Coronavirus – drugs and the ‘billionaire class’
Sunday, May 10, 2020, 1:01 am
During the crisis of 2020 billionaires are having a field day, increasing the trend where they try to set national policies — drawing extra attention to themselves.
The last few months have seen many curious developments, among them certain billionaires pushing to cause people to use the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for CORVID-19.
- The American real estate billionaire, President Donald Trump, included it in the list of nostrums he thought would be “worth a try”.
- The Palmer Foundation, funded by the real estate and mining magnate Clive Palmer, bought full page newspaper advertisements (3 May 2020) proclaiming it had given the national stockpile over 32 900 000 doses of the drug — over a million more than Trump had available in America.
- The West Australian mining entrepreneur Gina Rinehart has given a reported $4.6-million in total to support research in Australian and American hospitals, into the use of the malarial drug in combination with an anti-biotic and high dose Vitamin C.
Public health authorities have approved such research in laboratories, and even controlled trials, but have been anxious to warn ordinary citizens against using hydroxychloroquine untested against the coronavirus. Used wrongly it is dangerous and public campaigns extolling it will not help. Their anxiety has been heightened by the interception of uncontrolled quantities of it entering Australia. Researchers in France who reported some progress with the drug also joined in the warnings. “Il faut absolument eviter automedication avec la chloroquine”, they said — absolutely avoid any self-medication with hydroxychloroquine.
Other ventures of this kind come from billionaires who make more orthodox choices, while still making moves for them to decide what will be done by all of us, and in the process giving away much money, even most of what they have:
- The long-standing and productive global drive by the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, and wife Melinda, against malaria, mostly as lead funders of the World Health Organisation (WHO) – more than most governments.
- The West Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s buying up and directly importing planeloads of personal protection equipment (PPE) and virus testing kits from China, said to be worth $160-million. Uncharacteristically the operation linked directly to business, the entrepreneur declaring his Chinese business contacts were Australia’s “great mates”. Avoiding the appearance of trying to run the country, he said he would sell the stock on to the government for distribution, but the PR then back-fired. With the Australian government demanding an international inquiry into the pandemic, Forrest took a Chinese official, Long Zhou, into a media conference with the Health Minister Ralph Hunt, where the man got up and denied any cover-ups back home.
What could be the reasons for members of the billionaires’ club to go for an outlier like hydroxychloroquine?
- Altruism and naïve impulse, an impulse immediately undermined by reality: problems with unregulated use of the drug, complications and side effects.
- Part of the actual attractiveness of the substance might be that while its use is plausible, promoting it hard for coronavirus purposes takes you out on a limb. Most people would get over-cautious about doing that, except perhaps grant-driven scientists, and billionaire club members not over-worried about reputation; the lure being, you can own the ‘cure’.
- Is it a gambler’s habit, high stakes and high return? Billionaire money is in massive surplus, and behaving differently to ordinary incomes, it goes out to work, and can be put out at risk – with no great consequence if you fail. If you save the world by promoting a wonder drug, you can beat the tin for the next half century; if that does not come off, you can shrug, like Donald Trump.
- Is it perversive politics? Trump for one wants to show he can get down to the level of some of his most basic supporters and think just like them – same as he keeps endorsing guns. If disinfectant kills the virus why not inject some? People who got into senior public positions by studying this might point out it is toxic, but what would they know? Give it a try. Making such things happen can show who is boss and build up a cheer squad. The lead given by Trump, on the malaria concoction, may have prompted other big spenders to join the movement.
- Is it some unique psychological pressure that sets in if you can get hold of money to do whatever you want? If only governments, and laws, are in the way, maybe you can side-step them and be like a government yourself. You can fast-forward trials of hydroxychloroquine; show you have the power to do it; see what happens.
- Another possibility is the Peter principle. If the job of running the financial empire demands genius, and the proprietor, with all the help in the world, is still an ordinary thinker, they will do extravagant and unwise things.
WHAT IS THE ‘BILLIONAIRE CLASS’ ANYWAY?
A ‘billionaire class’ is getting talked about in popular sociology. In societies that are as financialised as today’s, money will be the strongest denominator of status, or even the only one. That will be true especially if the deregulated economic system gets so anarchic a very few get most of the money, becoming able to buy anything they want, even to get the esteem of others – hence high socio-economic status (SES).
The “billionaire” title took over from the eternal “millionaire”, which used to mean a rich person set for life and living high on the hob in a way fairly rare up to about 1970, e.g. big swimming pools and garages full of fast cars. With economic growth and inflation of the currency, there are millions of ordinary millionaires in the Western world today. Billionaires are different, much richer in real terms, in appreciable numbers, a product especially of the last fifty years of neo-liberal economics. It is a system that stands for getting wealth out of public hands and government legal controls, and into private hands, turning life into a business-driven free for all. It means the emergence of private fortunes as big as the wealth of many counties or Australian states. The actual characters and personalities are diverse; they would acknowledge one another’s status, having so much – money – in common.
The characters are diverse, most content to be quiet and even pay their taxes, enough that they don’t get noticed, and don’t get trouble from kidnappers or the Treasury. Some are reticent personalities; others are socially responsible and also wanting social recognition; there are actual geniuses unable to stop thinking, and turning it into money; there are loud-mouths, power seekers, eccentrics.
HOW TO RATE THEM
So before getting into the confusion of thinking these are all the same, uniformly top status individuals you’re supposed to look up to, consider using some standard metrics as worked out by sociologists before the money grab began, e.g. break-through studies on American social classes by W Lloyd Warner. Such work typically set up investigations to determine status, based on four independent variables: Housing (the value of your house and land), Income, Education and Occupational Status (often obtained from sources such as periodic measures of public ‘trust’ in certain occupations). Making all four variables equal in weight, construct a rubric where each variable is described, rated and given a number — say a percentage. For example under how-much-education, billionaire Forrest’s PhD should get him 90/100, Palmer’s biography lists a Law diploma, evidently two years FTE, rateable at 63/100.
In the disrupted world of rampaging communication and wild capitalism, this article suggests adding a fifth, subjective, more ‘qualitative’, moderating variable, because for billionaires at least, gross holdings of money can swamp the calculus and obscure the picture across the board. That variable might be one for ‘Esteem’. Conventionally a player acquires a certain status if other holders of that status agree to let them in. By extension, with esteem, check how any reasonable observers might judge the status seeker, giving a thumbs-up, or thumbs-down from the public on how much status they should have. In the two cases mentioned, consider the accolades conferred on Forrest for public service and systematic sharing of his wealth, and set that against any public opprobrium; Palmer also has formal tributes or titles in his record, but has got into fractious party politics, and as such finds both admirers and others who hold him in contempt. Which would get the higher marks for esteem?
BE THE JUDGE
A small SES exercise was embarked on, on the two billionaires mentioned, which may show that even in 2020 status is not only about money. It questions whether access to vast money, much of it your own private fortune, is itself sufficient to get you the highest status. For convenience of reading, the results might be compared with the standard examination ratings used by most universities. In that case Forrest would get a High Distinction (HD), with overall 91% over the five variables; Palmer a Distinction (D) on 77%. Getting wealth and status into perspective, such ratings remain attainable by many, with scores that firm up where criteria other than money are taken into account. An example here shows the workings for an assessment for Donald Trump.
Draft for describing criteria
Draft assessment of socio-economic status (SOS) of Donald Trump
Notes on the assessment for Trump
Total and comments: 80% – ‘Distinction’. Getting wealth and status into perspective: money remains the key source of socio-economic status, though as in this assessment the score may change where criteria other than wealth are taken into account. The variables for education (which will demand some humility while producing mostly widely-valued personal attributes), and esteem (with extremes of reaction to the man among other people, in big numbers), have denied Trump a place in the top drawer of society.