Two months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a global pandemic, the United States stands as the nation with the most confirmed cases. The WHO warns that the worst is yet to come. Yet President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants the economy to reopen as soon as possible, despite countless warnings from public health experts that opening too soon can cause a spike in deaths.
Big corporations and their head honchos have joined the president in downplaying the dangers and gunning for a reopening. Elon Musk told SpaceX employees that it’s more dangerous to drive a car than to be exposed to coronavirus. Hobby Lobby founder David Green made headlines when he claimed keeping his stores open was a part of God’s plan, and initially defied state shutdowns. Corporate-funded conservative groups like FreedomWorks are lobbying federal and state legislators and orchestrating astroturf anti-lockdown protests at state capitols. In April, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined the president on phone calls to discuss reopening the economy as soon as possible.
Perhaps denial is easy when you can afford to sequester yourself.
While Amazon workers across the country are now fighting to keep their $2 hazard pay raise, the nation’s wealthiest are hiding out in apocalyptic bunkers and making requests for private, at-home doctor’s visits that cost upwards of about $1,500. In mid-April, when doctor’s offices nationwide still faced a shortage of testing kits, Florida residents of Fisher Island — the richest ZIP code in the nation—purchased 1,800 antibody tests for themselves just in case Covid-19 penetrated their very gated community. In New York, 40% of residents were unable to pay rent in April, according to The New York Times. In New York City, the most affluent fled in droves, emptying out well-to-do neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, the West Village, SoHo and Brooklyn Heights by 40%.
It’s clear that the 1% are playing by an entirely different set of rules.
84-year-old billionaire Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, called up his buddies at NYU Langone in February to get a feel for the severity of coronavirus. “What I’ve been told by people who are smarter than me in disease is, ‘As of right now it’s a bad flu,’” Langone told Bloomberg News from the comfort of his North Palm Beach, Fla., home.
But it’s become clear that the coronavirus is very, very different from the common flu. The WHO has determined that Covid’s reproductive number is significantly higher: One infected individual can infect 2 to 2.5 more people than the flu, whose sufferers typically only infect up to 1.3 others. (Langone has since changed his tone on reopening, telling CNBC, “Our part as citizens should be stay home, obey separation.” Home Depot has instituted temperature checks for workers, shorter hours, customer limits, paid leave, hazard pay and no-co-pay healthcare.)
Due to the nationwide shortage of testing kits, it’s hard to know exactly how many people this pandemic is affecting. America’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, is certain the approximately 80,000 reported Covid-related deaths is a significant undercount. Some experts estimate that total deaths in the U.S. may be twice as high as reported.
What can be more easily measured are the ways some companies are profiting from the changes wrought by the virus. As Americans eagerly sanitized every nook and cranny of their homes, cars and shopping carts, sales of Clorox cleaning supplies rose by 32% in the first quarter of 2020. Zoom and Slack Technologies have also seen increases in their profits as working from home has become the new normal. Slack has added 80% more customers compared to the previous quarter, while Zoom hosts more than 300 million participants each day — boosting its stock price by 150%. In the first 23 days after the initial lockdowns began, America’s billionaire class raked in over $282 billion in personal wealth, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
Profiteering on Covid began almost as soon as the crisis hit. The makers of air purifier Molekule proclaimed in February they were “very confident that this technology will destroy coronavirus,” and rival Airpura claimed on its website in March that its devices are 99.99% effective in removing coronavirus. However, scientists hadn’t tested the purifier’s efficiency at eliminating coronavirus molecules — only that of similar diseases, like smallpox and Ebola. Experts say that coronavirus particles are too small to be blocked by the filters in air purifiers. (Airpura later removed the claim).
In March, third party sellers on Amazon began jacking up the prices on hand sanitizer. Sniffing out the opportunity for a windfall, profiteers bought out scarce supplies at grocery stores and resold them at exorbitant rates. It wasn’t long before Amazon curtailed the practice by banning new listings for masks and sanitizer. But Amazon happily continued to turn its own profit: The company’s earnings increased by $33 million every hour of the first quarter, even as its warehouses suffered coronavirus outbreaks and workers walked out over unsafe conditions. Bezos, the world’s richest man, has accumulated an additional $25 billion since the beginning of this year, putting him on track to become the first-ever trillionaire.
With a vaccine a year or more off and a president who keeps dismissing the severity of the pandemic, U.S. consumers will continue to pour their money into empty or uncertain promises. Online sales have spiked over the last several weeks. In-store sales have declined while online shopping has peaked to almost 40% after the first round of stimulus checks went out.
DoorDash, whose drivers are paid with a tipped minimum wage, is holding its foot on the necks of other meal-delivery services like HelloFresh and Blue Apron. Instacart is coming out on top and leaving major companies like Amazon and Walmart in the dust with a nearly 500% increase in sales in mid-April. Still, Instacart workers said the company was slow to hand out PPE.
Meanwhile, with “non-essential” businesses ordered closed in many states, more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since early March. The billionaires who own many of those businesses are panicking. As they push for the economy to reopen, they’ve made one thing very clear: They aren’t the ones making their own wealth, their workers are.