Why are coronavirus rates so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

As Germany battles a second wave of Covid-19, a pattern has begun to emerge: Many of the hardest-hit places are those with strong support for the far right. Is this a coincidence, or is something else happening?

Why are coronavirus rates so high in German regions with far-right leanings?
Bautzen in Saxony has one of the highest incidence rates of coronavirus in Germany. Photo: DPA

“It is striking that the worst affected regions are those with the highest AfD vote” in 2017's general election, says Marco Wanderwitz, the government commissioner for the former East German states.

Wanderwitz himself hails from Saxony, which had the highest incidence rate in Germany at 319 on Tuesday – well above the national average of 114, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control centre.

The anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is increasingly taking aim at government measures to tame the virus, achieved its highest vote share of 27 percent in the same state three years ago.

But Saxony is not the only region with both high infection rates and big backing for the far right.

'Strong statistical correlation'

A team from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena has embarked on a study on the “strong and very significant statistical correlation” between AfD support and the intensity of the pandemic, its director Matthias Quent said on Twitter.

However, “there could be factors that explain the high AfD results and at the same time the high incidence rates” without the two necessarily being linked, the researcher cautioned.

The proportion of elderly people and large families, the presence of cross-border commuters and the organisation of the care system, which differs between states, could also influence the intensity of the pandemic, he said.

Nevertheless, the trend is significant and more pronounced in Germany's second wave due to wider general distribution of the virus.

The Covid-19 situation in Saxony has become so critical that local authorities on Tuesday announced a slew of tougher restrictions, with schools, kindergartens and many shops closed from next week.

READ ALSO: German state of Saxony to close schools and shops as coronavirus situation worsens

In cities such as Görlitz and Bautzen, where the far right attracts more than one in four voters, the incidence rate is around 500.

Meanwhile, in the gentrified state capital Leipzig, where the Greens are winning the race against the far right in opinion polls, the infection rate was close to the federal average on Tuesday at 140.

Björn Höcke, party leader of the AfD Thuringia, at the AfD's recent party conference. Photo: DPA

Scepticism rife

Scepticism about the virus and measures to contain it is rife in Saxony, the birthplace of the Islamophobic Pegida movement — including among medical personnel and economic decision-makers.

In Bautzen, celebrity entrepreneur Jörg Drews, who runs a local construction company, has been pouring his profits into “alternative media”, according to the ARD broadcaster.

The Regen district in Bavaria, for example, had the highest incidence rate in Germany on Tuesday at 579. Three years ago, it also gave the AfD its highest score in Bavaria at more than 16 percent.

In Gelsenkirchen, the AfD's biggest stronghold in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the incidence rate is three times higher than in the neighbouring city of Muenster (169 versus 56).

Meanwhile, in the districts with the lowest infection rates, mostly in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, the AfD vote is less than eight percent.

'Burqas for all'

The AfD is the only German political party to have openly displayed scepticism of – and opposition to – virus restrictions.

AfD lawmakers have voiced opposition to wearing masks in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, for example, with one calling them “burqas for all”.

More than half of AfD voters (56 percent) consider Germany's virus restrictions to be excessive, according to a recent Forsa poll.

The far-right party has also been linked to the Querdenker or “Lateral Thinkers” movement, the umbrella group for most of Germany's sometimes violent anti-shutdown demonstrations since the outbreak of coronavirus.

READ ALSO: Scientists plead for 'hard lockdown' in Germany as fears grow over Covid-19 spike at Christmas

Almost a third of such protesters plan to vote for the AfD in national elections in 2021, according to a study for the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“The link between the conspiracy theorists and the far-right scene is unfortunately logical, because they share many theories,” Miro Dittrich, a researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation fighting racism and extremism, told AFP.

“They both believe a small elite is secretly controlling events to the detriment of the 'Germans',” he said.

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.