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S&M: The profitable pandemic 

Let me start with a heart-breaking and true story:

A close friend of mine, brother in life, musical arms, and kindred spirit, residing in England with British citizenship, was meant to fly down in utmost urgency last week.

The reason is that his mom, one of the dearest and sweetest ladies on God’s green Earth, who always treated us like her own children, is gravely indisposed. 

The family provided us with a place to call home, showed us unparalleled kindness, hospitality, and love, and it was not just their home, but their hearts that were also open to us. 

Aunty’s medical treatment has been managed by my friend who is overseas, and his sister, who has flown down to tend to her.

Despite the current crisis, he procured a ticket, adhered to all the current stipulated criteria of getting six PCR tests (at £ 150 a test mind you), and also spent on sorting his insurance and booking his quarantine accommodation. His wish is to spend time with his mom, and I know the travails he endured to arrange everything to make it here on time. 

It was also the last flight before airports were to be shut down before our most recent lockdown. 

He gets to the check-in counter over in the UK and there’s a complication where the Department of Emigration hasn’t processed and granted the visa, which is a 24-hour process, even though he had done the needful 48 hours before. However, no one over here is contactable either (surprise, surprise!) due to the pandemic situation and the imminent lockdown. He spent hours trying to convince the UK that everything required for his entry to Sri Lanka was sorted. 

Did I mention it was the last flight? 

In a nutshell, he missed the flight. 

Everyone was devastated. Aunty, most of all, was shattered. 

He had to book the next available flight, which is on 3 June. 

He and his sis pray it isn’t too late. 

Fortunately, the airline and his boss at work have been supportive and helpful, and offered to make the transition to the date of the flight as smooth as possible. However, he does need to get the round of PCR tests again, and will be charged for it. 

This heinous and odious debacle must happen globally to others as well, where the PCR testing packs a sizeable crippling financial punch to one’s system. 

Imagine then, the plethora of less-than-fortunate people who must succumb to the whims of the rapacious money-grubbing tycoons, and be victims of similar scenarios worldwide during this pandemic? 

How many continue to exploitatively squeeze out the sorrow and suffering of people just so they can profit from them due to inefficiencies in organisational frameworks, loopholes in lacklustre systems, and inadequate procedures of governments worldwide? 

 

Eat the rich 

The combined wealth of the world’s 10 richest rose by $ 540 billion during the pandemic. Oxfam – a global movement working to fight poverty – stated earlier this year that the aforementioned funds would be sufficient to pay for vaccines for the whole world, and – wait for it! – enough cash to prevent the world from spiralling into poverty during the pandemic.

Holy smoking ghost of Christmas past! 

Now isn’t that something? 

Of course, wealth does not necessarily equal income. Wealth estimates are a reference to the net worth of an individual bringing into consideration their money, notional value of the shares they hold, and overall value of assets. An accentuation of share prices pertains to the estimated net worth of the organisation as a whole, and not the perceived worth of the individual. 

Oh, we’ve seen how even millionaires in our own backyard earned handsomely, with their fortunes rising from a rebounding stock market, and a rigged economy that favoured the fiscally privileged and bludgeoned the disempowered and poor. 

A world in chaos, in arduous peril, global uncertainty, and pandemonium is a gold mine for those state leaders, upper-echelon entrepreneurs, and the wealthy to mint the sheeple of every drop of blood and money.

Think about it.

Who stands to gain from wars? The manufacturers of arms. Who benefits from sickness? Pharmaceutical giants. Who thrives when others struggle and suffer? Those with unbridled influence and insurmountable power.

Economic recovery for many would take well over a decade. According to the World Bank (October 2020), 689 million live in extreme poverty. 

Let’s address both elephants in the room. On one hand, there are organisations, business leaders, celebrities, sports stars, etc., that have responded with charitable mega donations since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, 209 billionaires have thus far donated an equivalent to $ 7.2 billion, it is said. So let us call an apple an apple, a spade a spade, and give unto those who have been selfless and charitable the credit they deserve. 

Now to stare the other elephant in its face. What about the other 2,546 billionaires out of a total of 2,755 who have not batted an eyelid?

How many of the 19.6 million millionaires in the world have pulled their weight and helped during this time? 

 

It’s just business…nothing personal! 

When the world faces a universal threat, to exploit a special advantage is truly repulsive, despicable, and morally repugnant.

Then how about the corporate entities that have profited from Covid-19, by exploiting the pandemic and the people who are devastated by it?

The volume of businesses – thousands of small and medium-scale enterprises – that have shut without any extended support by banks and financial institutions, larger investment conglomerates, holding companies, and governments in a pandemic world are enormous. 

Consider the millions of job opportunities lost, and the unemployment boom elevated exponentially worldwide. 

How low-income segments, minorities, uneducated demographic groups, young females, among others, are impacted colossally with no silver lining in sight. Here in Sri Lanka, we can see hardworking professionals, from those in managerial capacities to working-class groups, unable to find suitable, compensating jobs right now. 

The most salient and notable aspect is perhaps how a portion of state bodies and corporations have flourished and prospered during this bleak and abysmal time by going full-on mercenary, exploiting citizens in countries with ridiculous charges for PCR testing. Other industries and brands systematically jacked up prices, realising the high demand for essentials and the comparatively low-supply situation that would rise. Religious charlatans across the board have urged and milked their gullible flock for money. Some insurance companies have withheld and delayed claim payments around the world to protect their profits. 

Private hospitals in certain countries have been taking advantage of the devastating second and third waves by charging exorbitantly from patients, at times for unjustified treatment costs. A lack of foresight along with the series of lockdowns propelled a liquidity crisis, while government regulations, economic impacts, and patient deferrals all contributed to a lack of treatment facilities, closures, refusals of treatment, and failure of supply chains across the board. 

The consequences of market forces in the lack of vaccine production capacity and decades of under-investment in basic research and vaccine R&D (research and development) have also become readily apparent (Butler 2017; Plotkin 2017; Mannix 2020).

How about multinationals and retailers notorious for unfair labour and exhaustive warehousing, as well as factory conditions that failed to take steadfast precautions to implement Covid safety measures, that batted on vehemently until many staff contracted the virus and disseminated it to other workers and their families.

Other employers used the pandemic as a justifiable excuse to slash pay, delay salaries, and fire employees without fair warning. Many of the pay cuts were imposed on hardworking staff in the battlelines, while the top brass took their full salaries and bonuses, as the world witnessed the greatest pay stagnation since Victorian times.

Data analysts and financial experts prophesied and even more accurately forecasted the looming economic strains and market volatility following the first wave of the coronavirus; yet these experts were ignored and their advice unheeded.

Advertisers and marketers rocked the pandemic boat like champs and rolled with the opportunities, using the calamity to sell more products and launder brand reputations. While there certainly is naught wrong with adapting and making use of opportunities in a market, there should be a modicum of ethical fibre and appropriated values to act with some accountability and moral decency.

The darker side of stock trading showed us how shareholders basked in the fluctuating success of companies. Pfizer Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Albert Bourla sold $ 5.6 million worth of stocks when the firm announced the vaccine was effective November last, and share prices soared.

Pharmaceutical companies fully espoused their influence of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to block proposals by other countries to develop their own vaccines. While this protects the profits of Big Pharma, it may well result in nine out of 10 people residing in the world’s poorest countries to miss out on receiving the vaccine.

Meanwhile, corporations and multinationals have swooped in and caused deforestation belonging to indigenous Cambodian communities, and the forcible removal of Ugandan smallholder farmers, and a relocation of an entire Guinean village without proper sanitisation and shelter to an unfinished resettlement site. Because national lockdowns made any of the above impossible to oppose, and in the case of the Guinean village incident, it is the World Bank (WB) in collaboration with mining companies responsible for the haphazard relocation.

 

The Golden Age of Grotesque  

What all of the above really paints is a rather grotesque picture of the ugly side of human nature, each brush stroke only further emphasising how unequivocally venal and proactively contemptible we are as a species. 

How we are more than inclined to reap benefits from the misfortunes of others, the tribulations of country, community, and society… and flippantly dismiss any notion of decency and morality with not a shred of humanity.

For without our humanity we are nothing of worth, nor any different from beast, insect, or flora, and merely our own worst enemy. 

“The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”

– Mahatma Gandhi 

 

References:

www.economist.com 

www.oxfam.org

www.worldbank.org

www.tribunemag.co.uk 

Butler, Decla. 2017. Billion-dollar project aims to prep vaccines before epidemics hit. Nature News 541 (7638): 444–445.

Plotkin, Stanley A. 2017. Vaccines for epidemic infections and the role of CEPI. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics 13 (12): 2755–2762.

Mannix, Liam. 2020. Vaccine development is a case of ‘market failure’. Here’s why. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April. 

Suresh de Silva is the frontman and lyricist of Stigmata, a creative consultant and brand strategist by profession, a self-published author and poet, thespian, animal rescuer, podcaster, and fitness enthusiast.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.