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Naomi Klein: Healthcare Industry Sees “Potential Bonanza” of Profits in COVID-19 Crisis

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As the top infectious disease expert testifies to the Senate that needless death and suffering could result from reopening too quickly, author and journalist Naomi Klein says a “pandemic shock doctrine” is beginning to emerge. “The fact that a large sector of the economy, the healthcare industry, sees a potential bonanza here … that’s a win for them.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, joined by Juan González, who is broadcasting from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, number two in the country for COVID-19 infections. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to start today in Washington, D.C. As President Trump claims the U.S. is prepared to “transition to greatness” and the COVID-19 death toll surpasses 81,000, two of the nation’s top scientists told a Senate committee Tuesday that needless death would result if states reopen too soon.

The stark warning from the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came just a day after NBC News published an unreleased White House report showing a surge of coronavirus cases in heartland U.S. communities, including Nashville, Tennessee, and Des Moines, Iowa. Central City, Kentucky, topped the list. The report, based on a May 7th internal memo, directly contradicts Trump’s claim Monday that the number of COVID-19 cases is rapidly declining around the country.

In a surreal scene, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Redfield and Food and Drugs Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn all joined the Senate Health Committee remotely while they quarantine after being exposed to the virus or to a staffer at the White House who tested positive. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee was also in quarantine after his staffer tested positive. He presided over the hearing from his home. Of the senators who joined the hearing in person, most Democrats wore masks or balaclavas; most Republicans did not wear masks. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine began the hearing without a mask but put one on during. Republican Senator Dr. Rand Paul of Kentucky — the first senator known to test positive for the virus — did not wear a mask.

This is part of what Dr. Fauci had to say.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: My concern is that if states or cities or regions, in their attempt — understandable — to get back to some form of normality, disregard, to a greater or lesser degree, the checkpoints that we put in our guidelines about when it is safe to proceed in pulling back on mitigation, because I feel if that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery, because it would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward. That is my major concern.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Fauci said it’s, quote, “more likely than not” that a vaccine will be available in a year or two.

Well, for more, we go to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where we’re also joined by Naomi Klein, senior correspondent at The Intercept, author and professor at Rutgers University. Her new piece for The Intercept, “Screen New Deal,” looks at how Big Tech plans to profit from the pandemic.

Naomi, we’re going to talk about that in a moment, but I wanted to start with the Senate hearing. There we just heard Dr. Fauci. This was an absolutely surreal scene. The room in the Senate hearing was sort of divided in half. The way you could tell who is Democrat and who is Republican — you know, one party is on one side of the room, and one party is on the other, socially distanced — is that the Democrats were all wearing actually balaclavas, as opposed to sort of medical masks, mainly; the photographers were wearing masks; and the Republican side of the room was maskless, including, of course, Dr. Rand Paul, who is the only senator known to have tested positive for COVID-19. Yet the man who was leading it, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, was leading it from home because his staffer tested positive for COVID-19. And as he said in his opening remarks, “We must open this country. We cannot just work from home,” he said in front of his fireplace.

I wanted to get your comments not only on this, but also on the interactions, that were very interesting. This was between independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, questioning Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir about the affordability and accessibility of any future vaccine.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Mr. Giroir, do you think we should make that vaccine, when hopefully it is created, available to all regardless of income? Or do you think that poor people and working people should be last in line?

ADM. BRETT GIROIR: My office is one of the offices committed to serving the underserved. And we need to be absolutely certain that if a vaccine or an effective therapeutic or preventive is available, that it reaches all segments of society, regardless of their ability to pay or any other social determinants of health that there may be.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Good. So, what you’re telling the American people today, that regardless of income, every American will be able to gain access to that vaccine when it comes.

ADM. BRETT GIROIR: They should gain access to it. I don’t control — you know, I think that congressional —

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, you represent — you represent an administration that makes that decision.

ADM. BRETT GIROIR: I will certainly advocate that everyone is able to receive the vaccine regardless of income or any other circumstance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Admiral Giroir being questioned by Bernie Sanders, who was at that Senate hearing remotely. Interestingly, Admiral Giroir was the most fuzzy in his remote location, which was in his office with many flags behind him.

But, Naomi, could you comment on the content of what both Bernie Sanders asked and the context of what we’re seeing today, what it means about once again exposing the fissures in our society that occurred — that, of course, were there even before this pandemic?

NAOMI KLEIN: Absolutely. And it’s great to be with you, Amy and Juan.

Yeah, I think what Senator Sanders is doing there is highlighting the moral and pragmatic absurdities of for-profit medicine, as he has always done so well. Of course, the question around the vaccine is notional at this point, because there isn’t a vaccine. And best-case scenario, we’re a couple of years out from that moment when we would be talking about universal rollout.

When that happens, I think we should all remember Jonas Salk’s famous answer to the question about whether, after he invented the polio vaccine, whether — he was asked whether it would be patented. And he said, “Would you patent the sun?” So I think that that should absolutely be the approach that we take.

But within the system of for-profit medicine, at every stage, whether it is the production of essential medical equipment or whether it is the delivery of services, that is responsible for a huge number of deaths within the U.S. response.

We’re hearing — we heard Dr. Fauci, just now, talk about needless mass death if the economy opens up too soon. And it is already opening up too soon in many states. But the truth of the matter is, because of a refusal to listen to earlier warnings from experts like him, there has already been needless mass deaths, you know, by some estimates an excess death of 50,000 people as of today in the United States, because the U.S. government did not listen to warnings, was not looking at what was happening in the rest of the world, completely blew the head start it had in tackling this virus.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Naomi, I wanted to ask you, this whole issue, as you’re raising, of a for-profit health system. We’re dealing with this coronavirus with actually three major initiatives that are occurring: One is on testing, the other is on treatment, and the third is on vaccines. And, for instance, Rutgers University developed recently a saliva test, which they are charging — the government approved — $100 per test. If you multiply that, the enormous amounts of money that is there to be made by medical entrepreneurs now in either one of these three areas — 

NAOMI KLEIN: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and yet you have the U.S. government refusing to participate with the European Union in some sort of governmental efforts to attack the needs, either whether it’s testing, vaccine or cure.

NAOMI KLEIN: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This whole issue of the money to be made off the virus, your response to that?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, look. The healthcare industry, which in many countries that have universal public healthcare is kind of an oxymoron, is seeing this as a potential bonanza. And I think when you have an administration, like the Trump administration, that is just looking at kind of raw economic indicators, like whether stocks are going up, and looking to be able to claim that as some kind of victory in an election campaign, well, the fact that a large sector of the economy, the healthcare industry, sees a potential bonanza here — and the bonanza is not just in the rollout of these tests, but also in the fact that people are not using their for-profit, private health insurance right now because they’re too afraid to go to the doctor, or doctors aren’t even offering in-person services in lots of cases — that’s a win for them. And we’re seeing big profits registered here. And so I think they’re really loath, frankly, to interfere with one of the only profitable industries in the country right now, because they want to claim that as some kind of a victory.

And within the testing, I just want to underline, there are the tests, the tests to find out whether you have the virus, but then there’s also the antibody tests, which are going to be a whole other for-profit bonanza. And we saw something absolutely absurd happen within the Trump administration, where they decided that in order to expedite the rollout of antibody tests, they would not regulate it at all, just create a kind of a free-for-all, so you didn’t have to go to the — you didn’t have to have FDA approval. You could just kind of — if you were just sort of a couple of app jocks with no real medical experience, you could roll out your antibody tests. And so, the market was flooded with garbage antibody tests. Lo and behold, testing actually matters. Approval actually matters. Regulation of healthcare actually matters. And so, now people don’t know whether they can trust these tests at all, and we’re once again losing valuable time, because for-profit medicine doesn’t make any kind of sense.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I also wanted to ask you —

NAOMI KLEIN: Unless you’re a for-profit medical company. Sorry.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Naomi, I also wanted to ask you about the political repercussions of the pandemic. Obviously, there is still a presidential election in the United States this year. And there was a startling remark by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to Time magazine this week. He was asked if he thought the election would be held in November. And he said, quote, “It’s not my decision to make, so I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other. But right now that’s the plan,” sounding as if there was, he saw, the possibility of the election being postponed.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, I mean, that’s a very worrying sign. We are seeing power grabs, anti-democratic power moves around the world, including by governments that are very close to the Trumps and the Kushners, like Netanyahu, who has used the cover of the pandemic to resolve the fact that he hasn’t managed to win any of the elections he has run in. Now he has a coalition government. And we’re seeing the Israeli state pass all kinds of draconian measures to secure that hold on power. We’re seeing Viktor Orbán in Hungary is now ruling by decree indefinitely. And so, yeah, it’s definitely worrying.

It’s also worrying in the context of the fact that voting by mail is one of the only ways that you can have an election under these circumstances, and this government is waging war on the Postal Service. So, lots of worrying signs.

You know, we’ve also seen attacks on democratic rights in New York state by a Democratic governor, by Andrew Cuomo, with the back-and-forth about whether to take Bernie Sanders off the ballot. And, you know, I don’t think that this would be happening in a context where you can kind of count on the public to have minimal bandwidth to engage in protecting their democratic rights. I mean, this is what this is all about. During a moment of shock, during a true emergency, when people are worried about whether or not they’re going have a job, whether or not they are going to be able to feed their kids, there is limited excess capacity to protect your democratic rights. And that’s why we see these kinds of power grabs in these moments of shock.

AMY GOODMAN: And we are going to be talking more extensively about mail, voting from home and mail-in ballots, and President Trump’s attacks on that, though he does it himself, later this week.

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