It’s difficult to write about inequality in America without sounding like you are making things up. What can you say about a country with “school lunch debt” or “medical bankruptcy” or an “insulin affordability crisis”? Our political vocabulary contains phrases that simply do not exist anywhere else; our problems are as exceptional as the lies we tell ourselves about our meritorious national character. Pharmaceutical monopolies hiked insulin prices until a lifesaving drug became too expensive for many to afford. Now a new monopoly — Amazon — may profit from the crisis other monopolies created.
Amazon announced its new venture on Tuesday, promising Prime customers discounts on some medications. This virtual pharmacy will sell “creams, pills, as well as medications that need to stay refrigerated, like insulin,” the Associated Press reports. The uninsured appear to be a key target audience for Amazon’s latest expansionary foray. Amazon will offer members of this group “generic or brand name drugs” at a discount rate, the AP continues, and they will additionally benefit from discounts at physical pharmacies owned by chains like Costco. Though the pool of uninsured people who can also afford the $119 up-front cost of a yearly Prime membership is probably not large, the few who can fork over the cash might decide it’s worth the investment. Remember the insulin affordability crisis?
Amazon, of course, is not the reason that health insurance is so expensive. It didn’t drive up insulin prices either. A problem simply exists and Jeff Bezos stepped in with a solution, or something like that. But as it was rolled out to consumers on Tuesday, the Amazon Pharmacy has an insidious quality. There is seemingly no aspect of human life that the retailer won’t colonize if it can.
American misery has also been very good for Bezos. The pandemic bestows new importance on e-commerce, and Amazon’s quick shipping makes it easier to stock up on deodorant and toothpaste without risking personal interaction. But Amazon’s role as frontline pandemic supplier is only possible because of workers who say their jobs aren’t safe. Since the pandemic began, workers organized protests over dangerous conditions and begged for basic safety measures. Two-day shipping, meanwhile, only exists because Amazon expects workers and delivery drivers to meet high quotas and unrealistic deadlines. Convenience comes at a high price — just not for consumers.
Whatever benefits Amazon might offer as part of its new virtual pharmacy will thus be superficial at best. Amazon’s pitch to people with diabetes isn’t all that innovative; it might disrupt the market, but it certainly won’t subvert it, or reform it in a way that’s meaningful for patients. It can’t. Patients need real solutions. They won’t come from Amazon, or indeed from any monopoly.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to better characterize what Amazon says Prime will offer customers.