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June 23, 2020

GERMANY: Watch Westphalia to gauge the second wave

BY Carsten Nickel

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The regional state government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has put the local district of Guetersloh back on full lockdown today. Schools had already closed again, and as of today, nurseries, cinemas, bars and restaurants, swimming pools and gyms will follow. Only two people of different households will be allowed to meet in public, representing a return to the social distancing regime that was in place Germany-wide at the height of the pandemic in March. Some 360,000 people are affected by the measures in the district of Guetersloh, and some restrictive measures have also been imposed on the neighboring district of Warendorf.

At the root of the lockdown is Germany’s largest meat production facility, which is located in a town within Guetersloh district. Out of some 7,000 employees, around 1,500 have so far tested positive. Amid low temperatures and an extremely industrialized, low-cost production process, working conditions are notoriously dire in Germany’s meat industry. Workers mostly hail from Central and Eastern Europe and are formally employed via subcontractors, thus undercutting minimum-wage requirements. This matters from a pandemic perspective, because employers tend to subtract rental fees from workers’ wages, often placing large groups in small and often run-down apartment blocks. These blocks, in turn, can often be located in quite some distance from production facilities, creating the risk that the virus may (or has already) spread on a geographically larger scale. So far, however, only 24 people outside the meat factory have tested positive in Gutersloh district.

The lockdown will, for now, last until 30 June. The crucial signpost to watch is whether the new outbreak can be contained on the local district level with today’s measures. If this were to prove impossible, the NRW government in Duesseldorf would probably have to consider moving back to restrictive measures either in the entire region of Westphalia, or perhaps all of NRW – Germany’s largest state with a population of around 18mn. The coming week or two will thus be crucial for gauging what the previously discussed risk of a second wave may mean in terms of size and restrictions.

This is also where some previously discussed risks of short-term politics come in. NRW state premier Armin Laschet is one of the main contenders for the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). In an undeclared battle for the Merkel succession at the chancellery, Laschet had positioned himself as the liberal, pro-reopening alternative to Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder. This might explain why the NRW government was relatively slow to proceeded with the full local lockdown; this politics should also be watched as the Dusseldorf government might have to continue with its current U-turn.

Regarding the longer term, the government in Berlin is currently working on legislation to ban the subcontracting model in the meat industry. However, the supply of food at cheapest prices is a key building bloc of Germany’s larger, hyper-competitive business model. While the standard debate around Eurozone politics regularly tends to discuss transfers from the “rich” north to the “poor” south, many workers in Germany pay a hefty price for overall high degrees of employment and competitiveness: their wealth and income levels can often be much lower than those of their south European counterparts. Pandemic challenges to the model of cheap food production might, therefore, have ramifications beyond the virus.

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