Thirteen years ago, after a series of near-miss pandemics, including those caused by the swine flu, bird flu and the SARS virus (which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome), U.S. health officials decided they needed to build an additional 70,000 ventilators.
Ventilators, of course, are medical devices that hospitals use to help patients breathe when they are suffering from pneumonia or lung failure. The goal was to save lives in case of a future global pandemic of the kind we are now experiencing with the coronavirus.
According to reporting in The New York Times, the public health project got off to a great start. The federal Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract to a small and nimble California company called Newport Medical.
The company quickly produced a prototype breathing assistance machine that worked very well and with one third of the $10,000 price tag for each of the big, bulky, and highly complex ventilators used in hospitals today.
But then the project got derailed. Exactly zero of these 70,000 planned new ventilators were built in time to save American lives during the coronavirus pandemic now sweeping the planet and crippling our economy.
The problem was that the medical device industry decided there was not enough profit in the cheaper, simpler ventilators. A few years into its contract, Newport Medical was bought out by a much larger medical device manufacturing company, called Covidien, which already sold a line of traditional, more expensive ventilators. Covidien did not want competition from a cheaper model, so it shut it down.
That move made perfect sense from a business perspective. But it is now proving devastating for public health as thousands of people die because of a lack of enough ventilators.
Our nation’s failure to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic has direct relevance to our inability to deal with an even bigger, long-term crisis: climate change. The same is true with many other cascading environmental threats, including the die-off of endangered species and chronic water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.
The common thread is that all these problems require government action to serve the greater good. The question of profit should be removed from the equation. It will never be profitable, for example, to clean up our rivers by upgrading old and leaky sewer systems. Protecting America’s last wild lands from development will always be a money loser. So will public transportation to cut down on greenhouse gas pollution. No one should expect anyone to make money or create jobs by saving monarch butterflies from extinction.
That does not mean we should not do these things. We absolutely should. But we should be realistic about the fact that unfettered, raw capitalism – the ideology of President Trump and many of his supporters -- will always serve the interests of the strong few who already have money and political leverage at the expense of the many who do not. This short-sighted, competitive, immoral mindset – the politics of “me first!” -- will never serve the interests of safeguarding public health or protecting the natural world.
This is not to suggest that socialism would be a better system. What we need is capitalism that serves average people and their elected government, not the other way around. Capitalism and other successful forms of competition require rules and direction. It's just like you can’t hold a football game without someone to blow the whistle when the aggression gets out of hand.
Both the coronavirus pandemic – and our global environmental crises – have exposed the fact that we’ve let the cult of business profit spiral way out of control.
It’s time to blow the whistle on this madness.