supervise implementation of the new restrictions have evoked harsh responses among the public, with demonstrations held in Vienna and Rotterdam, as well as other cities.

Germans are worried that Austria is setting the tone for a similar move in their own country. The main concern of the federal government and health system is the growing burden on hospitals and intensive care units as winter is approaching. According to data published by the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, there were more than 65,000 new cases of coronavirus infection during a 24-hour period last Thursday, a record since the beginning of the pandemic. The rate of infections across Germany, as of Thursday, averaged 336.9 new cases per 100,000 people, per week. According to that index, the state with the highest rate of infections was Saxony, where that number was over 760.

A spokesperson at Leipzig University Hospital told Haaretz: “Yes, we feel significant pressure. We fear the progression of the ‘fourth wave.’ Our medical staff is still motivated, we treat all patients equally. But now they know how hard it could be. We urgently ask everybody to get vaccinated! It is and will be the best way to control the pandemic.”

Antisemitism, too

So far, Germany, with a population of 83 million, has seen more than 5 million cases of COVID-19, with over 98,000 deaths; 68 percent of the population has been inoculated as per official guidelines. For its part, Saxony is contending not just with the highest infection rates in the country but with the lowest rates of vaccination – currently 58 percent. The situation in Leipzig, the largest city in the state, with 597,000 residents, does not reflect that in other regions. Whereas in Leipzig, considered a left-wing bastion, the rate of inoculation is 61 percent, in some rural areas in Saxony the rate is much lower – 45 percent.

Aiko Kempen, an independent investigative journalist, explains that Saxony has “the highest rate of infections because we have the lowest rate of vaccination. And I think there are various reasons for the low rate: One of them is the political situation in Saxony, where there are a lot of people who are kind of skeptical about government decisions, especially when the government is strict ... I think this is in contrast to East German history in some of these parts. You can see that the parts in Saxony with the lowest vaccination rates are the most eastern regions… These are also the regions where the Alternative for Germany, the rightist populist party, has its best results. There are also these theories about how vaccinations can make you sick, how the virus maybe doesn’t even exist. These are very, very popular.”

Almost 25 percent of the votes in Saxony in September’s national election went to the extreme right; in locales in the Leipzig area, by contrast, the rate ranged between 11 and 15 percent. A survey done by the Forsa Institute and published this month found that 50 percent of unvaccinated voters in Germany cast their vote for the right-wing AfD. Moreover, 15 percent described themselves as supporters of the Grassroots Democratic Party of Germany, aka dieBasis, which is associated with the Querdenker anti-inoculation and anti-lockdown protest movement; the party did not, however, pass the electoral threshold.

Over 20 right-wing people were reportedly arrested last month at a demonstration against coronavirus restrictions in Leipzig. RIAS, a federal association that researches and monitors acts of antisemitism, has noted that at many such protests, there are manifestations of antisemitic sentiment, trivialization of the Holocaust and support for antisemitic conspiracy theories. For example, in Offenbach in the federal state of Hesse, there was a report earlier this month of graffiti and stickers, some adorned with Nazi symbols, bearing slogans like: “Covid is a Jewish lie” or “Corona fake pandemic from Zionists.” As at protests earlier this year in Israel by people refusing to get inoculated, in Germany too demonstrators have worn yellow Star of David badges and compared themselves to the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Alexander Rasumny, a press spokesman at RIAS, explained to Haaretz that “generally, post-Shoah antisemitism is one of the most common forms of antisemitism in Germany, most often in the form of aggressive and defensive reactions against remembrance (of the Holocaust), although sometimes also in the form of reappraisal of Nazi crimes. This is particularly the case with antisemitism related to the COVID-19 pandemic, since it offers what we call an opportunity for historical revisionism.”

Between March 2020 and March 2021, RIAS documented more than 560 coronavirus-related antisemitic incidents – over 60 percent of them involving references to the Holocaust. Moreover, signs with the words “Impfen macht frei (Vaccination makes you free)” have been spotted at protests. One incident cited by RIAS involved a woman who didn’t wear a mask, who told a train conductor on a trip from Gottingen to Hanover: “This is like with the Jews in the Third Reich. They were bullied like that.”

As for right-wing protests against government policy during the pandemic, Kempen, the journalist, says: “I think it’s like a political maneuver that got out of hand. Because when COVID first came, the first thing the AfD said was that the government is not doing enough, that they had to do an immediate lockdown; they just wanted to criticize the government. And when the government said ‘COVID is important, COVID is dangerous, we have to do a lockdown’ – the AfD switched its position and tried to jump on the critics’ side and criticize everything the government does… In some ways, it’s just like this maneuver, they want to be against the mainstream.”

According to Jürgen Kasek, a lawyer and former chairman of the Green Party in Saxony, “it’s especially the right-wing front in eastern Germany that searches for moments like these to show the opposite and to try to use the struggle to win votes.” Such phenomena, he adds, echo events in the history of East Germany.

“In the beginning of the 1990s and 2000s, there were a lot of problems with neo-Nazism that no one talked about. This is the ‘seed’ the right wing has tried to use in the current situation, and especially in eastern Germany during the anti-corona (anti-vaccination) demonstrations. You have a lot of people from the right wing,” Kasek says.

Two hours from downtown Leipzig, the ground floor at one of the malls was not too busy on a recent morning. Some stores were still shut and very few customers had entered the ones that had opened. A quick glance at a one of the upper floors, however, showed quite a different picture: A huge line of people were waiting for the opening of the local COVID-19 testing center that had turned into an inoculation center that day. There was no signage directing people there. On the ground floor it was business as usual; upstairs, a pandemic.

Meanwhile, at another vaccination center, at Leipzig’s central station, Denny, 31, had been waiting for his booster shot for two hours. He wasn’t able to cite a specific reason for the low number of people getting vaccinated in his state: “That’s a hard question. I think Leipzig is a special situation because Leipzig is better compared to the other parts of Saxony,” he said. “Maybe people don’t feel the urge to get the vaccine because everything seems fine, I don’t know.”

The fourth wave is hitting Germany at a time when the “traffic-light coalition” – namely the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party – are trying to cobble together a coalition agreement this week, ahead of the expected election of SPD chief Olaf Scholz as chancellor. The three parties are pushing for further restrictions on unvaccinated people, including barring them from public transportation and internal flights.

Journalist Kempen is not optimistic. “I think it will get worse because the people who don’t want to get vaccinated are already using violence in many ways. The more they feel attacked by the government or society [and by] the people who believe that COVID is real – the more aggressive they get”.

Attorney Kasek also admits that mistakes were made. “At the moment we have a very large division in our society, and I do not see a clear line or strategy to tackle the protests. I think more people will be vaccinated if we improve the vaccination campaign: We need to talk more about the use and risks [of vaccination], tackle conspiracy theories and send more vaccination teams out.”