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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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.