As soon as the signs of the coronavirus apocalypse became clear, the people knew what to do: Stand in winding lines at Costco, waiting to blow as much money as they could muster on all the toilet paper, bottled water and hand sanitizer they could grasp.
There is something innately hilarious about people wasting time and hundreds of dollars in an attempt to stockpile things that won’t save us from the virus at all — nobody’s dying because they can’t wipe their asses with enough Charmin Ultra Soft, nor is our water poisoned, nor is hand sanitizer any better than, you know, soap. What is less hilarious is the fact that amid a pandemic fear that affects people across the lines of race and class, a whole lot of capitalists have decided to personally profit by scalping the items they hoard.
One 37-year-old told the Atlantic that it’s a simple matter of “supply and demand.” He bought hand gel for $7. He resold it for $138 on eBay the same day — while also acknowledging that he, himself, didn’t think hand sanitizer was useful at all. Another seller, 43-year-old “Russ” in Michigan, admitted he was profiting too, albeit on much smaller margins ($25 resale for a normal bottle). “I know what you want to ask me. I weighed whether or not this was a moral thing,” he said. “My conclusion was: If I don’t do this, someone else is going to. That allowed me to do it.”
If that conundrum sounds familiar, well, it’s because it’s the core tension at the heart of capitalism itself — an economic theory that hinges on the balancing of personal profit with social benefit, on the scale of the individual as well as the nation-state. And amid an unprecedented time of human wealth and achievement, we’re all witnessing how a sneaky virus is laying bare the assumptions we’ve held about the fundamental benefits of a world that runs on free markets and money. There’s more money to spend than ever before — and it isn’t doing shit to stop the spread of coronavirus.
While people panic-spend on “emergency” goods, major corporations are grappling like mad to get whatever tax cuts they can. Most of the world’s billionaires are silent, nowhere to be found (perhaps they’ve already flown off to their private luxury bunkers); the ones who have begun offering their funds to fight the virus in China appear to be getting ripped off, proving once again the philanthropy from the hyper-rich isn’t the answer to social ills.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is bloviating about a payroll tax cut that would make the 2008 bank bailout look pretty moderate in comparison. A lot of people on both sides of the aisle hate the plan, perhaps because a payroll tax cut seems to, once again, benefit households earning more than $123,000 a year while also potentially placing the responsibility of trickle-down benefits in the hands of employers, not workers. Cash assistance or help for the unemployed remains on the margins of Trump’s plan, at least for now; similarly, the GOP won’t green-light a plan drafted by House Democrats to help the working class in the pandemic because they accuse the Dems of politicking by slipping in a permanent policy for national sick leave — a policy idea that has broad support from Americans.
Overspending isn’t the problem, here. The Federal Reserve is pumping $1.5 trillion into short-term funding markets in an attempt to slow the effects of every stock genius panic-selling their shares — a phenomenon that’s ruining a lot of everyday peoples’ 401k retirement plans. And if you’re wondering, Wow, isn’t there a lot we could do by conjuring $1.5 trillion out of the blue? Well… yes, you’re absolutely right, and yes, that makes it doubly confusing as to why a key federal agency like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — you know, the crew at the forefront of the coronavirus response — is still going to get its budget slashed.
Globalization, especially of trade, was supposed to make the flow of goods in the face of dynamic consumer demand easier and more efficient. But fuck that in a pandemic — now, we’re mostly watching trade agreements falter under the weight of pure human suffering and mass anxiety from institutional investors who need their cash back now. Think all those trade routes would speed up the distribution of standardized testing and lab labor? Wrong!
Getting the short end of the stick are working-class people, whether artists or metalworkers, from China to the U.S. to Europe. They have to risk getting sick or going broke while being utterly overwhelmed by what the hell is happening in their communities and bank accounts alike. There are landlords looking to leverage their tenants’ financial struggles into an easy eviction and flip to raise prices. The fact that there is no safety net for the loss of livelihood is brutal, unbelievable, and in America, utterly banal. The difference is merely about scale, not situation. A lot of people die while worrying about their money, even when there isn’t a pandemic about.
Bill Gates and Zuck and Bezos will do what they feel like, giving as much as they feel like, and hopefully it will help. Our government will literally print money, and hopefully it will help. Employers are being forced, basically at flu-gunpoint, to change company policies to be more ethical and worker-friendly; hopefully, those policies will stay. But the most depressing part of the rise of coronavirus is how much power we have in the form of money, and how little it seems to matter when it’s human error and greed stumbling ahead. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the only bright spot has been the optimistic results of governments that step in confidently and transparently, pushing the hand of private industry in a coordinated agenda that dilutes the pressure of capitalism itself.
Mere days after China shared the genome of the coronavirus with global researchers, Australia’s government led its private testing industry to mobilize, at no cost to consumers under the national healthcare plan. In America, we’re still debating how we can afford to do it.
Thank god, then, Tom Hanks got sick in the land down under — no matter the riches he has to spare.