CAPITALISING ON CRISIS: BILLIONAIRES, PATENT WARS AND SURVEILLANCE IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19

by Tesni Clare

It’s not an original idea: opportunistic, peripatetic capitalism works by capitalising on its own crises. The idea rings even truer for neoliberal capitalism. 

It’s what Naomi Klein has dubbed ‘disaster capitalism’. Amidst public disorientation following a crisis, control is achieved by the imposition of economic shock therapy, or in other words, economic liberalisation – public spending is withdrawn, large scale privatisation occurs, and disaster is transformed into a shiny new investment. Private contractors move in, gobble up funding for their efforts to ‘clean up’, and billions get cut from government budgets. 

Klein’s analysis is perhaps so commonly used it has become a cliché; but its recurrence also serves to reinforce its pertinence.  From the selling-off of public housing following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005; to the 2008 financial crash which justified a decade of fiscal austerity and the transfer of trillions of dollars from the public to the private sector; to the climate crisis which has seen a technocentric faith in ‘green growth’… the history of capitalising on crises goes on. 

And so, under the guise of disaster, the world is re-invented and re-organised to deeper entrench neoliberal structures in the mantra of everyday life. Surprise surprise, the coronavirus crisis is  proving to be no different. 

China has indicated it will relax its environmental standards to stimulate the economy, and there are already widespread concerns that the immense debt taken on by the British government to manage the crisis will motivate years of public spending cuts – a return to the dreaded A-word – to ‘balance the books’. Labour is warning of a £10bn black hole facing local authorities, as revenue streams (such as parking charges) dry up and social care costs balloon – with councils fearing that 20% budget cuts will be necessary.

Cuts like these erode away at the fabric of our communities. But not to worry: not everyone is facing financial gloom. 

Billionaires 

Whilst billionaire Elon Musk furloughs thousands of factory workers and orders across-the-board pay-cuts, he is on course to enjoy a $700 million payday – the first tranche of a staggering and sickening $55 billion performance-based bonus.  

Things are looking equally as comfortable for plutocrat Jeff Bezos, who is due to become the world’s first trillionaire, whilst still managing to end overtime pay and refuse sick leave for Amazon’s warehouse and delivery workers. To quell those in defence of Bezos’ philanthropic urges, democrat and economist Robert Reich tweeted: ‘Bezos has raked in $34,600,000,000 in the last two months – 346 times the $100 million donation to food banks he can’t stop talking about’. 

 

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Patent wars

If anyone is really going to hit the big bucks from the coronavirus crisis, it’s the pharmaceutical industry. Amidst profiting from tests and treatments, Big Pharma are scrambling in a global race to be the first to create a vaccine; a blockbuster opportunity to capitalise on intellectual property. 

In response, Oxfam International have launched an open letter, from over 140 leaders worldwide, calling for a ‘People’s Vaccine’ that is ‘made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge’. This might seem an unattainable and utopic demand in a time when very little remains free of charge, but the letter iterates, ‘now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives’. Global Justice, who have long challenged the monopolies afforded to drug companies that keep life-saving medicine out of reach, are hot on the campaign. 

 

“the worse the pandemic gets, the higher the eventual profit”

 

The pharmaceutical industry is extremely lucrative in the US as the nonexistence of basic price controls gives companies the freedom of setting exorbitant prices and determining drug distribution as they please.

The industry has even lobbied the coronavirus bill in the US, ensuring the government will not limit their ‘right’ to patent and profit on any future vaccines. This is the same industry that is currently receiving taxpayer money to fund their research into a coronavirus vaccine. Gerald Posner, author of ‘Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America’ has put it bluntly: ‘the worse the pandemic gets, the higher the eventual profit.’ 

It is perhaps not inconsequential that the US Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, once served as top lobbyist and US Head of Operations for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly before being sworn in to the Trump administration. A frank example of the revolving door in US politics.  

In the UK too, health secretary Matt Hancock has faced strong criticism from campaigners for essentially opposing a patent-free coronavirus vaccine, failing to join other world leaders in declaring that the vaccine should be a ‘public good’. The government seems to show no political will to challenge the monopoly of Big Pharma, acting instead as a ‘cheerleader’ for the industry. 

It’s also worth noting that Patrick Vallance, now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK, served as President of Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline between 2012-2018, one of the most notorious and predatory of the Big Pharma corporations. The ‘revolving door’ keeps on spinning. 

 

Apple and Google have already jumped in on the surveillance boat, estimated to be a ‘multi-billion dollar market’. 

 

Surveillance capitalism 

Last but not least on the ‘capitalising on crisis’ list is the tech companies. 

As governments worldwide are proffering comprehensive plans of mass bio-surveillance to tackle the spread of coronavirus – from drones to contact-tracing apps, fever-screening sensors to facial recognition technology – concerns are mounting over the growing involvement of the tech industry in such ventures. Apple and Google have already jumped in on the surveillance boat, estimated to be a ‘multi-billion dollar market’

Big questions are emerging around the trade-off between tracking the virus and the mass acquisition of personal data, with public morale already at a low following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Shoshana Zuboff, author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, recently tweeted of New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to ‘name (e)x Google CEO Eric Schmidt to lead commission on post-pandemic tech solutions, the man who grew rich&famous presiding over the largest expansion of private surveillance in history.’ 

(Un)natural crises

Many academics challenge the idea of ‘natural’ crises. As Marxist geographer David Harvey notes, crises are inherent to capitalism. Therefore, capitalism as a system must be brought into question. 

After all, human action – from the privatisation of agriculture in China, to rampant globalisation – created the conditions that facilitated the transmission of coronavirus; whilst the lurch towards neoliberalism and the slashing of NHS funding following the 2009 crash is what has left the UK unable to cope with its human impact. 

It is time to put an end to disaster capitalism. Time to stop ‘resolving’ crises with the same tools that create crises. Instead, we must seize this opportunity to step back and reimagine the system, so that health, the earth and morality – not profit accumulation – lie at the centre. 

 


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