Coronavirus Concerns in a Material World

Coronavirus Concerns in a Material World

Madeleine Caverly, Staff Writer

As the involuntary detainment of the world has progressed, I find myself, like many other people, looking to art to form a bedrock to hang onto. And no artwork has captured my attention so much as Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” has. Perhaps I relate to the feeling that time is melting, or to the painting’s surrealist overtones, or to the message of the bleak and brazen horizon, but most strikingly, the painting leads me back to the current pandemic. Alas, where else could I go?

Thank you, Dalí, for allowing a concerned citizen to formulate her complaints about a global pandemic, a lackadaisical government, a private sector buckling at fore and aft, and bank-issued government loans. I’m sure this is exactly what you intended this painting to do.

For I have many complaints. To take a look at the first one, I bring my attention to the recumbent, flayed-looking beast on the sand. First to come to mind is the monolithic, stuttering, breaking-down machine that is the private sector. Second is the wavering, conflicted, splintering apparatus that is the government. I have concerns about both.

Public Sector

Like a pilgrimage or a sacred rite, every year since his election, Donald Trump has requested Congress to cut funding on CDC programs. This year, the proposal is in the White House’s budget map for the 2021 fiscal year–a plan to “advance the president’s health reform vision.” Trump’s health reform vision appears to be cutting more than half a trillion dollars from the budget for the Affordable Care Act. As for 2020, Trump proposed slashing the CDC budget down 20% from 2019: $1.3 trillion. That’s not to mention what he’s proposed to cut from the CDC’s research center for emerging infectious and zoonotic (animal/human transferred) diseases–not much of which has gotten through Congress, but nevertheless we’ve seen a 10% decrease in funding since Trump’s instatement.

This is not to say that good things have not been done for the CDC. Funding for global public health protection has been doled out steadily in the hundreds of millions of dollars. My gripe is that the Commander in Bleach does not seem to be taking the word of his health advisors seriously, and is wielding his influence among his supporters to encourage their efforts to reopen the economy, by praising their protests and spreading misinformation–oh, I’m sorry, alternative facts–about his power to go over governors’ heads in respect to reopening the country. This legal inaccuracy is made especially irksome by his previous demands that states be responsible for coronavirus response, with emphatic directives to stock up on testing programs and infrastructure, as well as face masks.

This admonition seems a tad bit critical when the federal government only just began scrambling for masks (500 million, to be precise) at the start of March. From the novel coronavirus’ international advent in January, the Executive Branch had put more of an emphasis on downplaying the pandemic’s possibilities and crying optimism. Mid-March, increasingly large spending packages began to lavish money on health care branches and technology companies- but the efforts are perhaps a little late.

And even as we fumble along searching for hope, Trump cut funding to the World Health Organization mid-April (the U.S. gives around $400 million dollars a year, comprising about 15% of the total funds), citing its lack of contention with Beijing over its cloudy numbers reports and the WHO’s opposition to travel bans. A Chinese official has criticized the move, and the backlash has been immense, with the general feeling being that unity and solidarity in the face of sickness must come before quibbling about fairly minor incidents that come down to political posturing.

The fact of the matter is, the president has not been the image of compassion about the deaths of thousands upon thousands–making comments about reopening public schools because of young peoples’ relative resiliency to the disease, making comments about reopening businesses and the great initiative of pro-reopening protestors, making comments about the pandemic disappearing, on a breeze, “like a miracle,” and making strikingly fewer comments of condolences to the families of the 58,800 people who have lost their lives in the country (as calculated by the Washington Post) that he professes to want to protect. And let’s not even talk about the debacle with the disinfectant injections.

Outside the realm of Trump, hospitals are scrambling to provide sufficient supplies for coronavirus protection, and even simple beds for patients, as privately-owned hospitals aren’t required to keep surplus supplies on hand in cases of emergency. This means a deficit in items ranging between the complexity of ventilators and plastic face masks, with health officials worried that doctors may end up needing to determine which patients get and don’t get essential equipment.

The Private Sector

As the stock market plummets, companies like Clorox, Kroger, and Gilead Sciences have grown by leaps and bounds. It’s obvious why disinfectants and groceries should be in such high demand, and Gilead has been at the forefront of testing for a drug formerly associated with Ebola, remdesivir, which has shown clinical success in cutting short the coronavirus’ persistence in the body, a necessary measure given that a drawn-out experience of the virus weakens the immune system and decreases chances of survival. Remdesivir has the potential to be a good, even amazing treatment for a vile illness. Unfortunately, it may end up inaccessible to most of the population because of certain measures taken in the $8.3 billion coronavirus spending package recently signed into law, smuggled in by pharmaceutical lobbyists.

As such, pharmaceutical companies are in a position to reap great rewards from the coronavirus. When the use of remdesivir becomes more widespread, and when vaccine development comes to a close, the U.S.’s lack of basic pricing controls on medications will undoubtedly lead to price gouging. What’s more, the spending bill prohibits the federal government from stepping in to put price caps on coronavirus treatments- giving big pharma free license to drive up the price of drugs and vaccines as far as it pleases.

It didn’t have to be this way. As early as February, Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinoisian Democrat, as well as 45 other members of the House and Senate, wrote to demand of Trump that vaccines and treatments developed with taxpayer money be produced without exclusive licensing to distributors. Unfortunately, this magnificent government allows drug companies exclusivity in their ownership of drugs developed with taxpayer money, letting them corner markets and charge outrageous prices. They wrote again in March, and despite Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar assuring her that prices would be contained, that assertion was quickly flouted as the bill was signed into law.

According to the New York Times, “Under a deal struck with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority agreed to pay 80 percent of the costs of developing and manufacturing coronavirus treatments — without any requirement that the final products be affordable. Regeneron has the two highest-paid executives in the pharmaceutical industry.”

That people should be forced to pay the exorbitant prices for vaccines is laughable. Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, the U.S. government has poured nearly $700 million taxpayer dollars into research on coronaviruses via the National Institutes of Health. The government enables the private sector to extort the American people, a system that has been in place since the 1930s.

But there are other cash cows to be had than from the pharmaceutical industry. The CARES Act (that $2 trillion stimulation package) was signed into law on March 27, and $500 billion of that money was set aside for large corporations (commercial airlines get 50 billion of that chunk.), while a comparatively small $140 billion is allotted for the health system, $100 billion of which is to be given directly to hospitals. Another $350 trillion was designated for small businesses- a term which can be loosely construed. Chain restaurants and lodgings companies located in particularly virus-devastated areas may be eligible to dip into the small-business fund as long as their employees are spread out among locations–the cutoff to be defined as “small business” is 500 employees. Lobbyists for such businesses want the Small Business Administration to use a wide brush with the law in order to include chains in these hard-hit areas. Researchers predict that larger businesses will end up as the major beneficiaries of any CARES act spending, with small businesses receiving, as we have come to expect, the short end of the stick.


One of the odder phenomenons that coronavirus- and the CARES Act- has brought us is a truly weird loan beneficiary system. The federal government shunted the money provided for business’ enfranchisement into a 2,000-strong network of banks to distribute. Instead of bringing the loans to businesses directly, the government has chosen to use a third party- the banks, famously trustworthy in recessions. This meeting of public and private sector has had serious ramifications for banks and businesses. 2,000 could be a bigger number; many banks have elected to opt out of the program because of the infeasible deadlines posed by the Trump administration- a few days after the bill was signed in- and the rigorous vetting processes demanded before businesses can be eligible for loans. Since banks need to check for businesses’ veracity, money-laundering fronts, and even possible terrorist affiliations, companies with prior experience with certain banks are fast-tracked and receive loans first. And since the Payback Protection Program operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, smaller businesses or ones that have never worked with those banks are left adrift. That’s not to speak of the clout that large businesses wield to choke out smaller ones for loans, a problem that’s becoming increasingly worrying as money runs out.

Money is a concern elsewhere. Business and government converges again in Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force committee, which is just rife with CEOs and conflicts of interest and interestingly absent of actual doctors.

With Alex Azar worked as the top lobbyist at Eli Lilly, the drug colossus’ prices rose higher than they had ever been (insulin doubled in price, for example).

Joseph Grogan, a former lobbyist at Gilead Sciences, is the Director of the Public Policy Council on the task force. Should he return to the company when his time in the government has passed, who’s to say that he doesn’t take home a massive buyout after the Gilead stocks soared with clinical trial announcements?

Ethical dilemmas are clear. And only four of the people out of the sixteen of the task force have any actual experience in science or medicine- the rest are businessman, lawyers, and executives- all of which leads me to believe that maybe-possibly- the Executive Branch doesn’t particularly… care about how all of this pans out? About how people’s lives are affected or ended? Maybe, just maybe, they are acting in the interest of the stock market and their personal nest eggs rather than the Americans they pledged to protect. Maybe the beast doesn’t really care about us at all.
We turn to Bill Gates for solace in these trying times. The American public cherishes warm-fuzzy stories of public/private operation- for example, the Gates Foundation’s donation of billions of dollars to public health promotion, stories of upstanding people doing good things with their hard-earned money. This is all very well and good, but looking beyond a twee Sixty Minutes intro story, we can see that such actions being necessary is symptomatic of our broken, bloated healthcare system, our government’s disregard for the interests of the people, and our reliance on the rich and corporations for help in times of need. If our own government can’t provide sufficient ¢75 masks to protect the people most susceptible to this disease, then what’s standing between us and complete dependence on corporate interests?

I find it despicable that cronyism and pipe dreams of unstilted, eternal economic growth should be at the forefront while a pandemic ravages the world. I find it awful that the president takes such a dim view to speaking with and relating to the families of the people who have lost their lives to the coronavirus. And I find it increasingly likely that we have finally sailed into the shores of Memory- the question is, are we living on borrowed time?