Corona - mask gold in the Münsterland

At the start, the local CDU applauded: In the constituency of Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn in the Münsterland in North Rhine-Westphalia, a company started making masks in summer 2020. The machines for production came from China, contract workers were brought in from Poland. More than 20 of them became infected with the coronavirus. Now there is disillusionment.

It was not obvious that the FIT Farm Innovation Team should enter a new business area in July of last year: the production of FFP-2 masks to protect against the Sars-Cov-2 virus. The company has previously specialized in systems for factory farming, battery cells, cages, feeding machines and the like. One of the two managing directors, Sergej Babitzki, shows a stable with tens of thousands of chickens in the Philippines in his profile picture on Facebook instead of a photo of himself.

FIT GmbH sensed - rightly, as it turned out - that the manufacture of medical masks was a huge business. The company had good business relations in Asia. She also knew how to quickly get machines for the production of FFP-2 masks from China. And secured an empty workshop for the project in the municipality of Heek, in the North Rhine-Westphalian district of Borken. Conditions looked promising. "A small hall was built in the large warehouse for mask production in order to avoid contamination," reported the Westfälische Nachrichten in July 2020. "A ventilation system with overpressure is used to bring clean air in and the stale air out."

One of the first to congratulate was a CDU delegation from the Münsterland, home of Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn. Under the leadership of the North Rhine-Westphalian CDU member of the state parliament Heike Wermer, she visited the company in mid-July. Wermer enthusiastically reported under the heading “Protective masks made in Heek” about the station of their summer tour. Markus Jasper was also there, Spahn's long-time confidante and former business partner of the former member of the Bundestag at a consulting company. Today he is managing director of the CDU district association Borken, which Spahn chairs. In addition, three other CDU local politicians visited the production facility, among them the party's mayoral candidate for the upcoming local elections and the CDU parliamentary group leader in the local council.

To avoid misunderstandings: Spahn did not help thread the mask production business in Heek. But the euphoria among his party friends at home was great last summer. There was panic in the country about the lack of masks. The member of the state parliament, Wermer, announced at the time that the FIT company would participate in a federal funding program that should help to increase the production capacity of machines for mask assembly in the short term. She apparently took it for granted that federal funds would be available for the project.

Seized the moment

However, this funding did not come about after all, as the Federal Ministry of Economics announced on request. The Ministry is silent on the reasons for the rejection of the application. FIT managing director Jens Rudolph says the funding application was rejected because it was not possible to prove that a sufficiently large proportion of the masks went to private customers, i.e. the free market.

Rudolph vigorously denies special contacts with the CDU. He says: “We didn't do any lobbying work and didn't need it.” Even so, “all kinds of buyers” would have found the protective masks: hospitals, pharmacies, authorities. The company seized the opportunity. Initially, 200.000 masks were produced per week. Gradually, the company increased its capacity several times over.

Just a few days ago, the Federal Ministry of Health made it clear in a report to the Bundestag Health Committee what profit expectations were at issue at the time. According to this, FFP-2 masks were traded for an average of 1,25 euros each before the pandemic. By mid-March 2020, the unit price had risen to an average of 16,71 euros. In April 2020 "in extreme cases" up to 35 euros per FFP-2 mask were achieved. Even at the beginning of June 2020, the price was still at an average of 21,40 euros per unit at times. Looking back at the lack of FFP-2 masks, the Federal Ministry of Health speaks of a "critical situation".

It is unclear whether the ministry also resorted to offers from FIT from Heek for the hectic procurement of protective masks last year. A ministry spokesman said on request: "The BMG does not provide any information on individual procurement processes or contractual details." In the meantime, like many competitors, FIT also offers its protective masks at prices from 99 cents each.

The example from the Münsterland region is a good illustration of what can go wrong with FFP-2 masks “made in Germany”. Because while production at FIT itself was still running properly - and at full speed - there were negative headlines about the company in the local press in March 2021: The company had meanwhile brought 25 temporary workers from Poland to increase capacity. Of them, 21 contracted the corona virus and two had to be hospitalized.

In addition, it turned out that the company's workers had been illegally housed in an office wing on an industrial site in the neighboring Coesfeld district - and not in one of the many pensions in the region that were vacant due to Corona. FIT managing director Rudolph says of the infection of the Polish employees who are now in quarantine: "That can happen to anyone." He does not see his company as being responsible for the corona outbreak. The Polish employees most recently had a joint night shift at FIT.

There is great excitement in the region. "I'm completely upset and pissed off," Marion Dirks is quoted as saying, the mayor of Billerbeck, where the temporary workers stayed in shared rooms in the industrial area. Christoph Schlütermann, chairman of the DRK district association Coesfeld, praises the authorities: "Not imagining what would have happened if there had not been a reaction."

Learned nothing from Tönnies

The non-party mayor of Heek, Franz Josef Weilinghoff, admits that he was initially happy about the mask production in his community in the summer of 2020. “I have seldom seen a production site set up so quickly. Respect. ”But he criticizes the illegal accommodation of the workers brought in. Weilinghoff says that there was also no alternative to it: "With a bit of instinct you could have made a contract with local accommodation providers."

The CDU representatives in the region no longer like to talk about the mask production in Münsterland, which they once praised. CDU district manager Jasper refers to the "clear words" of his party friend, the Coesfeld district administrator Christian Schulze Pellengahr. He was "dismayed" about the Corona outbreak among the FIT employees and said: "It is completely incomprehensible to me that individual entrepreneurs have obviously learned little or nothing from the outbreak in meat processing companies."

The CDU member of the state parliament Wermer now says that she is "disappointed by the entrepreneur's lack of social responsibility with regard to the accommodation of the Polish employees". She repeats a sentence from the district administrator almost verbatim: “It is bitter that individual entrepreneurs have obviously learned little or nothing from the outbreak in meat processing companies.” However, she would visit a company in her constituency again at any time.

Matthias Meisner, formerly editor at Q, works as a freelance journalist. The anthology was published on April 7th Missing minimum distance. The corona crisis and the networks of democracy enemiesof which he is co-editor