J. David McSwane’s Revealing “Pandemic, Inc .: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick”” will do whatever it takes to hoard toilet paper, pale next to deeds from a network of risky scammers and profiteers who, as McSwane puts it, “did crazy things to get rich while our nation suffered a unforeseen loss of human life and global status. “
During the first frightening weeks of the pandemic, where no one knew how dangerous the new coronavirus was, the United States found that federal stocks to combat the outbreak were a small fraction of what was needed. Supplies of all kinds were scarce, especially personal protective equipment (do not forget the health workers’ personal protective equipment as a last resort – garbage bags).
In short, the 3M N95 mask was so coveted, 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 accompany Robert Stewart Jr., the biblical CEO of an outfit called the 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 operates the largest hospital system in the United States.
Never mind that Stewart had no experience in acquiring or selling medical equipment. VA, where there was a particular shortage of N95s, had agreed to pay nearly $ 6 per tonne. mask, about 350 percent increase from the list price. The private jet, which was traveling at a speed of $ 22,000 a day, took the men from DC 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 were on board – or anywhere else within Stewart’s range, should it turn out – were those above oxygen.
Thus followed a 36-hour tour through an underworld of brokers, fixers, and other middlemen, one of whom provided a “proof of life” video showing dozens of boxes of 3M labels (“It sounded like something out of a hostage negotiation, but it was the standard language, “McSwane writes.” Each of these middlemen took a cut.
And the 6 million masks Stewart claimed to pick up in Chicago? It did not happen.
A federal investigation began shortly after ProPublica ran McSwane’s story about this unborn hijacker. Stewart, a poster child of greed in the time of covid-19, eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of making false statements, electronic fraud and theft of public funds. He was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison. Upon his sentencing, Stewart, a new father, strangled the sob back.
Stewart, of course, was just one of the many characters who would make money on tragedy. McSwane argues that it was the boredom of quarantine that made him dig so deep; he had a lot of time on his hands, but he also happens to be a good journalist. True to ProPublica’s mission to expose treason against public trust, McSwane and his colleagues dived into data and exposed bandits of all kinds. At a warehouse in Houston, McSwane discovered a group making fake test sets of mini-soda bottles. At another pop-up facility 200 miles away in San Antonio, another group of scammers was busy replacing the packaging with inferior masks from China and labeling them as medical grade. And we meet not one but two California juicers who were too eager to be in the mask craze.
By the end of April, the U.S. government had allocated 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 held back [supplies], producers and entrepreneurs filled the space and money was sent to anyone who dared to play the game, ”writes McSwane. “Our national well-being now rested on mercenaries.”
Some, not all, of these criminals were investigated. Some, not all, of those investigated were charged with federal crimes.
Also lurking on 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 has been described as having a Rasputin-like ability to whisper the most inchone of ideas into Trump’s ear and watch them turn into politics. Most recently, Navarro was found in contempt of Congress after failing to comply with congressional subpoenas for records and testimony in connection with the January 6, 2021 riots.
When the pandemic hit, the Navarro National Defense Production Act became the political coordinator responsible for prioritizing production for the coronavirus response. Which means the buck stopped – or often started – with Navarro. In the early months of the pandemic, McSwane writes, “Navarro managed hundreds of millions of dollars for companies and worked around career contracts with professionals with blatant disregard for … formal channels.”
McSwane is funny. Ridiculously funny. If not the whole story was so tragic and disgusting really, “Pandemic Inc.” could be mistaken as the script for a “Saturday Night Live” kit. But embedded in joy is a wholesale accusation of this toxic brew of unbridled capitalism and greed that frustrated the pandemic response on every side.
If you can read this book without getting too nauseous, you should. Because this is our country, the people, and the behavior that McSwane describes is the behavior that our country has spawned. Shame on us.
McSwane experienced much of this circus on his own. But oddly enough, he remains compassionate, at least from case to case. He has good wishes for Stewart and hopes Stewart will raise his young son well. “For if we were destined to repeat the sins of our fathers, this land would not be worth saving,” McSwane writes. “I think it is.”
Katie Hafner is executive producer and host of “Disappeared women of science”Podcast and author of six non-fiction books. Her first novel, “The boyswill be published in July.
Chasing the capitalists and thieves who got rich while we got sick
Atria / A signal. 315 pp. $ 28