As of May 2, Belgium has by far the highest per capita rate of Covid-19 deaths in the world, reporting 49,032 confirmed coronavirus cases and 7,703 Covid-19 deaths. That translates into a rate of 67 deaths for each 100,000 people, the next closest are France (37 per 100,000), the U.K. (41), Italy (47), and Spain (53). By way of comparison, the 64,871 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. translate into a rate of 20 per 100,000 people, although that number is climbing quickly. Although part of Belgium’s mortality rate may have to do with the fact that it is better at counting its dead, the death toll has shaken the country and puts into question the government’s decision to begin a phased opening of the economy over the coming weeks.
Here, socialists from Gauche Anticapitaliste in Belgium explain their opposition to the early opening and call on people to resist in the absence of prerequisite health measures promised by the government. Translated by International Viewpoint and republished by No Borders News as part of our international coronavirus coverage.
Having examined the measures taken by the Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès government and the National Security Council, Gauche Anticapitaliste (Anticapitalist Left) calls on the popular classes to prevent an end to the lockdown which may aggravate the Covid-19 epidemic.
Cart before the horse
The National Security Council decided to end the lockdown before the realization of the “strict conditions” listed in the experts’ report:
– 51% of intensive care beds are occupied as of 25 April, not 25%;
– around 10,000 tests are carried out each day, far from the target of 25,000;
– the 2,000 people required to contact the relatives of those testing positive have not been hired or trained;
– preventive measures in schools and in the workplace have not been implemented with the workers concerned;
– mandatory masks in transport, schools, and workplaces where physical distancing cannot be respected are not available!
The experts’ report was categorical: we cannot “envisage the transition to the first phase of an end to the lockdown” if these “strict conditions” are not met. The Wilmès government and the National Security Council have ignored this recommendation. Large companies and public transportation will reopen on May 4 and all businesses will reopen on 11 May. Classes may partially resume in schools on May 18 (May 15 in Flanders), and people may be able to visit their loved ones on that date. As for culture, that will come later.
No confidence in this government!
The Prime Minister promises that the “strict conditions” will be met in time. No confidence can be placed in the authorities. Deputy Prime Minister Geens says it is impossible to provide every Belgian with a mask by May 4. On March 16, Minister De Backer promised 10,000 tests a day. A month later we are barely there, and nearly 4,000 people have died in nursing and care homes, victims of a state crime that left them, as well as health workers, without protection.
The mask affair shows that the government and the “opposition” parties (PS, Sp.a, NVA, Ecolo, Groen!, CdH, Défi) involved in the management of the crisis take workers for fools. A month ago, politicians, with Maggie De Block and Philippe De Backer at the forefront, repeated that “masks are useless for the population,” but today, they are recommended, and even sometimes compulsory, and fabric and sewing stores will be allowed to open on May 4 so that people can make up for the shortcomings of the state and the “free market” by making their own masks. And Ms. Wilmès adds cynically that a scarf or a bandana can do the trick! Who do they think they’re fooling?
[Read next, Karine Afonseca: Fight like a nurse, facing off with Bolsonaristas in Brasilia.]
Profit before health and life
The truth is that the end of the lockdown is being dictated by the employers. The employers’ organization, the FEB, has since March 4 denounced “disproportionate measures” in the fight against Covid-19. Ms. Wilmès agreed, saying that “some companies should not have closed.” The experts’ report was already a compromise between the logic of public health experts and the logic of capital defended by National Bank governor Pierre Wunsch and business executive Johnny Thijs within the Group of Experts for an Exit Strategy (GEES). Not even this compromise was enough for the employers and their political representatives.
The truth is that profit takes precedence over public health, the right of parents to know their children are safe at school while they are working, and the legitimate right of people to interact socially while respecting safety measures. The truth is that women will be the main victims of this new situation, which will increase the burden of care that the patriarchy places on their shoulders. Everyday life will become even more untenable for the poorest, especially for the young, racialized peoples, and the undocumented. This is unacceptable!
Another end to lockdown is possible
“We cannot remain locked down forever,” say neoliberal politicians and bosses, as if that was the debate. Meanwhile, we have already seen an 80 percent increase in deaths in April 2020 compared to April 2019 and the share of the population that has developed immunity against Covid-19 is less than 6 percent (against a necessary minimum of 60 percent for effective herd immunity). It is therefore necessary to plan energetic measures so that the “strict conditions” are met before the lockdown ends. Politicians are refusing to do this because it would be necessary to reallocate wealth (i.e. accumulated in the coffers of the richest companies and individuals), to invest massively in healthcare and public services, to suppress useless production and requisition business to produce what is necessary.
The end of the lockdown proposed by Wilmès & Co. is reckless and dangerous, but it is custom made for the capitalists. It does provide the necessary time to judge the impact of each phase. This is likely to lead to a new outbreak of the epidemic, when health care workers, who have suffered many Covid-19 deaths themselves, become exhausted. Do we want to reproduce the tragedy that took place in nursing and care homes?
The popular classes are being taken hostage by employers’ federations like ESSENSCIA (Chemicals) who are practicing blackmail, in essence saying: “we can produce masks and all that is necessary, but only if we abolish environmental protection and health rules” (which do not exist in China, they claim). Eighty-five percent of the companies inspected already do not comply with rules for contagion protection and physical distancing.
[Read next, Jessy Ní Cheallaigh: Ireland flattens the curve, but socialist policies needed.]
The employers will use the special powers granted by the government (with the support of the opposition, except for the Workers’ Party of Belgium – PTB) to impose their objectives, including extreme flexibility, sub-statuses, mobility, and overtime. The bosses will take advantage of social fragmentation created by lockdown to bypass unions as much as possible, or transform them into simple transmission belts. This has already started with the abuse of temporary unemployment and the measures taken on April 11 permitting up to 220 hours of overtime without overtime wages, successive fixed-term contracts, refugees working in agriculture without regularization of their immigration status, deregulation of student work, and so on.
The popular classes must adopt a self-defense posture. This crisis and pressure from employers show that without workers, no wealth is produced. Gauche Anticapitaliste calls on workers, the exploited and the oppressed, to organize in their neighborhoods, offices, workplaces, schools, and construction sites to actively monitor working conditions. Our lives and our health are at stake. Reject the agenda of the bosses’ government.
Gauche Anticapitaliste advocates the following proposals:
– In workplaces, there must be strict compliance with the Safety Guide to ending the lockdown. Two masks per day (minimum) must be provided by the owner, the same for gloves, gel, and protective clothing. A 15-minute break every two hours to breathe without a mask and handwashing with soap. The organization of what in order to that guarantee physical distancing, without resorting to night work. The right to leave unsafe conditions exists in Belgium. On this basis, workers and their unions can impose collective and individual screening and protection measures before returning to work, at the employer’s expense. Collective refusal to work means strike action. It is more than ever the most essential weapon workers have for their own legitimate self-defense.
– About a third of the economy is currently in lockdown. In Belgium, 41 percent of employees in the private sector are temporarily unemployed. “One in five companies is forced to lay off employees, that’s a lot. One in four says they don’t know yet,” says Hans Maertens, the managing director of Voka (Flemish employers’ association). “There is a huge risk that temporary unemployment will turn into full unemployment. The longer the economic lockdown, the longer the economic damage, I would almost dare to use the word ‘massacre.’” Dismissals should be prohibited for the duration of the partial economic paralysis. The suspension of monitoring the unemployed must be made permanent.
– Let us reject the employers’ blackmail by refusing to accept irresponsible and dangerous working conditions. Those who are currently forced into temporary unemployment must receive 100 percent of their salary, the difference being paid by their boss. There should be no retaliation when returning to work. Unions must go on the offensive to preserve jobs and to forcefully oppose the closures of any businesses. Working hours should be reduced to 30 hours per week without loss of salary and compensatory hiring must be put back on the table.
– In society in general, we demand massive screenings, confinement of those testing positive, the tracing and quarantining of contacts (without recourse to technological procedures based on smartphone data), and support by public services and social security for quarantined people.
– Schools are not day-care centers for workers’ children. Classes should not be resumed before the end of the summer vacation and before safety guarantees for workers are in place. Special measures are needed during the next school year to reduce learning gaps and to address the explosion in social inequality caused by the crisis. As far as possible, teachers should be able to decide collaboratively on measures that will allow for the schools to function in these new conditions as well as assessing students’ progress at the end of this school year and the following years. Education must be funded adequately and the practice of making students repeat grades must be ended. It is essential to hire sufficient teachers and other educators in order to reduce class sizes to ten students, both as a short-term health measures and in the long term as well.
– Undocumented migrants (between 100,000 and 150,000), the 15,000 homeless, prisoners, and all those who currently live without any form of income or support are particularly hard hit by the crisis. Non-violent prisoners must be pardoned, alternative sentencing should be adopted. Empty houses and buildings must be requisitioned to provide shelter for anyone who needs it. Former detention centers must be dismantled and replaced by structures fit for humane use. Medical care, test kits, and hygiene must also be organized and followed up by regular and free medical consultations for all these people. The regularization of all undocumented migrants and free healthcare for all is a social and public health necessity.
– Due to the lockdown, domestic violence has clearly increased. In order to combat this growing violence, provisions must be made for the victims, including shelters for women and care for children, psychosocial and financial assistance, and a feminist legal response.
– The moratoriums on evictions and on paying water and energy bills must be maintained to safeguard basic needs and fundamental rights.
– The coronavirus crisis raises the question of democratic decision-making. How are scientists being used by political parties and a government that has assumed special powers? Scientists cannot soft pedal their positions in the name of “economy needs,” that is, those of the capitalists. The whole of society, and workers most of all, must be involved in decisions about what is an essential activity and how to respond to the pandemic.
– Public services, and above all the health sector, must once again play a central role in our society. There should be no end to the lockdown without binding commitments to refinance the care sector – which must become 100 percent public – and public services in general which must be extended in particular to the pharmaceutical sector, cleaning, nursing homes, and home care. The refinancing of public services and Social Security must be guaranteed by a 10 percent crisis tax on the wealthy, the abolition of the tax relief and other reductions in employers’ contributions to Social Security, as well as the suspension payments on the public debt so that an audit may be conducted with a view to its cancellation.
– Priority must be given to the local production of protective equipment and other medical equipment necessary to prepare for future pandemics by requisitioning the companies concerned. The production and distribution of medicines under the control of health professionals (doctors, pharmacists, care and nursing homes, and so on) must ensure that the country has enough medicines and protective equipment for all.
– In agriculture and horticulture, local producers must also receive support for the conversion of their holdings to a green and diversified agriculture. Support is needed for all local short-term production and distribution chains directly serving consumers.
No to “normality,” yes to the alternative!
After this crisis, we do not want to return to capitalist “normality,” because this normality was the problem in the first place. A broad public debate on priorities is necessary. The economy can no longer serve profits, instead, it must serve social needs and the well-being of the population. All injustices must be fought. This means massive refinancing for the healthcare sector, for education, for high-quality and free public transportation, and so on. Scientific research should no longer be dictated by the pharmaceutical industry but by real social needs. Society must operate in a transparent and fair manner. We need a radical democracy, driven from below, by workers to oppose special powers adopted by this minority government. We must speak out against systematic police repression of racialized people, the most precarious, and young people in working-class neighborhoods, no to structural racism.
Wilmès and her accomplices’ decision to end the lockdown is an offensive move designed to further deepen her racist, sexist, colonial, and class-based agenda, an agenda that is also destructive for the planet. During this basic struggle against the government’s offensive, the popular classes can create the conditions for an alternative society, one which takes care of humans and non-humans, an eco-social alternative. The self-organization of citizens, trade unionism based on struggle, critical-minded scientists, and strong social movements are essential to achieve this. These are the lessons we must learn from this crisis which has shown that radical decisions can be taken in a very short time. It’s up to us to secure new choices for our society.
We have the right to hope! Let’s get organized and together we will get there!
[For international coronavirus coverage and news and analysis from working-class and socialist movements, read No Borders News.]