Peter Mertens: "The ideological quake is more important than the virus itself".

Michaël Verbauwhede and Seppe De Meulder
Solidaire magazine

"They have forgotten us. The working class, health care and the coming crisis". This is the title of Peter Mertens' new book, the fourth since he became chairman of the Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA) in 2008. Before starting the interview, he points out that "this is not a book about the virus, it is a book about society."

Peter Mertens

This summer, while the chairpersons of the other political parties in Belgium were tangled up in endless negotiations, you decided to write a book. Why?

Peter Mertens. I think that sometimes one has to stand back a little. And looking at what is going on in our country, we sometimes are reminded of a scene from an Asterix comic strip, where a complaint about a rotten fish by one person results in everybody in the village throwing fish at everybody else's face. The whole system is out of kilter: the responsibility for the spread of the virus is now entirely placed on the individual, yet structural problems are everywhere.

With the coronavirus, we are faced with a situation previously unheard of. If, just a few months ago, you had said that a National Security Council was going to decide that every customer should use a shopping trolley at the supermarket, even for a single item, people would have thought you were talking about a bad science-fiction movie. It has all gone fuzzy. People are looking for answers in an ocean of chaotic opinions. That is why it is important to reconsider a number of issues and ask yourself whether it is the virus that has made society sick, or whether society was already sick before. We do not hear this type of analysis very often, and I think this directly relates to the impoverishment of social debate and the suicidal pace of capitalism.

The working class

The title of the book is "They have forgotten us". What does it mean?

Peter Mertens. When the coronavirus arrived in our country, everyone understood that we were faced with a entirely new phenomenon. After the shock, there was big upsurge of solidarity. In the neighbourhoods. And also a lot of respect for the workers, those who came to be called "heroes". Ordinary people who, at the peak of the pandemic, kept the country running. According to Europe's estimation, one in five people working in the so-called essential sectors are of foreign origin. Especially in the care, cleaning and food sectors. The far right is doing everything it can to set the heroes in opposition to each other. But out of every minute we were cheering the heroes, 12 seconds were devoted to these foreign-born workers.

And while the working class was keeping the country going, the smooth talkers were carrying on as if nothing had happened. Then the curve started to flatten and we could see that some of them wanted to make us forget everything as quickly as possible: forget the austerity measures imposed on healthcare, the commercialisation of retirement homes, the failure of the market, the confederal disaster of having 9 health ministers and 7 ministers of mouth masks. But also forget who the heroes of this crisis really are. In my book I quote Monica, who works in an intensive care unit of a hospital in the hard-hit Italian city of Cremona: "When they got scared of dying, they suddenly called us heroes. Today they have already forgotten us. Soon, we will again be seen as people who don't do anything else but wipe behinds, lazy and too expensive". The feeling of being forgotten again is widespread, not only in the healthcare sector.

Is the virus also affecting workers more severely?

Peter Mertens. Yes, it is. In our country, there are no group-by-group statistics on coronavirus infections by occupation. Great Britain, for instance, has them. These figures show that low-wage workers are severely affected: medical personnel, taxi and bus drivers, construction workers. And that makes sense because the very nature of their work implies coming in direct contact with other people. People at the bottom end of the income scale often had to take the most risk. And, on top of that, these same persons live in overcrowded working-class neighbourhoods. You don't live through quarantine in a small apartment the way you would in a villa with a big garden. Inequalities were already high before the pandemic broke out, and it has done nothing but reinforce them.

That's nothing new. This also happened during the plague, the cholera and the Spanish flu epidemics. 175 years ago, Friedrich Engels wrote "The Condition of the Working Class in England". In fact, he was one of the first to make the link between living and working conditions and health. Until then, this link was only seen one way: being sick makes you poor. Engels reverses this view and shows that a person's social situation can also make him/her more vulnerable to the disease. He also shows us that the bourgeoisie couldn't care less about working-class neighbourhoods being stricken by a disease. Except when it strikes the city's richest neighbourhoods. All of a sudden, sanitary measures are taken. The parallel with the current situation is evident. If the pandemic were to stop short at decimating the Rio de Janeiro favelas (poor neighbourhoods), there would probably be much less concern.

You write, "A sleeping giant is waking up." What do you mean by that?

Peter Mertens. The amounts made available for healthcare this summer across Europe are impressive. But behind that money there is fear. Over the past few decades, the care sector has shifted from being rather charity-oriented to being assertive. We are now a long way from the image of the nice, submissive nurse. Healthcare staff have shown that they too can bang their fists on the table, move forward and impose demands. This summer, from Mexico to South Africa, these workers have taken part in demonstrations all over the world.

At that point, politicians and opinion-makers, usually so talkative, had to keep silent for a while because the people on the front line had become the focus of attention. They were afraid of course, that this might inspire a broader movement that would say: "Applause is not going to pay our bills." Let there be discussions everywhere about wages and working conditions, let the logic of profit be questioned, etc. In Great Britain, the number of union members has risen by more than 100,000, and it is no coincidence that the majority of them are women. That's what I mean when I say that a sleeping giant has awakened. And that is why those in power have been so quick to allot money to the health sector. In order to force the genius back into Aladin's lamp. On a global scale, however, that's impossible.


In your book, you are very critical of the tragedy that occurred in the retirement homes. Isn't it rather too easy to point out what should have done differently by hindsight?

Peter Mertens. The fact that large multinationals like Korian and Colysée, active in nursing homes, want a return of 15 % on care for the elderly is a disgrace and leads to degrading situations. I already wrote about this in my previous book entitled In the Land of the Profiteers. The coronavirus has amplified all contradictions present in society. The way in which we, as a society, treat our elderly. They are literally considered as dry wood that needs to be cut. The 6,000 deaths in the nursing homes are our own Lombardy. The central question is: what lessons do we learn from this? Médecins sans Frontières, that normally intervenes in conflict zones, had to step in to assist the rest homes. Harsh words are used in their scathing report: What is most serious is that we are not ready for a second wave.

At the health care level, you are pleading to get inspiration from Asia. Yet Europe is not Asia, or is it?

Peter Mertens. This issue should not be reduced to a question of Asia or Europe. I think the coronavirus should also lead us to reflect on how our health system is organized. Let's have a look at India: the virus is raging all over India, except in the state of Kerala which is doing very well. How is that possible? The secret of Kerala is not money, but prevention. Kerala is poor, but in every neighbourhood there is a health centre. Over there, 26,000 prevention officers, mostly women, are going door to door. These are people who really care about their neighbourhoods, and whom everyone knows. It is reminiscent of our health centres of Medicine for the People, but on a large scale. Such a system makes it possible to detect people with symptoms very rapidly, to have them tested immediately and to put them in confinement if need be. It really works.

Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes. And that is true. Our society is focused on healing: No action is taken unless people are already sick. We need to go back to a prevention model, with extensive primary care, with health centres in the neighbourhoods. With people helping children with their homework or assisting people with reduced mobility to do their shopping.

After the Second World War and the collective resistance movement against fascism, social housing and a public health system were set up. It is out of this vision that the World Health Organization was born. In 1978, it stated that primary care accessible to all is the best prevention. But the neo-liberals don't see it that way. Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry does not get anything out of healthy people. Ronald Reagan once said that primary health care was the shortest route to socialism. What such a vision leads to is now blatantly obvious to everyone in the United States: 170,000 caskets.

Could this also be why Donald Trump is picking on the World Health Organization today?

Peter Mertens. Yes, it is. In the meantime, the failure of the extreme right is becoming increasingly clear. Shouting "own people first" (the slogan of Vlaams Belang, the fascist party in Flanders) to a virus that knows neither language nor borders is not going to impress it.

In December, Vlaams Belang chairman Tom Van Grieken invited Matteo Salvini (founder of the Italian extreme right-wing party La Lega) to Antwerp. He paid for Salvini's private plane and entertained him like a rock star. Salvini's party is ruling Lombardy, and the Lombards are now licking their wounds. The management of the crisis has been appalling and a judicial enquiry to investigate allegations of corruption in the purchase of medical equipment has been opened against the governor of Lombardy .

Even more catastrophic, of course, are Bolsonaro's policies in Brazil. Liberation theologian Frei Betto states that what is happening in that country right now is actually genocide. The virus is allowed to proliferate and destroy the favelas . In behaving the way it does, the far right is showing its very elitist vision of society. Rich people first. And let them all croak, that "scum", those derelicts, and all those heroes who carried us through the crisis.

The coming crisis

Isn't the crisis we are going through right now temporary? Isn't the economy going to recover once we have the vaccine?

Peter Mertens. Right now, we are underestimating what is going on. The International Monetary Fund is referring to the "Great Lockdown", by analogy with the "Great Depression" of the 1930s. Capitalism focuses entirely on the creation of added value and profit. The one thing that should not happen, is a production shutdown. Yet this is what governments have decided. That's unheard of. This year about 170 out of the world's 195 countries will experience economic decline. Even after the 1929 Wall Street crash, such a thing did not happen.

Traditional economists are confident that there will be a rebound, just as in a game of bungee jumping of sorts. This is what they call a V-curve, or a W-curve in case a second wave occurs. Growth will pick up again, of course. After hitting the bottom, the only way to go is up. It makes sense. Yet capitalism was already sick before the coronavirus struck. The virus has grafted itself onto an already sick body.

The economy has never really recovered from the 2008 banking crisis. Germany, the engine of European economy, was already in difficulties last summer. And we had not heard of bats yet... In August 2019, a financial newspaper headlined: "The world is gearing up for another recession." It is believed that supply is going to recover fairly quickly. That production will resume. Demand is a problem, however, because households have been hit hard. It is going to take a long time before people start consuming again, because they are afraid of what the future holds for them. It is estimated that 340 million jobs will be lost worldwide.

The European Union has announced a €750 billion investment plan. That should make you happy, shouldn't it?

Peter Mertens. With every step the European Union takes, the cracks in the House of Europe grow. The "skinflint club" - as the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden have been called - have opposed any form of solidarity with hard-hit Italy and Spain. It is positive that nationalism and chauvinism did not prevail at the EU summit. However, it is quite normal to provide for a number of minimum solidarity mechanisms. Yet this does not mean that the European Union is out of trouble.

At this very moment, three operations are underway to extinguish the fire. On the one hand, the helicopter of the European Central Bank has dumped 1,350 billion euro into the economy. On the other hand, the European Union is now investing 750 billion in emergency aid. And finally, every country has its own rescue plan. Huge amounts of money are at stake. And all of this raises questions. Who will receive the money? What is it going to be used for ? How come the European Central Bank is buying bonds from polluting businesses that are champions in tax evasion, Louis Vuitton, Shell and Total, to name just three of them. How come BMW is calling on the German State to pay Kurzarbeit (German variant of economic unemployment) for its 20,000 workers, while it is paying out 1.6 billion euro in dividends? How come 9 billion euro in state aid was pumped into Lufthansa to rescue it, without there being any comment on the part of the authorities afterwards? This is simply indecent. The similarities with the disastrous rescue plans of 2008 are great. Today the impression is still that all that has to de done is shower big business with money in order for it to solve the world's problems. This is not an option. Going back to public initiative is the only structural way out in the short term.

You are quoting Philipp Blom, a philosopher who compares the coronavirus with the 18th century Lisbon earthquake. What is the connection between them?

Peter Mertens. That this could be a turning point. On November 1st, 1755, more than 500 worshippers had gathered in the Lisbon Cathedral for prayers. At that very moment, the earth began to shake. And all those faithful believers died. Next, a tidal wave submerged the lower parts of the city, while at the same time a fire was ravaging the upper districts of Lisbon. Blind loyalty to the Almighty had not really paid off. This is obviously a symbol. For that was the time when the ideas of modernity and Enlightenment first emerged. That earthquake was a turning point. Philipp Blom writes: "Far more important than the Lisbon earthquake was the spirit born from it."

The coronavirus could also create an ideological earthquake. The blind belief that the "Almighty" market will solve everything for us could vanish. This will not happen by itself, though. We need to set things in motion and start the debate. Around the fact that the market has failed, that there is no prevention, that the contradictions between rich and poor in the world are increasing again. Around the fact that 6 out to 12,000 people will starve to death every day between now and the end of the year, i.e. more than from the coronavirus itself (the hunger virus, as Oxfam calls it). And around the fact that, all the while, the party is on at the stock exchange and that getting richer at the top is taking on obscene proportions. Around the fact that commercialization of healthcare leads to tragedy. And that we need to keep the private giants away from nursing homes, and to integrate our care centres into the neighbourhoods, at local level and on a smaller scale.

Have you already noticed the emergence of a different model today?

Peter Mertens. Nothing comes by itself. The future will see harsh struggles. There are two movements. One potential movement from below. We have seen it in every city, all over the planet. People helping their neighbours with their grocery shopping. Young people helping in the organization of summer camps for youth who would otherwise be stuck at home. When the crisis was at its peak, we saw a lot of local solidarity. This is a movement from which we could draw a lot more lessons.

But this is not enough. Vision is needed as well. It is estimated that a total of 4 000 billion euro is being invested worldwide to boost the economy. This speaks volumes about the superiority of the self-regulated market: We must all collectively remit 4 000 billion euro to it every ten years. This raises the obvious question of whether we are going to give all that money back to big business, to the oil giants that are destroying our planet, to the technology giants that devour our privacy; or whether we are going to use this money to bring about real change in the sectors of transport, energy, digital technology and healthcare?

A public vision on energy, transport, the digital revolution and health in the broadest sense, these are the four pillars of our Prometheus Plan. A plan to put public initiative back at the centre of the debate while at the same time tackling the economic and ecological crisis. It is inspired by the Green New Deal proposed by rebellious US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I think both these movements should meet: the movement that organises solidarity from below and places workers at the centre, as organisers of society and solidarity; and the movement that offers a perspective around an ambitious public initiative. This is neither a Belgian nor a European debate. It is a debate that will take place everywhere in the coming months, and it is in this spirit that new seeds of socialism can germinate.

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