“It's not up to the corona heroes to pay for the corona crisis”

Peter Mertens

May First speech of Peter Mertens, chairman of the Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA)

Peter Mertens

We'll see our boss again sooner than our family and our friends. I'm allowed to go shopping, but I'm not allowed to see my godson. Unless we meet at Ikea. That's absurd. The employers organizations VBO and Voka have twisted the arm of the National Security Council. The economy is being started up, while social life is being quarantined.

We are human beings. We live. We live together. We work. There's the social sphere, there's the economic sphere, and there's the mental sphere. A society has to take all those spheres into account. But today, the government listens more to the lobby of big business than to the lobby of the heart. It has to be the other way around.

Of course, we also want the economy to restart, if it's safe to do so. But the government is not ready. There are too few tests, too few tracers and too few mouth masks.

"Make the mouth masks yourself," says the government. That we have ended up in a do-it-yourself economy says it all. Mouth masks have become the symbol of the fight against corona. Actually, everyone should have mouth masks by now. But there are still far too few. And that's not normal.

We have the best textile industry in the world. We've always been good at that. Since the Middle Ages. The white suits worn by astronauts are made in Belgian textile companies.

But making mouth masks to protect the whole population? No, that can't be done.

We had a supply: 63 million mouth masks. A strategic reserve, at the request of virologists. But that stock was destroyed a few years ago and never replenished. And do you know why? Savings. Hard, cold savings.

How is it possible that in our high-tech society, with our technical knowledge, with our highly educated workforce, we are unable to provide everyone with a mouth mask? So we can at least protect ourselves, and the people around us?

Today we should all have a mask. But even for the health and care sectors they are in short supply. As for the nursing homes, the hospitals, the home care. And more so for all those workers who shortly should have to get back to work.

'The market' does not solve our problems. There has not been any 'invisible hand' to provide mouth masks. Or sufficient corona testing. Or good health prevention.

We'll have to act ourselves. Active. As a government. With planning. And active interventions to protect our health.

Who stopped production in the non-essential sectors when the corona virus broke out? Not the CEOs. Not the government. The workers themselves, with the unions. Because to continue to work was often no longer safe or responsible.

And afterwards, it was also the workers themselves who suggested making respirators at Safran Aero in Liège, Seat in Spain, Audi in Brussels. The list is long.

But there is no planning, there's nothing but chaos. Because of the bungling of the various governments, our doctors and nurses of Medicine for the People finally ordered a flight with 60,000 mouth masks themselves. They ended up testing care homes themselves, long before the government. And in the end, they themselves went to help out in retirement homes where a lot of staff had dropped out. Not words, but deeds, that's who we are.

I was there myself when Dr Sofie Merckx offered our services to Health Minister Maggie De Block in Parliament, three times in a row. "Our medical teams are standing by. Tell us where to help. Give us the means." She didn't even get an answer.

Solidarity, that is what counts. I am deeply moved to see how Cuba is sending a team of doctors and nurses to Lombardy, the richest region in Europe, to set up a corona field hospital. The whole of Europe is standing by idly. Some countries export arms, others export solidarity.

Solidarity, that's the only way how to beat corona. That is also what we are doing. Being present on site. And help where we can, with what we have. With all our health professionals from Medicine for the People. With all our basic party groups in companies and neighborhoods. With all our members helping, sewing masks, playing music at residential care centres, helping children with tutoring, baking cakes for care givers, putting up posters against domestic violence in convenience stores, bringing mouth masks to the fire brigade. You name it. That's who we are. That's our DNA. And I'm very proud of that.

"Make health a federal competence"

May 1st came into being exactly one hundred and thirty years ago today, as a day of struggle. Then, in 1890, the Belgian working population was without legal protection and without any rights. Hellish work rhythms. Poor living conditions. And no rights. No right to organize as a working class. No right to strike. Only the right to sell his labour. And the right to lose everything: your income, your health, your life.

How fortunate that we never resigned ourselves to that. Long before social security existed, workers put their hard-earned money into a fund to help sick colleagues. The mutual health insurance. Those first mutualities were not founded by the employers, not by the State. But by ordinary workers. They are the oldest workers' organizations in the country.

For ten years now, the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) and other right-wing forces have wanted to get rid of the mutual health organisations. That's one of the reasons why the N-VA wants to split the country. Because they want to get rid of strong mutual health organisations and strong trade unions. Every worker who votes for a party like the N-VA, votes against his own rights and against his own social security. Today on May 1st, I ask a big applause for all the workers of the mutual health organisations of the trade unions for the fantastic work they have already done in this crisis.

We want prevention and health insurance to once again become a central, federal competence, instead of today's crazy fragmentation. Whoever still doesn't see today how absurd the division of our country is, is blind. We have 9 health ministers fighting each other instead of defeating corona together. What we need is one strong, national, public health service, as in Sweden. That's the only way we'll be better armed to contain the virus from the start in the next epidemic.

"You don't see stars until it gets dark"

You don't see stars until it gets dark. In this crisis, it has suddenly become dark. Very dark. But you can better see the stars.

If there's one thing we've learned today, it is who really makes society turn around.

That's not the overpaid CEOs, the captains of industry, or the tax engineers. For years, they've been telling us that they take care of our prosperity.

No way. It is the working class that is running things today. Ordinary working men and women. Those who never get into talk shows or opinion pages, except when there is 'talk about them'. Those who sell their labour every day. Those who fill the shelves. Who unload the trucks. Who take care of the elderly. Containers full of hand gels and mouth masks. Serving the shops. Getting the factories up and running. Putting out the fires. Cleaning the corridors. Taking care of the toddlers. These are the innumerable and often invisible heroes that make society run today.

"Without a workforce, there's no prosperity", I said on May 1, 2013, seven years ago. Today we see once more how true that is. But that work force still remains unseen, not respected and not properly paid. Even 14 euros an hour is too much for the elite. Well, today on May 1st we say: 14 euros per hour is the absolute minimum. For everyone. Those countless heroes not only deserve applause at eight o'clock in the evening. They deserve respect. A sustainable improvement of their working and living conditions. And maximum protection of their health.

What are the capitalists saying today? Thanks, and now everyone back to work. In Spain, in Italy, in the USA, in Ecuador, in India. It's the same everywhere. The employers want the working class back to work as soon as possible, even if there are still not sufficient protective measures and materials available.

It is the same here. A politician like Koen Metsu of the N-VA says it literally: "everybody back to work, and if people get corona, so be it." At the N-VA they don't care about a little 'collatoral damage' among the work force. As long as the economy keeps going. Just work and shut up!

Well, forget it. We are not going to shut up. We want to work if it's safe to do so. What we want is maximum protection, not maximum profit.

"It's not up to the corona heroes to pay for the corona crisis"

The corona crisis is costing billions. If it depends on the government, we will be the ones to pay that bill.

"It's always the taxpayer who pays," says Jan Jambon, Prime Minister of Flanders. And Bart De Wever (N-VA chairman) says that "everyone will have to take a step back".

Everyone, except them, of course. When we propose that all politicians donate half of their generous monthly salary to the fight against corona, then all hell breaks loose.

We did it however. All our Members of Parliament donated a total of €140,000 of their remunerations to the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, and Médecins Sans Frontières. For us, solidarity is not a hollow phrase.

If all the other Members of Parliament did so, it would generate 1.3 million euros. But they don't want to. "Pure populism!" they say. But South Africa does it. Bulgaria does it. New Zealand. Turkey. Morocco. Austria. If it can be done there, why can't it be done in Belgium?

You know what "pure populism" is? Politicians like Jambon and De Wever who earn 10,000 euros per month, think that it is normal that 'everyone' has to do his share, but don't give up a eurocent themselves. That is “pure populism”.

We have to get rid of the capitalist model according to which 'the losses are for the many who have little, and the profits for the few who have much'.

That model is a thing of the past. It is a pre-corona model, not a post-corona model.

We want a corona tax on multimillionaires, a solidarity tax for the super-rich. When corona broke out, we were the only party to suggest it.

Today other parties copy our proposal. Because it has become inexplicable that millions of workers and self-employed people suffer losses, while CEOs of listed companies earn 2 million euros a year, or thirty percent more than the previous year.

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

We propose an exceptional corona tax of 5% on all fortunes above 3 million euros. That would bring in 15 billion euros.

It is a matter of political courage. This is the moment. 

"The coronavirus has brutally ripped off the mask of capitalism"

The ideologues of the establishment devote a great deal of time and attention to the 'economic cost' of the corona crisis. They spend very little time on the psychological and social problems of this crisis. When they talk about the elderly, it seems as if they are no longer talking about 'people' but about 'costs'. Unashamedly, they wonder what a human life is 'worth'. For them, this is not a philosophical question, but a cold economic one.

Profitability is the logic of capitalism. Prolonged illness? Unprofitable! A handicap? Unprofitable! Too old? Unprofitable!

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained that long ago already in their Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie (...) has put an end to all (...) idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties (...), and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies  (…) of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.”

Reducing living creatures to numbers in a macabre accounting of profit, that is the perverse logic of this system.

That is not my vision. Older people in society should not be the last. In fact, they are the first. They are the discoverers, the pioneers, those who have taught us everything, those who have shown us. The elderly are not the past. They are the future. They are where we still have to go. It is up to us to give everyone a chance to age with dignity. It is a matter of making choices. Which society do we want?

Crises are tipping points. Key moments in history when everything changes and accelerates.

The coronavirus brutally ripped off the mask of capitalism. The crazy idea that 'the market' would solve it all by itself lies in shambles.

Some want to get back to 'the old normal' as soon as possible. But the world after corona will never be the same again.

"Make social the new normal". That was my message on May 1, 2017. And look how highly topical this has become. The new normal must be social. Never have we been so aware of the need of each other. We miss proximity. We miss contact. We miss each other. We need each other. We are social animals. And so we also need a society that is based on cooperation and connection, not on selfishness or cold money gain.

We don't need capitalism. What we need is socialism. A new socialism 2.0. Where people are allowed to be human again. Where we are judged on who we are rather than on economic profitability. A society where cooperation is central. It is not everyone for himself. It is together. A society where everyone is included and no one is left behind. Where health takes precedence over the narrow economic interests of large lobby groups. Where ecological and social planning comes first, instead of the unbridled chaos of an economy that revolves around profit and competition. A society, in short, where people and the environment come first. That is the society we stand for.

Long live the May First!

Long live international solidarity!