'The biggest lie of 2020 is that the virus affects everyone equally'

Peter Mertens

Foreword to the English edition of ‘They Have Forgotten Us’.

With this English edition, ‘They Have Forgotten Us’ is being published in its fifth language (after Dutch, French, German, and Spanish). For that, I am extremely grateful to Vijay Prashad and LeftWord Books.

Peter signes a book

There was a time when books were read for hours on end. In these bombastic Twitter times, this is less evident. Since writing the book, seven months have flown by. In the life of a virus, that's an eternity. By comparison, between the initial contamination with SARS-CoV-2 and the global lockdown lie a mere seven weeks. Today, we have seen two waves, ninety million infections, and more than two million deaths. There were lockdowns, relaxations, and more lockdowns. Exceptional measures were called 'provisional', and then 'temporary', and then the temporary exception gradually became a regime.

When the book was published, Western opinion makers frowned. What do you mean a class virus? King, emperor, cardinal, all of them get corona, right? Tell that to the donkey. COVID-19 has sharpened all the contradictions of global capitalism, the facts have exposed the truth.

In the dark night of this pandemic, those with vital occupations continued to work. These were not the hedge fund managers, the stock market traders, the financial consultants, or talk show luminaries. Rather, they were nurses, garbage collectors, cleaning ladies, teachers, shelf stackers, postal workers, and bus drivers. They took the risks and kept things running. They still do. But as soon as the curves go down, the chattering class demands that we forget all about their sacrifice. Quickly the amnesia sets in, and the calls to go back to the impossible status quo before the virus get louder. ‘When they were scared of dying, all of a sudden we all became heroes. But now they have already forgotten us,’ Monica from Cremona, Italy, says in the book.

Winners and Losers

Noah, a friend from the Netherlands, ordered my book online. It was delivered to him by a bol.com driver who earns barely two euros per delivery. Bol.com is an online retailer, the Dutch version of Amazon. The owners of bol.com are among the winners of the crisis. Their net profit has doubled to over two billion euros. On the other side of the story, exploited couriers deliver the goods to the customer for meager wages. In gigantic distribution centres, order pickers walk up to twenty kilometres a day and assemble 225 packages an hour for barely ten euros gross. They are people of all nationalities. They shack up in living containers on the bol.com camping site and pay 400 euros for a single mattress. These are the Netherlands in 2021; this is modern slavery.

Jeff Bezos, the largest shareholder of Amazon, that other parcel giant, is one of the richest people in the world. During the corona crisis, he became seventy-eight billion dollars richer while his shelf stackers struggled to make ends meet. That COVID-19 is a democratic virus that affects everyone equally is the biggest lie of 2020. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This virus is indeed a class virus. "Mertens calls the coronavirus a class virus," writes the German weekly Unsere Zeit. ‘He is analyzing the impact of the pandemic across Europe. It affects the weakest and poorest in all countries. In a precarious work situation, health and safety are also precarious. Take for instance the seasonal workers on the vegetable plantations in southern Europe or the contract workers of meat giant Tönnies in Germany.’

Class virus: that phrase is central to just about every international review of the book: One finds it in the magazine Jacobin in the US; in the French L'Humanité; in the German newspapers junge Welt, Neues Deutschland, and Unsere Zeit ; in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad; and on the Spanish news sites of Cuarto Poder and El Plural. Class virus. What else could Gabriela Bucher, managing director of Oxfam International, say when she presented her inequality report: ‘We stand to witness the greatest rise in inequality since record keeping began.’ What happened between 18 March and 31 December 2020? On the one hand, the number of people living in poverty in the world increased with up to 500 million. On the other hand, the ten richest inhabitants of the planet saw their wealth increase by no less than 540 billion dollars. Digest that! The increase in the wealth of these ten richest people on earth is enough to vaccinate the entire world population, and to ensure that no one ends up in poverty. ‘The deep divide between the rich and poor is as deadly as the virus,’ Gabriela Bucher concludes.

Throughout the world, the poorest regions have a higher infection and mortality rate than the economically more prosperous regions. In England, mortality rates due to COVID-19 in the poorest neighbourhoods are twice as high as in the richer ones. The same goes for India, France, and Spain.

Does Big Pharma Also Have Patent Rights to a Whole Pack of Politicians?

Barely a few milliliters of water-like liquid in a glass bottle, it doesn't seem particularly impressive, a vaccine like that. But make no mistake. Those few milliliters of liquid contain a huge amount of knowledge. The magic potion of the ‘druid Panoramix’ from the Asterix comics is nothing compared to it. The small nothingness in the bottle is based on all kinds of findings from a range of scientific disciplines: from cell biology to physiology, from immunology to epidemiology, from physics to statistics.

So, it is fantastic that today we have workable vaccines that can stop the virus. Will everyone get a spoon from the jar of Panoramix, so that we can defeat the Romans? No. This will take years. Why? Because not enough vaccines are being produced, they say. Can't we produce more? Of course, we can! Technically it is perfectly possible. Then why isn't it happening? Because it's not allowed. The vaccines are covered by patent protection, and so not everyone is allowed to produce them. Can you imagine anything more absurdly horrific?

Reality Check. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide die from the virus, hospitals groan under the weight of the pandemic, entire economic sectors are brought to a standstill, businesses go bust, people lose their jobs, and young people lose hope. But... we're not going to solve that any time soon, because Big Pharma won't let us.

Reality check, again. If we wanted to, tomorrow tens of thousands of companies around the world could switch to producing vaccines. If we do so by the end of 2021, we will be able to inoculate the entire population of this blue planet. It would be great for the people, for health, and for the economy. But it isn’t happening, because one monopoly sector is standing in the way: the pharmaceutical industry.

It seems that Big Pharma not only patents vaccines, but has also patent rights on the whole pack of politicians everywhere. Instead of taking responsibility and insisting on the production of a sufficient number of vaccines, the political caste limits itself to parroting the pharmaceutical lobby. The patents allegedly exist because the scientific knowledge in those little glass vials of vaccine was developed by private giants. Humbug and poppycock! All workable vaccines are built on years of scientific research in publicly funded laboratories and research institutions. I wrote that last summer in this book and it has since been confirmed. Taxpayers and public governments are pumping massive amounts of money into vaccine development. But there is no return on that investment.

The War for a Few Milliliters of Aqueous Liquid

The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are based on fundamental research carried out at an American university. AstraZeneca in turn partnered with Oxford University. In the final race of 2020, the US government invested more than ten billion dollars in developing a vaccine. The European Union also had six billion euros of public money at its disposal. BioNTech, the company that joined forces with Pfizer, received almost 400 million euros from the German government. Danke schön.

There should have been a demand for the research results to be made available for the public so that the vaccine could have been rapidly produced worldwide. The failure to do so is criminal. As a result, in the coming months too few vaccines will be available to protect the majority of the globe and some countries will have to wait for years. Only a handful of companies will be able to supply the vaccines and any hitch will immediately cause major delays.

‘We are stuck with a European Commission that is more likely to demand its member states reduce pensions and public spending, than to demand the pharmaceutical companies deliver the vaccines they have promised,’ the well-known Spanish journalist Pascual Serrano wrote earlier this year. In the Belgian Parliament, Dr Sofie Merckx, MP for the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) added: ‘Today we vaccinate not to the rhythm of the people’s needs, but to the rhythm of the profit hungry pharmaceutical companies.’ Pfizer, meanwhile, announced that the corona vaccine will account for fifteen billion dollars in new sales, resulting in an astonishing five billion dollars in profits.

Soon, millions of doses of the vaccine will roll off the conveyor belt of the South African company Aspen. However, it is feared that South Africans themselves will have to wait another four years for the vaccine. Rich countries have been buying up 'the supply'. They bought double or triple the quantities required. ‘The market fails to organize an equitable distribution according to health needs. This would require solidarity,’ rightly concludes Belgian professor of Family Medicine Jan De Maeseneer.

The sacred promise of making the corona vaccine a public good available to all has long been broken. Whoever ordered first and paid the most – especially the latter – will have the upper hand. In contrast, more than seventy countries may be left empty-handed this year: they will have no vaccines. A young man from a rich country is more likely to be vaccinated than an older woman from a poorer country, even though she has a much higher mortality risk. Not only is this fundamentally unjust, but it is also unbearably short-sighted. As long as the pandemic rages, everyone is unsafe. And the longer the virus is around, the more variants become possible and the greater the chance that the new vaccines will be inadequate. In Europe, authentic left-wing parties, trade unions, NGOs and citizens joined forces to launch the European citizens' initiative Right2Cure. Via the website www.noprofitonpandemic.eu they want to collect one million signatures to pressure the European Commission to abolish the patents on corona vaccines. ‘It's time to open up vaccine patents,’ says initiator Anne Delespaul, general practitioner at Medicine for the People, the Belgian network of people’s health centres.

Towards a Global Mindquake

Too little, too late, too non-transparent, too expensive, governments everywhere are lagging behind. It's not the first time they failed. The face masks’ catastrophe was followed by shortages of oxygen and protective clothing. Afterwards, we had the tragedies in the homes for the elderly and the complete failure of testing and tracing. And today, we are unable to vaccinate quickly and efficiently. Recurring failure is not exception. There's a pattern behind it.

This pattern is a sacred belief in the free market and in capitalism. ‘The only cogs that set political economy in motion are greed and the war between the greedy,’ Karl Marx wrote, and try proving him wrong. The entire social order has been arranged and set up to let a few large corporations call the shots, while all the facts are screaming in our faces that a public and collective approach is vital. The ties between politics and the pharmaceutical lobby should be broken. We must invest not only in public research, but also in the production of medicines. There is a need to redefine the entire health care system. We refuse to see care as a commercial playground for large corporations; care is a basic necessity for every community. We see health care not merely as curative, on the contrary, it should put a premium on prevention in order to avoid as much illness and deprivation as possible.

In this pandemic, a lot of people in the hospitals and elderly care centres have provided the best care with the resources available. ‘But our preventive health care system is much weaker,’ says well-known Belgian infectiologist Erika Vlieghe. ‘It's no coincidence,’ she says, ‘that countries like Cuba, Vietnam, and Thailand are managing this crisis more effectively.’

All those countries have a strongly developed preventive care system, close to the people. While writing this book I spoke with Minister K.K. Shailaja, the popular communist health minister of the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala has relatively fewer COVID-19 victims. The secret lies in the district health centres. Every neighbourhood has one. And everyone can go there. These centres employ 26,000 prevention workers, mostly women. They know everyone in the neighbourhood, and at the slightest corona contamination they nip the outbreak in the bud. What a contrast with a rich country like Belgium. Also in Cuba, it is the same; there too prevention is paramount. Moreover, Cubans help where they can. In full lockdown, medical brigades from Cuba were building a field hospital in Italy. A small country from the South helping a rich country from the North. ‘We are not heroes,’ the Cubans say, ‘We just share what we have.’ For the free-marketeers, that's too radical. For humanity, that should be normal. As far as I am concerned, Cuban doctors deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

COVID-19 may be a tipping point. Much more important than the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 was the ‘spiritquake’ that followed, writes Philipp Blom. That ‘spiritquake’ challenged prevailing thinking. We should do, at least as much today. We should want to help set the agenda and define the themes of the debate. We should talk about the fact that the market does not work. We should talk about the fact that thousands of people starve today while stock markets are going through the roof. We should talk about the fact that we have already injected 4 trillion euros of public money into the economy to get the engine going and that it was barely ten years ago, during the banking crisis, that we also did this. We should talk about what this reveals about the alleged superiority of the self-regulating market, that it has to receive thousands of billions of euros from all of us every ten years.

‘If people can land on the moon, why can't we solve compelling problems on Earth?’ asks Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato. We need ambitious public targets. ‘Moonshots’ she calls them, missions. We need: access to health and education for all, a public supply of clean energy, quality and accessible public transport, a society without a digital gap, with public data carriers and free WIFI. All those ambitions are less utopian than landing on Mars, and that landing was successful. However, we will have to stand up to the vested interests of big capital.

We have to stress that too. Because today we pump trillions into the system, but all that money flows almost directly to the greedy capitalists of Big Pharma, to the fossil fuel giants, to the tech giants who eat away at our privacy or to the speculators on the stock exchange, just like after the banking crisis. That's not a solution. As we free ourselves from the virus, we must also free ourselves from the large private tentacles that control the earth. The moonshots we need are not those that let the private giants control society’s priorities. It is time for a change, it is time for public initiative in producing and organising energy, transport, digital technology, and care.

‘The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size,’ said Albert Einstein. The time has come.

Brussels, 31 January 2021.

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