- John Nicholsnational affairs correspondent for The Nation.
We speak with The Nation’s national affairs correspondent John Nichols on the occasion of his new book, “Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis,” which takes aim at the CEOs and political figures who put profits over people during the coronavirus pandemic. The chapters cover notorious figures such as former President Trump, Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner and Jeff Bezos. “In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred that did not have to occur,” says Nichols. “Globally it’s in the millions, and the U.S. could have played a huge role in addressing that.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We end today’s show looking at a new book detailing how hundreds of thousands of people died from COVID due to decisions of politicians like Mitch McConnell, pharmaceutical conglomerates and a cabal of billionaires who exploited the pandemic for political advantage and personal enrichment. The book is titled Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis, by The Nation's John Nichols. He's joining us now for more.
John, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on the book that’s coming out this month. You just listened to Professor Menchik talking about how he’s gathering together other, as he calls them, “guinea pigs,” you know, “human guinea pigs,” who deeply believe that we had to come up with vaccines, and so put their own bodies on the line, but are now seeing that they feel that their bodies were on the line for the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. Can you put this into a larger context?
JOHN NICHOLS: I’m afraid I can. And first off, thanks for having me, Amy. And thanks for having me as part of this segment, in particular, because I think the professor highlighted so much of what is at stake and also what’s been happening.
What I try to detail in the book, and what I’ve written about a lot over the last two years, is a painful reality. At the start of the pandemic, back in January and February of 2020, we knew about the shock doctrine. We knew about disaster capitalism. We learned all of this from Naomi Klein and others. We had a clear picture of it. And yet, as this pandemic played out, we saw all of the worst aspects of disaster capitalism come into play. We saw, first and foremost, corporations and individuals who sought to advance themselves economically and in their share of markets by cashing in on the fear, the concern, the crisis itself. We also saw politicians who aided and abetted this process at virtually every turn.
The end result is that there is simply no question that hundreds of thousands of people who died in the United States did not have to die. The Lancet study from around a year ago suggests that roughly 40% of deaths in the first year of the pandemic were unnecessary. Dr. Deborah Birx, who was the White House kind of lead on this issue, has suggested that after the first 100,000 deaths, the deaths that came, you know, later in 2020, in 2021 and beyond were exponentially larger or higher than needed. And so, we have this core reality that in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred that did not have to occur. Globally, it’s in the millions. And the U.S. could have played a huge role in addressing that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could name names? Again, we’re speaking with John Nichols of The Nation, and his book is coming out now that’s called Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers. In February 2021, Pfizer announced — you write in your book, the company announced it expected to take in $15 billion from vaccine sales during the course of the year, the COVID-19 vaccine now accounting for nearly a quarter of Pfizer’s profits.
JOHN NICHOLS: That’s right. And, in fact, at the end of the year, it turned out to be much more, with Pfizer, Moderna and other companies. The People’s Vaccine Project has estimated that Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech are taking in $1,000 a second, $65,000 a minute, in profits from these vaccines. So, it’s just almost jaw-dropping, the amount of money that they’re taking in. This has been a huge benefit to these companies.
These vaccines, which were developed with tremendous amounts of assistance from the U.S. government and from multinational, multilateral groupings, have turned out to be their leaders in their profits. They are making overwhelming amounts of money as a result of this. And yet, at the same time, they are refusing to make their vaccine strategies and approaches available to other countries. They’re also seeking, at every turn, to maximize their profits in the United States.
And the painful reality here is that there’s very little accountability. There’s very little effort by Congress and by watchdogs — outside, there are watchdog groups that have done tremendous work, but by federal and state watchdogs, that should be involved here — to hold these companies to account and to force them to, A, make their vaccines more available and, B, to recognize that these excess profits go way beyond the bounds.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have, for example, Oxfam saying, in 2021, May 2021 — so it’s beyond that now — COVID vaccines create nine new billionaires with combined wealth greater than the cost of vaccinating the world’s poorest countries. John Nichols, President Biden could force this with Moderna, because the U.S. taxpayer money was used to develop the vaccine.
JOHN NICHOLS: That’s exactly right. And, in fact, President Biden has certainly done a better job than Donald Trump — there’s no question of that — but he has not begun to go to the levels that he should, and nor has Congress, on forcing these companies, which took tremendous advantage of the moment, and which, frankly, got tremendous amounts of support from the U.S. government, literally numbering in the tens of billions of dollars in support and contracts, to show some sort of responsibility. This is not a new concept. In the past, we have had pharmaceutical companies that bent to the reality, either by pressure from government or essentially some sort of moral instinct, that they cannot take these sorts of excess profits in a moment like this.
And you did mention also, a moment ago, billionaires. And it’s important to understand that, thanks to the work of the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness and others, we now know that during the course of this pandemic billionaires have exponentially increased their wealth — and some of these are folks associated with the pharmaceutical industry, but across all industries — to the point where the number of billionaires increased from — and this is a study from last year — from 614 in the United States to 745, and that their increase in wealth during the course of the year took them literally into the trillions of dollars of advanced wealth for these individuals. And again, we just have not had an accountability moment.
AMY GOODMAN: John, we were just showing images — we’re showing images of Jeff Bezos. How does he profit?
JOHN NICHOLS: Oh, Jeff Bezos, who gets a chapter in the book — and the book features 18 chapters, short essays, on examples of where people took advantage of or played politics with this crisis and have not been held to account for that — although perhaps we could say Donald Trump was, by his defeat in 2020. But I look at all these individuals, and Bezos is one of them.
You know, for Bezos, you’ve actually highlighted some of the ways in which Bezos took advantage of this. There were, early on in the pandemic, individuals who worked in Amazon warehouses who said, “Look, this is a problem. We have people who are getting sick. We have people whose lives are being put at risk. And there need to be much greater protections.” And, as you know, some of those individuals were fired, simply for raising the alarm. At the same time, there have been unions that have sought to increase protections in Amazon warehouses. Amazon has fought at every turn to prevent those unions from coming into and organizing at those warehouses. At the same time, Jeff Bezos’s wealth has extended to such an extent that there is now open speculation that he may be the first trillionaire in the United States — or in the world. And beyond that, he’s shooting himself up into space, you know, on personal adventures at a time when frontline workers are still getting sick, dying and suffering as a result of the challenges posed by this pandemic.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the story of Michael Jackson, where you begin your book, who is in your home state of Wisconsin?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. In each of the chapters in the book, I try to look at individuals who got sick or died, and to try and explore all the politics and the profiteering that went on, that might have actually prevented those deaths, or at least made things better. And Mike Jackson was a worker at a Briggs & Stratton plant in the Milwaukee area, where they made lawn care products. And he was deemed an essential worker, because I guess lawn care was essential, and went to his plant on a regular basis. He had a large family, which he was working hard to support. And he got sick. And instead of having the protections that were needed — first off, before he got sick, I should emphasize that he and others had raised the alarm. And in so many cases, there are frontline workers and workers in vulnerable situations who raise the alarm, through their unions or individually. And he wasn’t paid attention to. And then, when he did get sick, he was escorted out of the plant at one point, but then was back in a couple of days working again. He finally collapsed at his machine, and he ended up dying a few days later. His death was one of many in that kind of — in those initial stages of the pandemic.
What happened in Milwaukee, though, and what was really encouraging, is that grassroots groups took the example of that death and really highlighted it and made it a part of a movement, a call for workplaces to do much more to protect workers, and, frankly, for government to intervene. And if I can just emphasize at this point, there were a lot of protections that went in, emergency protections that went in, for frontline workers and workers in manufacturing and other settings. Many of those protections now have fallen away. And so, in many cases, we have workers today who don’t have the protections that they had in early stages of the pandemic. What we need desperately is an accountability moment where we recognize that people like Mike Jackson very probably didn’t have to die and that their deaths should not be in vain. We should have permanent protections for workers.
AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, very quickly, why did you devote a whole chapter to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law?
JOHN NICHOLS: Because he did an incredibly lousy job on running the supply chain. And there was a critical moment in which it was clear we didn’t have the supplies that we needed, and there were ways in which to get those supplies, to do domestic manufacturing, to do good deals for importation. Instead, Jared Kushner was put in charge of it. It was such a disaster that, even back in 2020, you know, just months into his oversight of the supply chain issues, he was under investigation by Congress. They finally folded the program he was involved in because, like just about everything else Jared Kushner touched during the Trump administration, this thing fell apart.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I’m wondering how you respond — and we just have a minute — to arguments that, “Oh, well, you’re just really an anti-vaxxer” — even the same with Professor Menchik, attacking him as that — how you can be pro-vaccine but anti-profiteering.
JOHN NICHOLS: I thank God for the vaccines. I am double-vaccinated and boosted. And if there’s another booster coming, I am going to be first in line to get it. I think these are incredibly vital to saving people’s lives, at this point and going forward. And the fact of the matter is, I want these vaccines to be available to everyone, not blocked via profiteering and failed government policies. I want them available to everyone in the United States and around the world. And I know from doing this book that that is possible.
AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, we want to thank you for being with us, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent. His new book, coming out later this month, Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis.
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