Social activist Naomi Klein coined the term, “disaster capitalism,” and wrote a book about it. The concept isn’t new; it just means that entities and corporations take advantage of damaging natural and manmade occurrences to rake in obscene profits. In fact, Klein says, such individuals and groups may actively encourage adverse conditions—or impede preparedness for them—to make millions. Not surprisingly, she has just released a commentary related to COVID-19.
Cynical as Klein’s ideas may sound, there’s no doubt she’s right. I remember the evening after 9/11, when the corner gas station hiked the price up to $5 a gallon. Other stations followed suit. They were all forced to stop gouging, but for a few hours, terrified people paid the price. After Hurricane Katrina, profiteers couldn’t wait to jump on the bandwagon to offer aid to stricken areas of the South, at a premium.
It hasn’t taken long for profiteers to come out of the woodwork during the current health crisis. I sat in amazement this evening as the CEO of Walmart, in a televised ad, heaped praise on his heroic employees, who continue to stock shelves and serve customers despite the risk. Seldom have I seen such breathtakingly brazen hypocrisy. Walmart employees can’t afford to not come in to work! Nor has their paid sick leave been increased since the pandemic began. They can be fired for exceeding their meager allotment of days off. In short, Walmart has done absolutely nothing to help its people, but the Walton family’s wealth will hit new highs this year. Again.
The automobile companies want their piece of the pie, too. The airwaves are flooded with ads declaring that, if people will only buy new cars, the payments can be deferred for several months. The auto makers are showing their care and concern for Americans by being willing to wait a little while for the first car payments. Impressive generosity. Not.
I read the other day that investors in pharmaceutical companies are already trying to insist that virus tests and, eventually, the vaccine, should have price tags in the stratosphere. What a windfall for them! It boggles the mind.
Then there are the airlines, who just hit a $17bn payday with the new relief bill. And Big Oil, which will get handouts on top of their normal subsidies. Not to mention the poor, struggling Wall Street dons. And so on. Meanwhile, small businesses and needy individuals are receiving a pittance, amounting to too little, too late for many.
There is one company that stands out as a light among the corporate bloodsuckers, however. H-E-B is a regional grocery store chain headquartered in Texas. They’ve had a disaster plan in place for well over a decade, having experienced devastation from repeated hurricanes. Since January, the top executives have been researching the spread of the pandemic around the world, so that their supply chains could be re-sourced as necessary. The company has worked with partners such as beer distributors to haul butter and eggs, the two most in-demand perishables, so that stores wouldn’t run out. Hundreds of management personnel have volunteered to run cash registers, work in warehouses, and stock shelves so that line employees could have relief from extra-long shifts. Every one of those employees got an instant $2-per-hour raise two weeks ago, and store hours have been limited. Sick leave is generous, and there is no firing of staff who are afraid to risk coming to work. Sure, H-E-B is making a mint during this crisis. But they’re also doing good in their communities. Just one example: last week, an H-E-B floral designer managed to find flowers for a bridal bouquet with a few hours’ notice after a couple had to cancel their April wedding and decided to immediately have a simple ceremony with just family. That kind of caring about people, instead of seeing only dollar signs, is what keeps my optimism from completely tanking these days.