Europe is in Lockdown. What Should the Left Do?


Europe at the moment feels like a neoliberal dystopia: People can go to work, to the mall, or to church — and nowhere else. There are effective ways to stop the pandemic — but capitalist governments refuse to even consider them.

A discarded facemask in front of a large lit Euro sign in Frankfurt
PHOTO: Michael Probst / AP

Europe is in the middle of a deadly second wave of the pandemic. Yesterday, the UK, Italy, and Germany each had more than 10,000 new cases — higher numbers than were ever reached in the spring. There is now one Covid-19 death every 17 seconds in Europe. As a result, each European country is announcing new restrictions. Since the beginning of November, Germany has been in what people are calling a “lockdown light”: Museums, theaters, restaurants, and bars have to shut down entirely. But schools, shops, offices, and factories remain open.

Germany now prohibits more than ten people, coming from more than two households, to meet up — even outside. Yet an unlimited number of people can meet inside if they are at work or attending a religious service. So we are faced with a kind of neoliberal dystopia: in Berlin, the New Museum is closed, but IKEA is packed. People can go to work, to the mall, or to church — and nowhere else.

The numbers of new Covid-19 cases in Germany were exploding, topping 20,000 per day at the end of October. With the new measures that took effect on November 1, these numbers have leveled off. But they are not going down either. As the days get shorter and colder, resignation sets in. It feels like nothing can be done to stop the pandemic. People watch helplessly, knowing there will be tens of thousands of additional deaths before a vaccine is widely available sometime next year.

Lockdowns Work

The thing is: every state that has seriously attempted to eliminate Covid-19 has been successful. The list includes South Korea, China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, and surprisingly many others. Most of these countries were confronted with serious outbreaks. Now, they are at or close to zero cases.

What is the secret? Westerners might claim that China was only successful because it has an authoritarian regime—but that is not the case in Australia. Could New Zealand only stamp out the pandemic because it is an isolated island? But that does not apply to Vietnam. Many of these countries had the experience of responding to SARS in 2003-04. Thus, they decided that the pandemic could be beaten.

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Covid-19 arrived in Europe in January, and soon there were catastrophic scenes in Bergamo in northern Italy. Europe shut down in March — but most restrictions were lifted in May, before the virus could be eliminated, or at least contained to a point where each new infection could be tracked. Instead, the virus was allowed to spread, slowly but consistently.

European governments argued that it was necessary to reopen their economies. There was always a spirit of defeatism: it is simply impossible to contain Covid-19! Or even better: we could have done this back in March, but now it is too late!

As the second wave arrived with the fall — and there was never any doubt that it would — it became clear that European governments had made no real preparations. In Germany, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is neither sufficient testing capacity nor enough personnel for contact tracing.

The “lockdown light” that began on November 2 is not intended to prevent people dying from Covid. Rather, the goal is to maintain as much economic activity as possible — and then, in that framework, to space out the death. As a result, hundreds of people can still gather in enclosed spaces. The only requirement is that they are generating profits for a capitalist. Shops are full and public transport is packed. Schools remain open so their parents can be exploited at work.

Governments never tried to stop the virus — just to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. This “strategy,” if it can even be called that, was intended to “save the economy” at the cost of a few hundred thousand lives. But even from the perspective of cynical bourgeois politicians, this policy has been an absolute disaster. In fact, the only reason that EU politicians are not being chased by angry mobs is that they can point to the U.S.: “Hey, it could be worse!”

The countries that stopped the pandemic — often with 2-3 months of a serious lockdown — are also the ones with the best economic outcomes. It turns out that even without restrictions in place, people do not like to go to the mall if it means risking death for themselves or their families.

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As a result, the half-lockdowns will likely continue indefinitely. And this is leading to a dangerous rise in irrationality. In Germany, tens of thousands of people have joined demonstrations against any kind of public health measures. They are getting support from far-right parties, soccer hooligans, and open Nazis. Politicians blame this on social media — but it is also a response to obviously contradictory policies. People wonder: If the virus is really so dangerous, why would the government allow workplaces to remain open? The answer is obvious: because capitalist politicians are more concerned about the profits of the capitalists than the lives of workers. They would literally let you die to save the balance sheet. But since there is no mass socialist party explaining what is going on, a sector of the population is drawing the opposite conclusion: then the virus must not be so bad. (Or alternatively: then the virus doesn’t exist at all.)

A Left Alternative

The example of Australia shows that even with a weak initial response to the virus, it is possible for a government to stop the pandemic. In Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, the number of cases was growing exponentially in July. The state government implemented a lockdown that shut down most non-essential activities. After almost 100 days of lockdown, Melbourne reached zero cases. Zero!

As Omar Hassan reported in Red Flag, “lockdowns work.”

The lockdown in Victoria was opposed by capitalists big and small: huge corporations financed campaigns, but got owners of cafés or cosmetic studios to speak for them. These petty capitalists would demand to open their businesses even though they knew this would lead to preventable deaths. This says a lot about how capitalism can turn people into monsters. For petty bourgeois like this, the system has made it so that keeping a tiny shop open really is a question of “life and death”

But what about the costs of lockdowns? A society needs to produce in order to survive. Lockdowns mean that many people lose their jobs and thus lose the ability to get their most basic needs met. and more so for a society. That is why the Left needs to campaign for a complete prohibition of layoffs during the pandemic, as well as quarantine wages for everyone. Essential workers need to get hazard pay — as well as a drastic reduction in hours by hiring more people to do essential work. Imperialist states are giving billions to corporations. This money needs to go straight to working people. Rather than propping up private companies, we need to be taking them under public control.

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What about the effects of lockdowns on mental health? But it is not the case that keeping businesses open during a pandemic is a good alternative. To quote Hassan, “How exactly would allowing the virus to kill thousands of our families, friends and workmates improve our collective mental health?” Instead, we need to create spaces where people can quarantine in peace and safety. This means turning hotels into shelters. This means providing every single person high-speed internet with free access to services like Netflix and Zoom. Therapy, education, and cultural experiences need to be made available to everyone.

The experiences of countries that are beating the pandemic shows: working people are willing to accept even severe lockdown measures — if, and this is crucial, they have a perspective of being effective. A lockdown of 2-3 months is enough to get the number of cases low enough that comprehensive tracing is possible. And then, economic life can resume.

Two Errors

The Left can make two mistakes in responding to the pandemic. One is to oppose all government measures in general, in the name of defending democratic rights. But collective actions, based on mass solidarity, are necessary to save lives — and living is the most important democratic right of all. Sections of the Left who join in protests against Covid restrictions (and thankfully, it appears that there are not many) are only useful idiots of big and small capitalists happy to massacre the ruling class.

A second, equally serious error would be to uncritically support lockdowns by capitalist governments, or police repression against right-wing counter-protestors. Reformists have often proclaimed a kind of “national unity” for the duration of the pandemic. Die LINKE, the Left Party in Germany, has virtually refused to criticize the government since Covid-19 arrived, despite its continuous failures. In a crisis, the political independence of the working class is more important than ever. 

As Leon Trotsky said, “In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie.” In other words, when a bourgeois government is imposing necessary public health measures, the working class needs to fight for control of the implementations — for a working-class program to stop the pandemic. This would include workers’ control of all lockdown measures. What sectors are truly “essential” and what kinds of restrictions are necessary? Workers’ representatives — and not the hated and corrupt agents of the ruling class called the “police” — need to enforce these restrictions. This would also mean putting the distribution of all public money under the control of elected representatives of the working class. Should billions go to shareholders or workers? This would be a step toward the working class taking control of society, getting rid of the capitalists and their governments who let hundreds of thousands die to maintain their profits. 

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.