The revelation of J. David McSwane “Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the capitalists and thieves who got rich while we got sick” will pale any guilt you may have for hoarding toilet paper alongside the acts of a network of dodgy crooks and profiteers who, as McSwane puts it, “did foolish things to enrich themselves while our nation suffered incalculable loss of life and worldwide reputation.”
During those first terrifying weeks of the pandemic, when no one knew how dangerous the new coronavirus was, the United States discovered that federal stockpiles to fight the epidemic were only a tiny fraction of what which was needed. Supplies of all kinds were in short supply, especially personal protective equipment (don’t forget PPE of last resort for health workers – trash bags).
Before long, the 3M N95 mask was so sought after, McSwane points out, that “it became perhaps the most enduring symbol of that most painful year.”
And it was during those first weeks that McSwane, a reporter with the investigative news agency ProPublica, boarded a private jet at Dulles International Airport to accompany Robert Stewart Jr., the CEO of a company called Federal Government Experts, LLC. Stewart was awarded a $34.5 million no-tender 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 has no experience buying or selling medical equipment. VA, where N95s were particularly scarce, had agreed to pay nearly $6 per mask, about a 350% markup over the list price. The private jet, which operated at a rate of $22,000 a day, took the men from DC to Chicago in April 2020, with a stopover 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 reach of Stewart, it would turn out – were those above the head, for oxygen.
Thus ensued a 36-hour tour through an underworld of brokers, repairers and other middlemen, one of whom provided a “proof of life” video showing dozens of boxes with 3M labels (“This sounded like something of a hostage situation, but that was common parlance,” writes McSwane). Trump’s Blanche named Juanita Ramos, who may or may not have existed.
And the 6 million masks that Stewart claimed to collect in Chicago? This does not happen.
A federal investigation began shortly after ProPublica published McSwane’s story about the ill-conceived hug. Stewart, a poster child of greed in the time of covid-19, eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of misrepresentation, wire fraud and theft of government funds. He was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison. During his sentencing hearing, Stewart, a new father, choked back his sobs.
Stewart, of course, was just one of many characters looking to cash in on the tragedy. McSwane says it was midlife boredom that made him dig so deep; he had plenty of free time, but he also happens to be a great journalist. True to ProPublica’s mission to expose betrayals of public trust, McSwane and his colleagues dug deep 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, another group of fraudsters were busy replacing the packaging of substandard masks from China and relabeling them as medical grade. And we meet not one but two Californian juicer salespeople who were only too eager to join the mask craze.
By the end of April, the US government had awarded more than $1 billion to hundreds of new entrepreneurs, 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 contractors filled the space, and money was sent to anyone who dared play the game,” McSwane wrote. “Our national well-being now relied on mercenaries.”
Some, not all, of these criminals have been investigated. Some people, not all, have been charged with federal crimes.
Also hides 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 has been described as having a Rasputin-like ability to whisper the most incomplete 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 January 6, 2021 riots.
When the pandemic hit, Navarro became the National Defense Production Act Policy Coordinator, tasked with prioritizing manufacturing for the coronavirus response. Which means the buck stops – or often begins – with Navarro. In the early months of the pandemic, writes McSwane, “Navarro funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into companies, working with career contracting professionals with a blatant disregard for…formal channels.
McSwane is funny. Laugh out loud funny. If the whole story wasn’t so tragically and disgustingly, “Pandemic Inc.” could be mistaken for the script of a “Saturday Night Live” skit. But in the mirth there is a wholesale indictment of that toxic brew of unfettered capitalism and greed that has frustrated the pandemic response at every turn.
If you can read this book without getting too sickened, you must. Because this is our country, folks, and the behavior McSwane describes is the behavior our country 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 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 think so.”
Chasing the capitalists and thieves who got rich while we got sick
Atria/a signal. 315 pages. $28