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Disaster Capitalism and Pandemic Profiteering

In the past eight months, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos has increased his wealth by 39%, adding more than $50 billion to his personal bank account. In the same time, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg increased his wealth by 59% and Walmart’s Walton family gained an unfathomable $25 million and counting. All while over 40 million American have filed for unemployment and 35 million are facing eviction for missed rent payments. Is this just the free market at work, or something more sinister going unchecked?

This is hardly the first time the rich have continued to profit amid global, national or local tragedy. During the 2008 recession, the federal government prioritized bailouts for banks and large corporations, with Americans only seeing about 10% of the aid banks received. And by 2009, the world’s highest net worth individuals saw their wealth grow by 19%, recouping virtually all their losses in a year. In the meantime, 9 million Americans lost their jobs and recovery for low and middle income families took almost 10 years.

Internationally, no one profited more from the 2003 invasion of Iraq than ExxonMobil. When Grenfell Tower burned in West London, killing 72 and displacing hundreds, the building’s contractor admitted to profiteering and intentionally choosing more combustible materials to save money. Amid the ongoing refugee crises, The European Union’s border security and surveillance agency saw its funding increase by 3,688% from 2005 to 2015.

Naomi Klein deftly explains this phenomenon of disaster capitalism through the “shock doctrine,” when governments and corporations seize the opportunity of one’s (or often millions of people’s) misfortune to advance their agenda at the expense of human life, often disregarding the human cost and the greater good.

But in a largely capitalist world, can we really expect corporations to care about the greater good? That’s where checks from the government are supposed to come in, though part of Klein’s shock doctrine is the idea that governments too seize the chaotic moment to suspend democratic procedures and therefore make decisions that benefit their careers, friends and large donors.

We’ve seen this time and time again, but most recently in our ongoing and seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. While our market has laws to ban profiteering, price gouging and monopolization, the Trump administration has failed to enforce them, along with those banning insider trading. The White House continues to distribute billions in subsidies to select corporations. According to the Baltimore Sun, the value of stock options distributed company insiders at Vaxart, the company Trump selected to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, just weeks before the admin’s announcement increased sixfold. Stock options held by Vaxart’s CEO went from $4.3 million to more than $28 million.

These instances demonstrate the stark reality of what we can expect from our governments in future disasters. More than just voting every four years, we need to continually hold all of our elected officials accountable to their constituents, not their biggest donors. It’s almost certain that before the pandemic is over, corporations and government officials will continue to benefit and profit from the thousands who have died and the millions teetering on the brink of economic instability. If our government refuses to enforce the laws that are supposed to hold corporations in check, we can expect even greater income inequality that can only be effectively solved with global solutions.


Catherine is an avid supporter of environmentalism and sustainability at home and worldwide. She earned her bachelor's in political science and journalism and loves to explore how social issues are shaped by law and politics. When she's not blogging for the Tangency Foundation, Catherine works in communications and public relations. You can find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Stolz.

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