Back in early June, the African country of Angola extended its Covid-19 restrictions after new cases and deaths reached levels unseen before in the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in a suburb of Portland, Maine, factory workers—many of them African immigrants—were ripping up newly manufactured rapid Covid tests. As the New York Times reports, the manufacturer—Abbott Laboratories—had decided to close factories and lay off workers, even though it had made a fortune making one of America’s most popular tests.
Destroying millions of tests made sense to the publicly traded, for-profit multinational corporation. Abbott had made $2.4 billion in the final quarter of 2020 alone. But sales of tests were plummeting as the number of vaccinated Americans rose and infections dropped.
Yet, the workers were—understandably—confused. “I was hurting, seeing that,” Aristoteles Landa, a worker from Angola, told journalist Sheri Fink.
“Now, amid a new surge in infections,” Fink wrote in the Times story last week, “steps [Abbott] took to eliminate stock and wind down manufacturing are proving untimely—hobbling efforts to expand screening as the highly contagious Delta variant rages across the country.”
I can’t imagine a clearer example of private interest conflicting with the public interest—of private profit undermining the common good.
While vaccination is the tip of the spear in the battle against Covid, testing remains critical for tracking the spread of the Delta variant. Especially as many students return to classrooms, employees return to offices, and businesses like restaurants and concert venues try to stay afloat.
Demand for testing is now skyrocketing across the U.S. By the end of July, an average of nearly 900,000 tests were being performed daily—compared to just over half of that earlier in the month. Shortages are being reported nationwide, from Nashville, Tennessee, to Bend, Oregon.
It’s even worse internationally. The World Health Organization (W.H.O) has been trying for months to get more tests to low- and middle-income countries, including many in Africa.
“My heart, it hurts,” said Amal Barakat, a W.H.O. virologist, when she heard about the destruction in Maine. Many African nations have no domestic funds to buy Covid tests.
This is what we get when we rely on the private sector for public health needs. Corporations have a clear interest—profit—that doesn’t always align with, nor benefit, the public.
Only government can make sure everyone has access to essential public goods—health, knowledge, economic security, water, an equal voice in our democracy, public safety, and more.
As our executive director Donald Cohen wrote last year about the race for a vaccine, “For the big things—essential public goods, like a vaccine for a global pandemic—the market is the wrong way to address those things. It’s like saying you’ll cook dinner with a hammer and wrench—it’s just the wrong tool.”
It’s not like using public power in a moment of crisis is all that radical. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration created or purchased nine corporations to ramp up production of rubber and other materials for the war effort. The U.S. would go on to produce a million tons of rubber a year until 1955, when control was given back to private corporations.
And just look at the vaccines. Moderna’s vaccine was funded 100 percent through Operation Warp Speed, a federal government program. Pfizer-BioNTech’s relied on money from the German government.
The only reason we’re settling for less when it comes to testing is because of an ideological belief that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector—which is not only false but also turning out to be deadly in a pandemic.