Books: The profiteers of the coronavirus pandemic
'Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick'
By J. David McSwane
Atria/One Signal. 315 pp. $28
One notable silver lining of the scourge that swept the world two years ago was the way we cohered. We gathered to bang pots for health-care workers. We sang arias from our balconies and donned Fauci T-shirts. We quarantined for ourselves, yes, but also for the collective good. We were in this together, right?
J. David McSwane's revelatory "Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick" will make whatever guilt you may harbor for hoarding toilet paper pale next to the deeds of a network of dodgy scammers and profiteers who, as McSwane puts it, "did insane things to get rich while our nation suffered an incalculable loss of life and global standing."
During those initial terrifying weeks of the pandemic, when no one knew just how dangerous the novel coronavirus was, the United States found that the federal stockpiles to combat the outbreak were a tiny fraction of what was needed. Supplies of every kind were scarce, especially personal protective equipment (don't forget the health-care workers' PPE of last resort — garbage bags).
In short order, the 3M N95 mask was so sought after, McSwane points out, that "it became perhaps the most enduring symbol of this most painful year."
And it was during those first weeks that McSwane, a reporter for the investigative news organization ProPublica, boarded a private jet at Dulles International Airport to tag along with Robert Stewart Jr., the Bible-toting chief executive of an outfit called Federal Government Experts, LLC. Stewart was awarded a $34.5 million no-bid contract to supply 6 million N95 masks to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs the largest hospital system in the United States.
Never mind that Stewart had zero experience procuring or selling medical gear. VA, where N95s were in particularly short supply, had agreed to pay nearly $6 per mask, about a 350% markup from the list price. The private jet, which operated at a rate of $22,000 a day, took the men from D.C. to Chicago in April 2020, with a stop in Georgia to pick up Stewart's parents. McSwane had been promised an N95 to wear during the flight, but the only masks he knew to be on board — or anywhere else within Stewart's grasp, it would turn out — were those overhead, for oxygen.
Thus ensued a 36-hour tour through a netherworld of brokers, fixers and other middlemen, one of whom provided a "proof of life" video showing scores of boxes with 3M labels ("It sounded like something out of a hostage negotiation, but it was the standard parlance," McSwane writes). Each of these middlemen took a cut. The wild goose chase involved a connection from inside the Trump White House named Juanita Ramos, who might or might not have existed.
And the 6 million masks Stewart claimed to be picking up in Chicago? It didn't happen.
A federal investigation began soon after ProPublica ran McSwane's story about this misbegotten caper. Stewart, a poster child of greed in the time of COVID-19, eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of making false statements, wire fraud and theft of government funds. He was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison. At his sentencing hearing, Stewart, a new father, choked back sobs.
Stewart, of course, was but one of the many characters looking to make a buck off tragedy. McSwane claims it was the boredom of quarantine that drove him to dig so deep; he had a lot of time on his hands, but he happens also to be a great reporter. True to ProPublica's mission of exposing betrayals of the public trust, McSwane and his colleagues dove into data and unearthed bandits of all stripes. At a warehouse in Houston, McSwane discovered a group making fake test kits from miniature soda bottles. At another pop-up facility 200 miles away in San Antonio, a different band of fraudsters was busy replacing the packaging of inferior masks from China and relabeling them as medical grade. And we meet not one but two California juicer salesmen who were all too eager to join the mask craze.
By late April, the U.S. government had awarded more than $1 billion to hundreds of first-time contractors, fueling a black market while further frustrating the search for supplies by states, cities and hospitals. "The United States was desperate, China was holding back [supplies], manufacturers and entrepreneurs were filling the space, and money was being sent to whoever dared to play the game," McSwane writes. "Our national well-being now rested with mercenaries."
Some, not all, of these criminals were investigated. Some, not all, of those investigated were charged with federal crimes.
Also lurking in the pages of "Pandemic, Inc." is Peter Navarro. A quick refresher: Navarro is an economist and Donald Trump loyalist who was a former trade adviser to the president. He's been described as having a Rasputin-like ability to whisper the most inchoate of ideas into Trump's ear and see them become policy. Most recently, Navarro was found in contempt of Congress, after failing to comply with congressional subpoenas for records and testimony related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riots.
When the pandemic hit, Navarro became national Defense Production Act policy coordinator, in charge of prioritizing manufacturing for the coronavirus response. Which means that the buck stopped — or often started — with Navarro. In the early months of the pandemic, writes McSwane, "Navarro steered hundreds of millions of dollars to companies, working around career contracting professionals with blatant disregard for . . . formal channels."
McSwane is funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. If the whole story weren't so tragically and disgustingly real, "Pandemic Inc." could be mistaken as the script for a "Saturday Night Live" skit. But embedded in the mirth is a wholesale indictment of this toxic brew of unfettered capitalism and greed that frustrated the pandemic response at every turn.
If you can read this book without growing too nauseated, you must. Because this is our country, folks, and the behavior McSwane describes is the behavior our country has spawned. Shame on us.
McSwane witnessed much of this circus firsthand. Yet, oddly, he remains compassionate, at least on a case-by-case basis. He has good wishes for Stewart and hopes that Stewart will raise his young son well. "For if we were destined to repeat the sins of our fathers, this country would not be worth saving," McSwane writes. "I believe it is."
Katie Hafner is executive producer and host of the "Lost Women of Science" podcast and the author of six books of nonfiction. Her first novel, "The Boys," will be published in July.