Coronavirus Threatens Rich People’s Money. It Threatens Our Lives.
On Monday, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak posted an ominous tweet from the West Coast Sports Institute in Santa Clara, California: “Checking out Janet’s bad cough. Started Jan. 4. We had just returned from China and may have both been patient zero in U.S.”
A litany of jokes about apples a day and Macs being virus-resistant ensued, though it was unclear whether the billionaire genuinely thought he and his wife were potentially transmitting the 2019 novel coronavirus to the United States. Wozniak’s wife, Janet, later told USA Today that her ailment appeared to be a sinus infection.
In some ways, the story did not differ much from that of any non-millionaire couple. Janet had apparently been sick and may have waited to see a doctor, fairly common behavior in a country where seemingly routine visits can result in astronomical and unexpected bills, though that was almost certainly not the rationale for any delay in her seeking treatment.
But the 2019 coronavirus presents two very different sets of problems for the wealthy and everyone else in America. For those with means, the virus is primarily a market disruption, and a threat to the economy—and by extension, their wealth. For those without, the crisis is existential and immediate. Everything is potentially at risk: their health, their income, their lives.
By mid-week, in the United States, there were over 100 known known cases and at least 11 deaths connected to the novel coronavirus. For the average person who suspects they might have it, there are limited options and few incentives to get tested, inasmuch as testing is even available. Even people with good insurance worry about being hit with unexpected bills for evaluations. And since there’s no cure, most people may have little choice but to simply go home, miss work, possibly infect loved ones, and wait it out.
The most common arc of a potential infected person probably goes something more like this: Symptoms appear and the infected person delays a trip to the doctor because she’s uninsured or fearful that testing could result in large bills. She continues to go to work because she fears losing her job if she doesn’t. Especially if she works in a service industry and is paid by the hour. “Ask anyone who’s worked in a bar or waited tables what happens when someone gets sick,” Lauren Hough, a writer and former barista, wrote on Twitter, “The answer won’t be, they went home. We called it bar flu because everyone had it and passed it back and forth for a month.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an individual in a scenario like that should be self-quarantining. But she can’t do that because she needs the income, and even buying the two weeks’ worth of supplies recommended for home quarantine might be a stretch if she’s one of the estimated third of Americans who run out of money before payday.
White-collar workers have it better in one very important way: some of them can work from home, and large tech companies are already exploring how to facilitate that for purposes of mitigating virus transmission. Twitter announced on Monday that it would be encouraging all of its employees to work from home. Coinbase and Google have enacted similar measures.
But even something as simple as working from home is not always straightforward. Employees who stay home can still be punished in subtle ways for not showing up, especially in companies that have little experience with remote work.
One percenters have much better options. First, self-isolation is relatively easy. Not having to interact with the unwashed masses is already routinely facilitated by private aviation companies and high-end delivery services, and the inconvenience mitigated by the comforts of spacious real estate with unlimited amenities. No one who can afford it needs to leave the house if they don’t want to, and an extra month or two of supplies isn’t difficult to procure, including medications—whether insurance will pay for them or not.
Also: travel can be nixed without incident as a matter of prudence.
“I was in the gym yesterday with a billionairess and she very strongly advised that my wife postpone her trip to Paris in two weeks,” the former editor in chief of luxury magazine Avenue (and Daily Beast contributor) Michael Gross told me on Tuesday. His wife had cancelled an hour earlier. People without schedule flexibility or the ability to decline travel for work don’t have this option. Sometimes being able to stay put is as much as luxury as being able to leave.
Ultimately, these advantages—the privilege of self-quarantine without real concern for shortage of basics, loss of income, or substandard medical care—mean the novel coronavirus is occupying the minds of the wealthy primarily as a financial crisis rather than one of public health. “It’s really going to hurt GDP growth globally in [the first half of the year],” Euan Rellie, Co-Founder at BDA Partners, a global investment banking advisor for Asia, told The Daily Beast. “There will be some bounce back after that. If you were going to buy a fridge or car, you still will, just later. If you skipped a holiday or buying a luxury dress, you might never make up that purchase.”
And some of the potential market problems are more immediate. Jason Calacanis, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley, noted a concern along these lines. “Airbnb is obviously going to have a hard time going public if this spreads and people don’t travel,” he told The Daily Beast. (Asked for comment, an Airbnb spokesperson directed us to a statement articulating the company’s intention to go public in 2020, which would seem to indicate they’re not anticipating anything apocalyptic.)
The cautious optimism lacing some wealthy peoples’ concern about the novel coronavirus may be a function of lower vulnerability to the disease itself, because of resources and the good health and fitness that often enables. Of course, it’s easier to take a sunnier analytical view about the market ramifications of a possible pandemic if you’re pretty sure that it won’t kill you, and secure in the knowledge that if it bankrupts you, it’ll be because you’re heavily invested in industries affected by it, not because Aetna won’t pay.
One percenters also benefit from an information edge; they can access expensive boutique research and experts who can tell them what’s happening in Wuhan better than CNN can. Richard Socarides, a spokesperson for Gerson Lehrman Group, a New York-based firm that connects people to industry experts, reports an influx of inquiries on subjects related to the novel coronavirus. For a fee, wealthy clients can be advised directly by former CDC and World Health Organization employees who have previously dealt with similar crises, as well as related industry experts in a position to assess how supply chains might be impacted, or how long it might take to develop a working vaccine.
And that information is used both defensively, for self-protection, and to identify market opportunities. When Larry Kudlow went on CNBC last week and told people in the middle of a big sell-off that now would be a good time to “buy into the dip,” some traders appeared to take that advice to heart, looking for cheap stocks and metrics that might actually improve in a health crisis, which are easy to spot when you view it primarily through a market lens. “DoorDash and Uber eats might actually see an increase in delivery, sadly,” Calacanis said, pointing to one such example.
And that’s the key difference: For people who can afford it, the virus presents some potential upside. For those who can’t, it’s nothing but potential downside.
No one The Daily Beast spoke to reported an epidemic of billionaires fleeing in private jets to underground bunkers in New Zealand with automated drone delivery, though there are a few extreme reactions here and there. “I feel a growing sense of caution but not quite the screeching paranoia,” Gross said.
To some extent, the wealthy benefit from just the right dose of everyone else panicking. When the Fed cut interest rates by 50 basis points on Tuesday in an effort to calm the markets, it presented another opportunity for entrepreneurial types looking for cheaper credit.
But the consequences are more dire for others, and on some level, everyone’s fates here are intertwined. “The government must immediately make testing free,” said Rellie, “or else people who don’t have resources will avoid getting tested. The people worst affected will be people who don’t get sick leave.”
And increasingly the signs are emerging that middle-class entrepreneurs are being affected. “There’s a Chinese-run vitamin store on my corner that caters to tour groups,” Gross said. “And when I got back from a trip the other day, the place had shut its doors.”
Elizabeth Spiers is a web publisher and journalist. She has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, and Salon, among other publications.
Co-published with The Daily Beast.