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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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now