COVID-19 was declared the “black swan of 2020” by Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley, indicating the precarious position in which the American economy finds itself—“In business-speak, black swan refers to a rare, unforeseen event that carries potentially severe consequences.” Such repercussions on the Capitalist operation have already become nefarious: John Hopkins University reported, “22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, technical glitches have prevented millions of Americans from receiving their stimulus checks from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Small Business Administration, which supports U.S. entrepreneurs with loans and funding, has run out of money for its Paycheck Protection Program.”
The great machine of Capitalism runs on profit, a profit often generated and controlled by corporate giants instead of independent businesses. Since revenue for the country is provided through massive industries, corporate giants waiver on a spectrum of ethical to unethical business practices. In this age, corporations operate like modern-day kingdoms, with an insurmountable amount of power and very few restrictions. While the ethics of corporations have always been dubious, a pandemic has the potential to amplify ethical issues, particularly because excessive reliance on corporate giants by people not of that system is only amplified during a pandemic.
It is essential that corporations during a pandemic avoid price gouging or counterfeit practices, operate on standard policies, and take responsibility for the impact that their business has on society. One instance is the growth in demand for hand sanitizer, which has grown by 14k% from December to January, while “packs of Purell bottles on Amazon are either unavailable or marked for hundreds of dollars.” In such cases, society must differentiate between needs and wants; prices should remain stable in the case of products that become necessary to hygiene during a pandemic. Amazon has either allowed or been unable to corral their suppliers from gouging the prices on hand-sanitizer. It neglects to enact the ethical measure of pressuring its suppliers against price gouging and forfeits their accountability in the matter.
Luckily for John Bezos, Amazon is among the largest beneficiaries as a market leader because of the contactless and short delivery period. However, working conditions for the company’s employees are unsettling—“warehouse workers are staging a nationwide protest” because of the dangerous conditions they are forced to operate under—“measures to protect them against the coronavirus or provide them with paid sick leave have so far fallen short.” Amazon refuses to take responsibility for their actions and declared “the accusations [are] unfounded.” However, people have the right to determine how they feel about their safety in any situation. Therefore the treatment of the company employees becomes a negative impact on society and is unethical, particularly because many Amazon workers are lower on the socio-economic spectrum and therefore, are vulnerable to exploitation.
Amazon is not the only corporation to behave with dubious morals—investor banks also dance around ethically ambiguous behavior in the wake of COVID-19. They lower themselves to “pressuring drug and medical supply firms to elevate prices on potential treatments” in order to “derive a profit from the current crisis.” Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized reliance on private sectors during the pandemic which is worrisome since the administration has bargained with financial firms, such as PJT Partners, Moelis & Company and Perella Weinberg Partners on Wall Street, according to The New York Times. This raises “questions about favoritism, especially for the financial industry, which critics hold responsible for the last big economic crisis in 2008.” Within these parameters, Big Pharma and their conduct during the crisis “reveal[s] the irrationality of for-profit insurance systems that leave millions underinsured and incapable of accessing affordable treatment.”
While Big Pharma and health insurance companies have long profited from the less fortunate and under-resourced, the conditions of a global pandemic should demand consideration and empathy towards American society. Namely, one shouldn’t gouge prices or go out of their way to profit from misfortune. Hyper-ethical companies might use their increased profits to pay for those individuals who cannot assist themselves.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former Big Pharma lobbyist, recently stated in reference to affordable vaccine or treatment prices, “We need the private sector to invest. Price controls won’t get us there.” He also noted the “want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control those prices. Price controls won’t get us there.’” Azar’s ethically enigmatical attitude displays certain ethical neutrality: he attempts to motivate private investors and companies to make products affordable, without crossing the capitalistic tradition which impedes the government from controlling such prices. The division’s policies do not fluctuate despite the current CoronaVirus crisis.
The chief executive of health care logistics company Owens & Minor, Edward Pesicka, levels with a more hyper-ethical stance. He commented, “I think in a crisis like this, our mission is really around serving the customer. And from an integrity standpoint, we have pricing agreements. . . . So we are not going to go out and leverage this and try to ‘jam up’ customers and raise prices to have a short-term benefit.” That Pesicka is considering integrity indicates he considers morals as well. If Amazon is unethical in both action and nonaction, and Azos deemed neutral in his stability, then Pesicka is an example designating a truly ethical response to COVID-19 in the corporate world.
Historically, crises have often been used to justify and chip away at the rights of citizens. Donald Trump recently announced plans to “unleash the power of American supercomputing” against COVID-19. As nearly every aspect of society has converted to an online space, giant tech corporations are in the best position to profit and thus walk the thin line between ethical and unethical. As we enter a new reality in which our reliance on technology is gargantuan and digital tracking and monitoring of the virus are likely to become commonplace, it is essential to ensure that data is not misused and rights are not violated while we go through this dark period in history. While data mining has been an issue surrounding tech giants for some time now, the pandemic has the potential to take this tracking to a governmentally mandated, exponential scale.
A crisis is not an excuse for manipulation and extortion, but an opportunity for empathy and genuine morality. It is evident that the country operates on a scale of ethics involving many nuances, especially in the corporate world. However, it can also be said that neutrality and nonaction are inherently unethical because they do not display ethical values—only a lack of such ideals. COVID-19 seems to have brought forward a more ruthless spirit for unaccountability under a ruse of neutrality or crisis alleviation. While America is a capitalist country, the economy is made to profit—not profiteer.