Bad Schandau, Germany, is one of those towns where attacks against police are pretty rare. So, what happened earlier this week in the resort town in the eastern state of Saxony was pretty unusual. First, a 56-year-old man insulted several police officers, and then a crowd surrounded a group of police. The situation escalated: Someone kicked a policewoman in the knee and another officer was struck by a bottle. Both suffered minor injuries, and investigations are now underway.
According to the description provided by the authorities, the attackers probably weren’t left-wing radicals or right-wing extremists, but revelers. A large number of people had gathered on the market square that November evening for a carnival celebration. And the law enforcement officers were there to monitor compliance with coronavirus protection measures – apparently to the displeasure of many of those present.
It's possible it was merely an isolated case. But it fits in well with the common narrative. In areas of Germany where the radical right is particularly strong, state-imposed protection measures designed to stem the spread of the pandemic are not well liked. And coronavirus case numbers have grown disturbingly high.
Bad Schandau is located in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party received just under 32 percent of the vote in the September general election. And the seven-day incidence of coronavirus infections – currently over 1,000 and rising – is one of the highest in the country.
But the alarming situation isn’t exclusive to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. On maps showing the incidence rate, almost the entire eastern German state of Saxony is deep red. The same is true of neighboring Thuringia. In both states, the AfD regularly receives more than 20 percent of the vote in elections. Is it a coincidence? Might it be related to the fact that Saxony has a particularly large number of foreign workers coming in from high-incidence areas of the Czech Republic? Or could it be due to the fact that there are generally more elderly people living in eastern Germany, who are more likely to be diagnosed with infections than asymptomatic young people?
A Pandemic Driver?
An interdisciplinary team at the Research Institute for Social Cohesion and a researcher from Munich systematically investigated the connection between the election results and the spread of the pathogen. The experts’ findings are clear: The higher the number of votes the AfD got in a region in the 2017 election, the faster the coronavirus spread there in 2020.
The researchers say there is no other party represented in the German parliament whose election results correlate so strongly and systematically with coronavirus infection rates.
The researchers’ calculations are so precise that they can quantify the correlation to within a single decimal place. "If the AfD gained one percentage point more in a district, then the incidence there was higher there by an average of 2.2 percentage points in the phase of the first wave when numbers rose," says Christoph Richter, a sociologist who studies right-wing extremism at the Jena Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. Mathematically, that means: If the party received one in 10 votes in one district and twice as many in another, the level of infection in the two regions differed on average by a healthy 22 percent.
Sociology professor Matthias Quent, the co-author of the study and director of the Jena Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, had already noticed the connection last December. He tweeted his observation and announced he would follow it up with a more detailed study. Criticism promptly poured in, and not only from the ranks of the AfD. The party argued that correlation did not provide proof of a causal relationship. In addition, Quent’s hypothesis didn’t seem to fit with the course of the first wave, which resulted in comparatively few infections in Saxony and Thuringia.
Even when making his initial observation, Quent pointed out that the trend could be due to other factors. As such, the researchers meticulously calculated possible correlations with a total of 48 factors, including age structure, for example, the proximity to a border and even the socioeconomic privation index, which tracks social inequity.
The results of the months of detailed work that followed have now been released. Some factors, such as population density and levels educational attainment, did play a role, and in the first wave, they helped explain the differences between eastern and western Germany. In part, these factors are related. But the complex calculations did lead to a clear result: The increase in the amount of COVID incidence correlated most strongly with AfD voters. The researchers described that relationship as being "highly significant.”
In fact, the 39-page study provides solid confirmation of Quent’s hypotheses from last December. The researchers show that the AfD-corona correlation isn’t just a purely eastern German phenomenon, either. At the beginning of the pandemic, the virus spread mainly in western Germany, and even then, faster than elsewhere in certain areas where the right-wing have above-average success. "The fact that the results are so clear also came as a bit of surprise to us," says sociologist Richter.
But why did the first wave primarily affect the west, if the highest levels of AfD support are found in the east? The scientist attributes that to a mixture of coincidence and luck. "It’s possible that the east was first affected later because most business travelers or people coming back from vacations went to cities like Hamburg and Munich, and less to Cottbus or Schwerin," he says. The location of winter holidays and proximity to the hotspots in the Alps might also have played a role.
The researchers say the assumption that border traffic to the neighboring Czech Republic was a major driver of the pandemic, a belief that is widely held in Saxony, has been refuted, because the study shows that infection rates in some districts remained low despite close contact with the neighboring countries – on the border with Luxembourg and the Netherlands, for example. Also, the cases of infection in Thuringia can’t be explained by people crossing the border given the state's location in the center of Germany.
Sociologist Christoph Richter
The researchers leave unanswered the question as to how much political responsibility the AfD bears for the infection dynamics. Richter emphasizes that the study is based on spatial analyses and not on the evaluation of individual data. "So, it is by no means clear from our results that every AfD voter is a critic of corona protections, and not every anti-vaxxer has an affinity for the AfD," he says.
But it is clear that the right-wing campaign against some purported "corona dictatorship" hasn’t done anything to increase the willingness of some people in Germany to get vaccinated. A survey by pollster Forsa showed that a full 50 percent of unvaccinated voters cast their ballots in September’s national election for the AfD. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the party has contributed significantly to the rejection of protective measures and vaccines. It’s possible that the party simply benefits from skepticism toward the state and society that has been deeply rooted in some regions for years. Jena-based sociologist Richter notes that the study’s data also shows that "corona protection measures are particularly strongly rejected in places where the proportion of voters for far-right parties, as well as the proportion of non-voters, was already particularly high in 2005."
The researchers refer to the phenomenon as the "spatial dimension of political culture," and Richter himself recognizes it as a problem – one for which there is no short-term solution. "The state and society need to invest significantly more in democratic education and we must strengthen civil society," he says. "That’s the only way to positively change the political climate in such regions."
Meanwhile, the AfD is fighting against anything that could stop the spread of the coronavirus. In the party’s stronghold of Saxony, for example, where the state-wide incidence is now heading toward the 800 mark, the state parliamentary group has filed a lawsuit against the recent "2G" rule, which excludes people from broad areas of public life if they aren’t vaccinated or recently recovered from the coronavirus. They are interpreting such rules to be an unconstitutional form of "compulsory vaccination."
In the eastern state of Brandenburg, the AfD has already fallen victim to the new rules. A party congress in the town of Prenzlau had to be cancelled because many of the party’s members are unvaccinated and couldn’t find hotels that would allow them to stay there.