Covid-19 Profits and Profiteering

mask and money in handsSince March 2020, forty million Americans filed for unemployment payments. Meanwhile, 40 new billionaires took their places on the world’s richest lists, with many new fortunes created by the pandemic. Culture war grifters have made new fortunes selling alternatives to vaccines. Foreign swindlers have taken advantage of the huge transfer of wealth from federal programs to US households. While the era of the Covid-19 pandemic has been about human lives, it has also turned out to be a real workout for capitalism.

Executives and the biochemists with stakes in the companies that developed vaccines have made incredible profits, as have those running the contract research organizations that directed the clinical trials, and those directing the glass manufacturing businesses that make vials for the vaccines. Riches have come to those who led companies that made gowns and face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers, and those who produced diagnostic tests, digital x-ray analysis systems, and pulmonary products like oximeters. Those who created software for scheduling appointments at mass vaccination sites did as well as antibody treatment manufacturers and home delivery services.

At the same time, medical mis-informers have done well too. Fraudsters with large social media followings sold natural health “cures” and vitamin supplements as alternatives to vaccinesAmerica’s Frontline Doctors, a group working against vaccinations, has convinced tens of thousands of Americans to seek telemedicine consultations, while selling millions of dollars’ worth of ineffective medications. The anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, sold online, has been promoted as an effective treatment for Covid-19 despite having no proven anti-viral benefits, but clear harms when overused.

Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial pill, was endorsed by a president and sold by his followers for both preventing or treating Covid-19. Yet meta-analysis has shown that it is useless against Covid-19 and can lead to potentially fatal cardiac complications. This medical misdirection has undermined public health messaging while making a tidy profit for those who promoted its use.

The cybertheft of tens of billions of dollars in Covid benefits has been a direct economic attack on US taxpayers as documented by the Justice Department’s Covid-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force. A weak system of unemployment verification maintained by the states, weakened further by simplified processes to apply online for Covid benefits during the pandemic, opened the door to plunder by both foreign and domestic computer hackers. The task force estimated that $87 billion to $400 billion of the more than $900 billion in pandemic-related unemployment federal relief has been stolen.

During this time of pandemic, new markets have opened, and profit-driven schemes, legal and illegal, have proliferated, highlighting the gain of a few even while many lost much. In our unequal world, the nine top new billionaires gained a combined worth of $19.3 billion, enough to provide vaccines to more than three quarters of a billion people in low-income countries, which has been slow to occur. The pandemic has been more than a public health issue, it has had stunning and unsettling effects on our economy and its actors. It remains to be seen how we reckon with the economic and human consequences of the pandemic in years to come, and whether this moment will suggest a better approach to our economic structures in the same way we need to rethink how better to protect human lives.


Michael Stein & Sandro Galea

As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.

Please note, this week’s The Turning Point does not include a video.

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