The economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 could have been averted. The Right thinks it could have been done by denying the reality of the virus altogether, reopening everything with no precautions, and sending the death toll skyrocketing. That’s inhumane and indefensible. But the economic crisis could have been averted another way: by using public money to pay people to stay home and to prevent layoffs.
This splendidly wealthy nation could have afforded to take that route. What is a nation’s wealth good for if not to rescue society from catastrophe? Instead, the federal government abandoned Americans without adequate economic relief while state and local governments carried out half-hearted lockdowns that were simultaneously economically punishing and unsuccessful in stopping the spread of the virus.
Thus we got the worst of both worlds: widespread economic hardship and unabated contagion.
As a result of this disastrous non-strategy, not only has COVID-19 killed more than a quarter of a million Americans, but twenty-five million Americans have either lost their job or lost a significant portion of their income. As of October, eight million Americans had been pushed into poverty. Researchers at Northwestern University estimate that nearly one in four American households has experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.
But the pandemic hasn’t disadvantaged everyone. This month, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) published a report called “Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health: Protecting Essential Workers from Pandemic Profiteers.” Its authors determined that since March 2020, the total net worth of the country’s 647 billionaires grew by almost $960 billion. At that rate, it’s likely that by the time you read this article, that figure will have topped a trillion dollars.
Average Americans can be absurdly generous to the nation’s economic overlords, often predisposed to assume good intentions and extend them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the country’s wealthiest individuals deserved to rake in an additional trillion dollars over the course of the pandemic, goes a common line of thinking, because they rendered useful service to society in this difficult time.
What this presumption of innocence neglects is that the business models of most of the companies owned and invested in by these elites are predicated on suppressing labor costs, avoiding taxes, dodging regulations, and otherwise weaseling out of the social contract. They’re sitting pretty because everyone else is being raked over the coals.
Take Instacart, for example, whose thirty-year-old founder and chief executive Apoorva Mehta is one of the ten billionaires who has profited most from the pandemic, according to the IPS report. On the surface, it looks like Instacart makes money because it delivers groceries to people’s houses, a service that’s in high demand during lockdowns.
But the reality is that the way Instacart makes money, like Uber and Lyft, is by misclassifying the workers who shop for and deliver those groceries as independent contractors, allowing it to shirk its responsibilities to those workers. The money that Instacart, and by extension Mehta, has made during the pandemic is not just money a customer paid for a useful service, but money the company has saved on wages and benefits for the worker who performed the service.
Among the other ten billionaires listed by the IPS report are Jeff Bezos of Amazon, whose wealth has grown $70 billion; the Walton family of Walmart, whose wealth has grown $48 billion; and John Tyson of Tyson Foods, whose wealth has grown $600 million.
These companies pay low wages, skimp on benefits, bust unions, retaliate against whistleblowers, and cut corners that result in unsafe working conditions. All of that is true in ordinary times. In pandemic times, their anti-worker nature is garishly exaggerated, such as when Amazon fired and then allegedly conspired to publicly smear warehouse worker Chris Smalls who sought to protect his coworkers from COVID-19 infection, or when Tyson managers operated a betting pool on how many workers would contract the virus. Walmart, meanwhile, refuses to provide hazard pay to its workers who continue to interact with the public during a deadly pandemic.
Private equity giants Blackstone, Leonard Green & Partners, Cerberus Capital, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. are also listed in the IPS report. They all own aspects of our health care infrastructure, have all increased the wealth of their billionaire owners and investors during the pandemic, and have all been accused of profit-motivated cost cutting at the expense of patients and health care workers.
These firms could be commended for providing a vital service in harrowing times, for which they deserve their earnings. Billionaire executives would certainly prefer that. Or we could demand a national health care service paid for by progressive taxes, one that treats a public health crisis as a mandate to protect the many rather than an opportunity to enrich a few by cutting corners.
A trillion dollars can do a lot. It could maintain wages at pre-crisis levels for all workers in America, enabling people to stay home and stop the spread of the virus, for four months. Instead, it’s gone into the personal bank accounts of the richest people the world has ever known — while food lines stretch for miles, hospitals hit capacity, and misery engulfs millions.