The world’s richest can’t save the United States

Sydney in Coronavirus

As the Wuhan coronavirus began to spread through China with small outbreaks elsewhere, I began to dread a repeat of the SARS experience. In 2003 I was running a travel business in Vietnam when SARS brought Asia’s travel industry to a halt that last more than three months. A couple months later, comparisons with SARS seem silly. Each new day seems to bring a new milestone. The SARS death toll was breached months ago. For weeks, China held the ignominious position at the top of the COVID-19 coronavirus league tables – both in the number of cases and the number of deaths. Now China’s been dwarfed by Western nations. The West, Europe and the US are at the centre of the pandemic. Now, the world’s richest nation, home to its richest men and corporations, is leading the morbid coronavirus league table in most categories. It seems inevitable it will lead the mortality table soon. The unfolding US catastrophe must necessitate a complete rethink of the economy and ethics at the centre of the world’s richest nation.

So much has been written about coronavirus already but there are a few thoughts that come to my mind as I watch the US descent into public health dystopia.

A few weeks ago, the United States passed China as the country with the most coronavirus cases. Why? Were China’s lockdowns really so effective? Does China have a better health system? Can we trust the data? I have no idea. But it’s a grim milestone for the world’s richest country – more so when you consider that the US had more than two months to prepare, before the virus hit.

How could the world’s richest country, home to the world’s most successful drug and technology companies, richest plutocrats, and most prestigious universities, be incapable of providing essential medical care for its people?

As if to rub in the biblical dimensions of the crisis, the US states that were the first to buckle, New York, Washington and California, are home to the world’s biggest tech companies, wealthiest plutocrats and Wall Street – the centre of global finance. The likes of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook are all based in California. Wall St, is a short drive from some of the worst hit areas of New York. And these same states are home to the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and others. It’s a profound collision.

Is there any causation in this correlation?

Maybe it just ain’t possible to produce the fantastically successful, unapologetic rapaciousness of Facebook, Amazon and Google, and also take care of your people’s health? (read Shoshana Zuboff’s book during coronavirus lockdown, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism).

It must be an odd feeling to be a billionaire in New York, Washington State and California right now. You have to face the unsatisfying reality that whatever else you’ve accomplished, your success has been built in a country under a form of capitalism that can create fantastic wealth and innovation, but cannot supply essential medical equipment in a pandemic. The US may end up at the top of the coronavirus league table in all categories – including culpable neglect of the health needs of its population. If we’re lucky, it might finally spell the end of the neo-liberal ascendancy.