A pandemic demands public acts of solidarity. We alter our lifestyles with the well-being of our neighbors in mind. We stay home as much as we can, we sew masks for health professionals who need them, we set up mutual-aid groups to assist our sick and elderly neighbors. In some people, though, the novel coronavirus inspires more selfish sentiments. The crisis exposes social fissures that have existed for a long time. Workers at a General Electric facility in Massachusetts just staged a protest to try to force the company to make ventilators in unused factories; meanwhile, rich people are trying to buy the life-saving machines for their personal use. Coronavirus isn’t the only threat to public health. Greed, and the means to act on it, also threaten our collective well-being. We can’t all be like billionaire David Geffen and watch the horror unfold from the vantage of our super-yacht.
Below are just a few of the ways the habits of the rich are making life more difficult for everyone else.
They’re Trying to Hoard Medical Supplies
Ventilators aren’t the only items the wealthy are trying to stockpile. One local doctor recently told the New York Post that he’s had to inform his more privileged patients that they cannot actually build ICUs in their homes. Others have contacted their doctors to ask if they can skip the line for an eventual vaccine. They’re even buying up luxury masks, the New York Times reports, along with the N95 respirators that medical professionals need for hospital use. (You don’t need to be super-yacht wealthy for your hoarding to harm others, of course; BuzzFeed reported last week that mothers who participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, now have trouble finding the food items their benefits cover at the grocery store.)
The wealthy don’t quite have the unlimited freedom to fill bunkers to the brim with equipment we all need. But the fact that they’ve tried only sweetens the idea of a wealth tax.
They’re Fleeing the City and Spreading the Virus
Vacation destinations may look like Brigadoons, reappearing at fixed intervals that mysteriously coincide with ski season or summer break or, say, a terrifying outbreak. The instinct to flee is understandable. The virus is a novel enemy, an invisible threat that makes familiar neighborhoods seem inhospitable, even dangerous. But yearlong residents say that wealthy people fleeing urban areas for second homes elsewhere are unwelcome interlopers. “We’re at the end of Long Island, the tip, and waves of people are bringing this shit. We should blow up the bridges. Don’t let them in,” James Katsipis of Montauk told the New York Daily News. Katsipis has a point. Yearlong residents are afraid of the additional strain this puts on their already-strapped hospitals, if they’re lucky enough to live in communities with hospitals at all. In Washington, D.C., people fled to West Virginia, a poor, rural state with limited health-care infrastructure. Others are heading to Idaho’s Sun Valley, a peak skiing destination; some local resort towns are now reporting high rates of infection. Some towns have resorted to extreme measures in order to protect their residents from infected travelers. Nobody’s blown up a bridge, but the island of North Haven, Maine, has barred visitors for the time being. The sparsely populated island has scant resources to cope with a potential outbreak.
They’re Exploiting Workers
Jeff Bezos is a philanthropist as well as a billionaire. But the men and women who made him the richest man in the world say they work in potentially dangerous conditions. Amazon warehouse workers have told Intelligencer and other outlets that they’re expected to work without basic safety precautions, including masks. Meanwhile, paid sick leave is only available to workers who test positive for COVID-19 or who have been quarantined due to possible exposure. Though Bezos is an easy target, his labor practices aren’t all that unusual. Instacart workers went on strike Monday morning to demand hazard pay, a more generous sick-leave policy, higher tips, and protective gear, including hand sanitizer. Instacart should be able to meet those demands: the start-up is worth billions, and its founder, Apoorva Mehta, is reportedly worth over $300 million on his own. Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island joined them, citing similar demands. Workers at Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, are planning a sickout for Tuesday.
Through Amazon, Bezos is complicit in exploitation on a mass scale. But outside the rarefied circles inhabited by Silicon Valley’s tycoons, other privileged households are also guilty of smaller-scale abuse. People are firing domestic workers without offering them any severance, the New York Times reported last week. Many of these workers are undocumented, and already struggled financially. Without income, they lack secure access to health care, if indeed they had it in the first place, and are now uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic.
They’re Screwing Around in Congress
This one is almost too easy, but it bears remembering that members of Congress are much, much richer than the average person. What did all that money buy them? The opportunity to serve the public — by passing an emergency rescue package that barely stems the bleeding inflicted by the pandemic. Though the bill increases emergency unemployment benefits, enforces a brief moratorium on evictions, and temporarily suspends payments for federal student loans, other provisions are rather less inspiring. If your income is low enough, you may get a one-time, taxable payment of $1,200 a few weeks from now. Congratulations!
This post has been updated to clarify the nature of the General Electric protest.