Research shows that levels of social inequality in Germany could increase COVID-19 transmission rates among people experiencing poor living and working conditions. Evidence does not conclusively determine that poverty directly causes Germany’s COVID-19 cases. However, it is apparent to scientists and medical professionals that a large number of COVID-19 patients come from low socioeconomic standing. In 2015, 2.8 million German children were at risk of poverty. The influx of migrants flowing into Germany has also increased rates of poverty in Germany.
Poverty and COVID-19
According to the CIA World Factbook, 14.8% of the German population lives below the poverty line as of June 2021. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), the North Rhine-Westphalia area has the highest number of COVID-19 cases. The area is home to Gelsenkirchen, the most impoverished German city based on a 2019 report by the Hans Böckler Foundation.
Risks of Overcrowding
Overcrowded living areas are more susceptible to airborne illnesses, medical sociologist Nico Dragono said in an interview with The Borgen Project. In 2019, 8% of Germans lived in overcrowded dwellings, meaning there were fewer rooms compared to inhabitants. This percentage has increased in recent years, according to Statistisches Bundesamt (German Federal Office of Statistics).
In November 2020, statistics showed that 12.7% of the population residing in cities lived in overcrowded dwellings. Comparatively, 5.5% reside in small cities or suburbs and 4% reside in rural areas. Dragono says that social inequality in Germany plays a significant role in the spread of disease across the country’s large cities. This especially impacts those living in close proximity to others. “Infections clustered in the areas of the city where the poor live because there simply was no space,” Dragono says. He says further that with many people living in one household, traveling to school, work and other places holds an increased risk of bringing infections into the home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated on February 26, 2021, that COVID-19 is transferable through respiratory droplets from people within close proximity of each other. This puts those in poverty at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Those living in areas such as refugee camps and impoverished neighborhoods are especially vulnerable. Therefore, social inequality in Germany may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
Migrants Potentially at Higher Risk
Dragono says that, unlike the United States, Germany does not document patients’ ethnicities. In other words, Germany cannot collect the demographics of who contracts COVID-19. He said it appears the association between COVID-19 and social inequality in Germany is universal for migrants and non-migrants. However, many hospitals across Germany reported that close to 90% of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit have an immigrant background, according to Deutsche Welle.
“Migrants are more often poor because they do many of the bad jobs,” Dragono says. There are indications that COVID-19 is more prevalent in the areas inhabited by migrants. “Migrant workers, as they grow older, many have diseases, because in general, they are doing hard work… so their hospitalization rates could be a bit higher.” Dragono says Germans’ social status and income determine how much access they have to quality resources. It is easier for upper-class citizens to purchase masks and use personal travel and they do not have to rely on public transportation or low-quality protective gear.
On June 5, 2021, the German health ministry came under fire regarding a report that dictated its plan to dispose of unusable face masks by giving them to impoverished populations. However, the health ministry released a statement that all of its masks are high quality and receive thorough testing. Any defective masks are put into storage.
Assistance From Caritas Germany
As the virus continues to spread, many organizations are extending assistance to disadvantaged citizens in Germany. Some services translate COVID-19 information into migrants’ languages or modify other services to fit COVID-19 guidelines. Caritas Germany, one of the largest German welfare organizations, typically operates childcare services, homeless shelters and counseling for migrants.
To comply with COVID-19, Caritas began offering online services such as therapy and counseling. The organization also travels to low-income areas and focuses on providing personal protective equipment to those working with the elderly. Many Caritas volunteers use technology to maintain distance while also maintaining communication with patients. Since the beginning of the pandemic, hundreds of volunteers have trained in online counseling.
However, Dragono says that while the country has systems in place to avoid broadening the poverty gap, the serious implications of COVID-19 on social inequality in Germany are yet to emerge. Fortunately, organizations are committed to mitigating some of the impacts of COVID-19 on disadvantaged people in Germany.
– Rachel Schilke