Question: What do you do in a crisis, when health systems have been privatised to the point where they no longer function? Answer: Let big business step in to save the day. During this coronavirus pandemic, the British government is allowing Amazon to plug the gaps caused by its destructive healthcare policies.
Wrecking the NHS
Successive British governments have privatised the many elements that make up the National Health Service (NHS). There is a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Doctors and nurses have been gagged, preventing them from speaking out against the danger posed to their lives by the lack of PPE. A US-based medical supplier, Owens & Minor, owned the British warehouse operator and distributor, Movianto, which was contracted by the government to distribute PPE. But in February, in the midst of the crisis, Owens & Minor dropped Movianto and the PPE remains stuck in the warehouse, undelivered to key workers and with no government intervention to ensure PPE distribution.
But Amazon, the world’s second trillion-dollar company (after Apple), is stepping in. Over the years, successive British governments have helped the e-commerce+ giant to profit in several ways, including via tax breaks, refusing to pass more stringent health and safety laws, and by imposing anti-union legislation that allows companies like Amazon to not even talk to unions let alone enable workers to sufficiently unionise. Amazon’s UK branch made £10.9bn in 2019 and paid just £220m in taxes.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has positioned itself as a de facto health equipment provider. The government’s combination of healthcare privatisation and boons for big business is allowing Amazon to fill a gap in public services by selling the kind of things that government should provide: hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, surgical gowns, wipes, and even books on how to make your own equipment on a tight budget.
Amazon enters the health market
Over the last few years, Amazon has been buying up other companies and contributing to the changing landscape that puts high street retailers out of business. Referring to Amazon’s founder Bezos, Arron Hankin of Investopedia calls the destruction of businesses by Amazon’s market monopolisation “death by Jeff.” He notes that in addition to delivery giants like FedEx and UPS losing revenue, pharmacy businesses including Boots and CVS Health lost profits as Amazon acquired the company PillPack and got into the online pharmacy market. In 2017, Amazon bought the organic retailer Whole Foods for $13bn.
The kind of staff working at Amazon are susceptible to getting ill with coronavirus. Amazon does not disclose its diversity figures for its UK-based operations. But in the US, around 35 percent of Amazon staff identify as white. The others are Asian, Black/African-American, Latinex/Hispanic, Native American, and “other.” Facing daily discrimination, including immune system-weakening poverty, undernourishment, life in damp and unsanitary accommodation, work in unsafe jobs, increased diseases of despair such as smoking and overeating, and generalised daily stress and anxiety, many people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to succumb to COVID-19 than white people.
Technically, Amazon does not offer zero-hours contracts. However, the GMB union argues that its employment terms amount to zero-hours-type contracts. So-called gig economy workers, like Amazon warehouse stackers, packers and deliverers, constitute those whom the economist Guy Standing the calls the precarious proletariat (“precariat”). Their bosses/employers refuse to put them on paid leave during the COVID crisis. They tend to have no savings for emergencies such as coronavirus. Mounting bills mean that they have to work even during a pandemic. As most Britons self-isolate, gig economy workers constitute frontline staff, putting themselves and others at risk.
After Amazon sacked workers protesting their lack of PPE and general conditions, Tim Bray, Vice President of Amazon Web Services, quit over what he called “a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”
“The new Red Cross”
Recall that the British government has refused to follow the advice of the World Health Organisation to test, track, and contain the virus. Not only is Amazon is planning to build its own in-house COVID-19 testing laboratory and expand its COVID-tracking thermal imaging technology from Whole Foods to the rest of its warehouses, Amazon Care in collaboration with the Gates Foundation is gearing up to deliver testing kits to US—and, perhaps soon, British—households.
Former Amazon manager James Thomson says somewhat sarcastically: “Amazon is the new Red Cross,” as it delivers masks, sanitizer, and gloves in lieu of government-provided equipment. The Financial Times quoting Thomson notes that “as demand surges” Amazon looks to recruit 100,000 additional workers. As businesses go bust and millions lose their jobs due to government packages bailing out big firms, Amazon’s calls will fall on fertile ground.
In the US, the $2 trillion stimulus, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on 27 March 2020. Forbes reports that “most of the benefit will be reaped by the wealthiest Americans, including investors in hedge funds and real estate developers—not the owners of small businesses.” This includes more tax breaks for Amazon.
As the big companies got a hand-out, public services again lost out. On 13 April, America’s International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) wrote to Trump, stating: “we do not feel — as the ‘warriors’ on the frontline of this battle — that our needs during this pandemic have been addressed fully in the CARES Act.” The IAFC laid out a list of requirements, including “N95 respirators, gloves, cleaning products, hand sanitizers, gowns, goggles, booties, and other medical equipment and necessary materials.” In early-April, Amazon US announced that it was stopping the sale of N95 masks to the public and, despite waiving third party fees, selling them to hospitals and government agencies. On 23 April, in the absence of government-provided PPE and other materials, the IAFC then announced that via the Amazon COVID-19 Hub, it had teamed up with Amazon Business “as a strategic supplier for members to access and purchase vital PPE supplies needed for [the] COVID-19 response.” It cites the company’s “pledge that Amazon will not make a profit on this service.”
Profiting from health gaps?
The US medical-supply Urgent Response Products says: “We just formed a partnership with Amazon … [and] we’re going to be sourcing and handing over our manufactured products to them” to sell and distribute. Meanwhile in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces criticism after announcing that his government is partnering with Amazon to do the same as the US: “distribute personal protective equipment like masks and gloves across the country.” In the UK, the government devised similar plans to contract Amazon to deliver tens of thousands of home testing kits to quarantined people.
It is a tragic inevitability that cutbacks in healthcare, coupled with a privatisation agenda that makes the NHS unworkable, will lead to gaps being plugged by giant, profit-driven corporations. Despite Amazon’s promises not to profit from third-party sellers on the above schemes, its stock value is through the roof. Amazon’s share price on the NASDAQ was $1740 on 5 December 2019, shortly before the crisis hit. After sinking due to the COVID-19-induced crash in February, its share prices rebounded and rocketed to over $2420 by 25 April 2020.
This business model recently added $24bn to ex-hedge funder Bezos’s personal fortune of $138bn.
Shortly after Bezos’s profits were reported, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, condemned what he called: “The policies of many states,” which he said “reflect a social Darwinism philosophy that prioritises the economic interests of the wealthiest while doing little for those who are hard at work providing essential services or unable to support themselves.”