Last week the new German government was installed and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) presented the future ministers of his party to the press. The Social Democratic Party is filling seven ministerial posts in the new cabinet, in addition to the Chancellery. In the face of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, the name of the Minister of Health has generated considerable public and media interest.
Scholz chose SPD MP and health expert Karl Lauterbach as the government’s new health minister. Lauterbach is a trained physician, expert in epidemiology and professor of health economics.
With his appointment, which remained controversial for a long time, Scholz would have reacted to the growing pressure from the German population. Particularly among nurses, parents and teachers, there is growing anger at the existing official policy which subordinates the life and health of the people to the interests and profits of the economy. With this appointment of Lauterbach as Minister of Health, the future chancellor clearly hopes to be able to calm popular anger, without changing his pro-business policy.
Scholz introduced Lauterbach as follows: “I’m sure most citizens of this country wanted the next Minister of Health to be an expert, that he really knew his stuff, and that his name was Karl Lauterbach. Kevin Kühnert, general secretary of the SPD, wrote on Twitter: “The Christmas season is when wishes come true. You wanted it – you got it.
The new health minister went out behind the scenes at the SPD press conference and immediately made several promises. Over the next few weeks, he said, the focus will be on reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, “to the point where we can recommend traveling without putting people at risk.” He further promised: “We will strengthen the health system (…) With us, there will be no more cuts in health services.
Anyone who knows Lauterbach a little better knows how poorly justified such confidence is. The traffic light coalition (a coalition of the SPD, the Greens and the neoliberal Liberal Democratic Party, FDP) needs him as a fig leaf for policies that will have even more deadly consequences than that of the outgoing government.
As minister, Lauterbach is subject to the discipline of the cabinet, and the cabinet has already shown its position on the pandemic crisis. The first decision by the majority of traffic lights in the new Bundestag was to suspend the country’s “national epidemic emergency status”.
Lauterbach also voted for the decision, justifying it with the argument that it was “legally required”. Marco Buschmann (FDP), future justice minister, applauded the decision to end the epidemic state of emergency, saying that from now on school closures and lockdowns would no longer be possible.
Above all, the budget for the next government is in the hands of the FDP. FDP leader Christian Lindner will be able to exercise control over the budget as the country’s next finance minister and ensure that no extra money is poured into the health sector. In their coalition agreement, the traffic light coalition partners pledged to reactivate the debt brake, which was suspended at the start of the pandemic in order to keep businesses open and profits afloat.
Lauterbach is a right-wing social democrat who has always favored the profits of big companies and banks over his scientific expertise. He only joined the SPD in 2001, after leaving the Christian Democratic Union. He continues to have close relations with his former political allies and maintains friendly relations, for example, with CDU right-winger Wolfgang Bosbach.
Among the first sympathizers after his appointment was Markus Söder, Prime Minister of the State of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union. He wrote on Twitter: “It’s a good choice. Congratulations #Karl Lauterbach! Looking forward to good cooperation in serious times. The night before, Söder had already said on the TV show “Anne Will” that Lauterbach would make a good Minister of Health and often shared his point of view. The outgoing Minister of Health, Jens Spahn (CDU), also immediately congratulated him. Spahn has been in regular contact with Lauterbach for months.
During the period of the former SPD-Greens coalition government (1998-2003) and since, Lauterbach played an important role in the dismantling of the country’s social system – based on payments equivalent to social funds by the employer and the ’employee – and helped privatize parts of the health care system. He was a member of the Expert Council for the Assessment of Health System Developments and of the Rürup Commission (Commission of Inquiry into the Financing Sustainability of Social Security Systems), which advised several federal governments. In the process, he was involved in the development of the case-fee system, which significantly contributed to the decline of the country’s hospitals.
Far from being an opponent of two-class medicine, Lauterbach encouraged such a system in his role on the supervisory board of Rhön-Klinikum AG from 2001 to 2013. When the media revealed that employees of the Rhön group were receiving salaries miserable and were subjected to extreme exploitation, Lauterbach remained silent. The listed company, comprising 54 hospitals and 35 health centers, achieved a turnover of 2.32 billion euros in 2009.
Two years ago, when the Bertelsmann Foundation demanded the closure of half of all clinics in Germany, Lauterbach backed the demand. On June 4, 2019, he tweeted: “Everyone knows we should close at least a third, if not half of all clinics in Germany. “
Lauterbach has also significantly softened his criticism of the government’s pandemic policy since the SPD became the party with the most votes in the September general election. A key experience for parents and teachers was his advocacy for open schools after the fall break. In mid-November, when schools across the country were opened at the behest of the business community and infection numbers skyrocketed, he announced, “We will manage to keep schools open,” sabotaging as well as the initiatives of parents and teachers seeking to fight against the pandemic.
When he now promises to stop authorizing “more cuts in the health sector”, even the fulfillment of this promise – as unlikely as it is – would be totally unacceptable. The country is already in a state of emergency, intensive care units are overflowing and the specter of triage is a deadly reality. In this situation, maintaining the status quo means unprecedented levels of death.
Despite the appointment of Lauterbach the new government, will quickly come into conflict with broad layers of the population. In his first speeches and interviews after his appointment, Lauterbach insisted that schools would remain open despite the horrific toll from the pandemic. The government’s policy of “profits before life” can only be stopped by the independent mobilization of the working class.