“The covid vaccine was created thanks to public money – let it be a public property!” Interview with MEP Marc Botenga

How we all lost due to the policy of austerity and why profit and health care will never go hand in hand – Polish journalist Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat talks to MEP Marc Botenga, member of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PVDA/PTB) and The Left in the European Parliament.

The The Left in the European Parliament officially supports the the European Citizens’ Initiative No Profit on Pandemic for free and universal access to a Covid-19 vaccine and treatments for everyone.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: How, from a left-wing perspective, would you describe the actions of the European Union regarding the pandemic?

Marc Botenga: First of all, we have seen how much the austerity policy has weakened public health systems throughout the European Union. A time of emergency came and they were not ready! We, the left-wing people, have predicted it would be that way. We may now have a bitter satisfaction that we were right, but it is a very bitter one. There was a shortage of nurses, doctors, medical equipment, surgical masks … The same problem in every single European country.

We must subsidize the health service on a large scale, including investing huge amounts of money in employee salaries. We do not have other choice. Why don’t we have enough nurses? Because we offer them difficult working conditions and low wages! We cannot wait any longer to change this.

The second things are the vaccines. We must be assured that they are safe and available for everyone. Currently, we do not have such a guarantee, because the monopoly on the supply of vaccines has been transferred to a single company that is unable to produce on an appropriate scale.

How to restore the proper public health service? What amounts are needed to make up for what was destroyed by the mindless cuts in public spending?

These would be different amounts depending on the country. Experts from each country will be able to describe it best. I, as an MEP, want to draw attention to something else.

In total, between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission called on various Member States sixty-three times to cut health spending. 63 times! So to begin with, it is worth canceling the cuts that were implemented then, and assess the urgent needs after that, all the time doing exactly the opposite, i.e. increase the expenses.

For example, in Belgium, a special emergency fund was created for the health service, worth several hundred million euros. Nurses and doctors fought to create it, and my party supported them in parliament.

It is also particularly important to support the first contact staff, especially family doctors, so there will be enough of them and making a quick appointment would not be a problem. They also would be able to quickly identify, for example, cases of infectious diseases.

What approach will win in the European Commission now? The ability to learn from mistakes, meaning that there will be no more appeals to save money on healthcare? Or will the neoliberal logic stay strong?

Unfortunately the second – and the bad – scenario might be the case. In the latest European healthcare programme, the significant  role was assigned for… a private sector. Contrary to all common sense … We have to give up the idea that healthcare can be other than public. Let us stick to a basic rule: health for everyone. That excludes any thinking in terms of profit, because the effect is always the same: expensive services, lack of availability and savings at the expense of patients.

Let’s take a look at how care for seniors looks like in Western Europe. Nursing homes and specialized institutions are most often run by international funds. What is most important to them? Money!

Profits instead of patients’ wellbeing.

If you, for instance, run a bookshop, and put profit first, it somehow sticks. But in healthcare it is unacceptable. It always ends up figuring out how to earn a little more: maybe spend less on feeding the inhabitants of the care house? Maybe nothing bad happens if the medical care gets a little bit worse? Unfortunately, the European Commission, opting for the private sector, leaves space for such thinking.

There is a hope that so many people now saw that they need efficient public health care – because it is a matter of survival. They see what is happening in their countries, what is happening in the United States, where the logic of profit has gone completely absurd. However, to see this translated into the actions of the European Commission, great pressure from below will be needed.

How does the left in the European parliament perceive the EU negotiations on the purchase of vaccines, as well as the vaccination process itself?

First, we demand that vaccines are made available for everyone. Health is a human right, so protection against the coronavirus is also everyone’s right, so that lockdowns can end and there would be no more victims. The vaccine should be a public good – not covered by proprietary rights, copyrights or patents, so that there won’t be any restrictions on its production. We already have such a precedent. The inventor of the polio vaccine has abandoned the patent and other possible benefits, stating that the first thing to do is combat the disease. The same should apply to COVID-19 so that vaccines can be produced wherever they are needed.

The companies that created the vaccine did not "invest" in this. They have received public support. This is how research and development were financed and this is how production is now co-financed. In addition, if it turns out that the vaccine has hidden flaws and it is necessary to pay compensations to people who develop undesirable wayside effects, then the states will also pay for it. So we pay for the same vaccine four times … five times, because it still has to be bought! We say: since it was created thanks to public money, let it be a public property.

How much public money has gone to companies to co-finance the research and production of these vaccines?

This is an excellent question. We also ask this question to the European Commission, because there is no transparency in the case of vaccines. We know that Pfizer / BioNtech has received hundreds of millions of Euros from the German government. Pfizer also received funding from the United States. We are talking either about public money or grants awarded by non-profit entities. The Moderna vaccine was created almost entirely thanks to public money – literally 1 percent was donated by Dolly Parton, a country music star. So we have a product that is to serve everyone, made from all of our money, and we are to assume that all profits are taken over by a private entity. It is not fair.

So what is the solution? Nationalization of large pharmaceutical concerns? Creation of new public entities involved in research, development and production of drugs?

I think the latter should be the first step. Western European countries used to have such facilities. They either got rid of them or greatly diminished the scale of their operation, and that was a big mistake. I am not sure if nationalizing everything would be a good solution (for example, does every cream-maker necessarily have to be state-owned?), but I would like to remind that there is such a thing as the WHO essential drugs list. These are drugs that should be available to everyone as part of the right to health protection.

Europe should have its own public producer of these drugs, or possibly such a non-profit entity, so that it never turns out that we are dependent on concerns for access to them. For now, some European countries are interested in creating such an entity on an international scale – it is no coincidence that Germany bought 20 percent shares in CureVac. If the vaccines came from state-owned or non-profit producers, many people who do not want to vaccinate today would not have the concerns they have today. Because people, as a rule, are not afraid of their doctor or science as such. They are afraid, however, that since the producer is a private company focused on profit, the desire to obtain this profit will be more important than concern for the health and safety of all vaccinated people.

I understand these concerns quite well. That is why we demand that the process of vaccine development and distribution ought be absolutely transparent, with no missing information or misunderstandings. At the same time, however, the European Commission is under enormous pressure from the lobby of pharmaceutical companies, which are fighting for solutions that are beneficial to them.

How do you counteract this, as the European Parliament left?

That is a very difficult task. It is impossible to block the lobby of corporations, if, on the other hand, there is no powerful movement for an efficient public health service. A grassroots and civic movement. This is one of the goals for which the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘No Profit on Pandemic‘ was created. And we support it.

If people do not demand loudly to stop cuts that hit them directly, while at the same time allowing the rich to become even richer in pandemic (look at Bezos for example), we will be left with even greater inequalities after the pandemic than we have in Europe now. Between East and West, North and South. For that not to happen, massive public investment is needed to support people who are now losing their jobs and livelihoods, and to sustain local development. We must all fight for fair development – people from the West and the East. This is our common goal. If we just allow the pre-pandemic order to return, our situation will only get worse. But I hope it does not have to be that way.

We have heard already during the previous great capitalist crisis that there comes the end of neoliberalism, because this system has compromised itself. Unfortunately, that failure did not prevent the system from surviving. Last year, during the first spring lockdowns, many left-wing activists said that now we just have to come up with new rules on which to rebuild the economy. A year has passed and the left in Europe is still struggling to secure its positions rather than experiencing a growth in popularity. Are we unable to explain effectively what is the relation between the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cuts in health care spendings, between austerity and the very essence of capitalism?

We have to learn how to educate people on that, because our competitors will not make it easier for us. Neoliberal politicians, when necessary, will announce that they have made mistakes, and the system needs to be changed … and then they will continue to operate as they do before. The extreme right will focus on LGBT people or refugees, present them as a danger, and thus divide people. So, what can we do? Show that neither the right is an alternative, nor the "traditional" policy is working.

We need a strong message in which class issues come to the fore. To show how the gap between wealth and poverty is widening. Demand higher wages. And use the issue of vaccines to show how the wealth in your wallet or your citizenship and place of residence translates into the possibility of obtaining good health care. We need to say it out loud: public health is more important than profit! Hit hard on practical matters. We have to be anti-establishment, only such a Left makes sense.

And if we are asked, where to get the money for the aforementioned investments in public services and equal development?

Let the answer also be anti-establishment. Let us tax the richest with a single European wealth tax. Let us impose a single tax on international companies that operate and earn money in the European Union. Let us strive to harmonize rates across the continent so that no country can play the role of a European tax haven, so as not to win some countries against another. Let us be clear: workers and the poor people have already paid. They have already fallen victim to crises they did not cause. Now it’s the turn of billionaires and the financial elite.

Originally published at Strajk.eu (21.1.2021)