By Rainer Zitelmann
If history has taught us one thing, it is this: In every crisis people look for scapegoats. Crises and pandemics fuel fear and insecurity, but also hostility. In most cases, this aggression is directed at out-groups, typically other nations or minorities.
Earlier this year, as the corona crisis started to unfold, many countries registered verbal and physical assaults on people who looked “Asian.”
Increasingly, it is now the rich who are being targeted with threats and hostility. In particular, the media has been stoking discontent with claims that rich people and celebrities have better access to Covid-19 tests than anyone else.
Great Britain: Attacks against ‘the arrogant super-rich’
The British tabloid daily The Sun headlined: “The arrogant super-rich have no right to spend their way out of the coronavirus crisis – we’re all in this together.”
In the article, the paper went on: “As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, some celebrities, millionaires, and members of the business class seem to believe that their wealth can be used as a form of vaccination while the rest of us face the deadly risk of infection. Such behaviour is entirely against the public spirit of the moment.
This is a time for unity and for respecting others, especially the most vulnerable.” The tabloid continues to recall the Second World War, during which anger was also directed against the rich: “During the Second World War, when the Blitz spirit was at its peak, there was fierce hostility to rich individuals who tried to cheat on rationing regulations or avoid national service. The same contempt should now be shown to those who try to dodge the rules that promote fairness.”
And The Sun’s attack is not only limited to preferential access to corona tests: “But it is not just in testing where the narrow self-centeredness of the rich can be found.
"They use their wealth to insulate themselves in other ways. Some are buying special private medical care, like intravenous infusions of vitamins and minerals to boost their immune system. Lansherhof, a private medical facility at the London Arts Club, reported this week an 18 per cent increase in enquires for its Immune Plus Support Infusion, which costs £300. The rich are also using private jet travel to avoid the rest of the public as they conduct business or fly to remote havens.”
The left-leaning British broadsheet The Guardian made the following observations: “The world’s richest people are chartering private jets to set off for holiday homes or specially prepared disaster bunkers in countries that, so far, appear to have avoided the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak. Many are understood to be taking personal doctors or nurses on their flights to treat them and their families in the event that they become infected.”
Whether these are rare exceptions or whether they are occurring more frequently remains unclear — and of course this distinction is entirely irrelevant when it comes to putting “the rich” in the dock.
Front of the line for tests?
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, expressed the mood against the rich and other “privileged” celebrities when he declared that “an entire NBA team should not get tested for Covid-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”
During a recent press conference, Donald Trump was also asked whether “the well-connected go to the front of the line” for corona tests. “You’d have to ask them that question,” he replied, suggesting that should not be the case. “Perhaps that’s been the story of life. That does happen on occasion, and I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”
The New York Times ran an extensive article under the headline: “Need a Coronavirus Test? Being Rich and Famous May Help.” The article continued: “A shortage in testing has left sick people and health care workers around the U.S. without answers. Yet the list of celebrity patients grows every day, raising questions about privileged access.” Of course, the criticism is justified if some people —perhaps because of their connections and personal relationships — find it easier to get access to tests.
But articles like the one in The New York Times create the impression that the current test situation has been highlighted in order to fuel existing resentment against the rich. In addition, the article cites other “evidence” against the rich, such as their escape into “Doomsday Bunkers,” even though this probably only applies to a minority of them at best.
In New York, the daily tabloid newspaper NY Post is also busy stirring up envy and resentment against the wealthy: “Most people are stocking up on hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but the super-rich have adopted more extreme measures to ward off the coronavirus – including preparing doomsday bunkers, according to reports.”
For example, “Survival Condo owner Larry Hall bought the obsoleted silo in 2008 and converted it into a state-of-the art residence that offers ‘virtual windows,’ a gym, pool, movie theaters, shooting range and a five-year supply of food and water, according to Vice. ‘The mission is to protect residents from a whole wide range of threats,’ Hall told Vice. ‘Everything from viral or bacterial threats and chemicals to volcanic ash, meteors, solar flares and civil unrest.’ On its website, Survival Condo lists a full-floor suite package for $3 million.”
“This ‘Package’ is much more than just a ‘Survival Condo Unit.’ This ‘Package’ includes mandatory training, a three-year per person food supply, fully furnished and custom designed interior, special equipment for registered members, computer access to condo systems, and much more,” it says.
Germany: Anti-capitalist rhetoric
Germany’s left-wing media are clearly laying the blame for the coronavirus on capitalism. Left-wing political parties, such as the SPD and Die Linke, have been beating the political drums for a one-off “corona levy,” i.e. a special tax on the wealthy to finance the battle against Covid-19. The attacks on capitalism have been so strong that even the leading German tabloid BILD was forced to publish a lengthy article to explain to its readers that capitalism is not to blame for the coronavirus.
Also in Germany, the media outlet Der Westen (The West) ran an article under the inflammatory headline: “The Superrich and the Coronavirus: Billionaires And Their Antisocial Behavior.” The article cites a Twitter message that claimed that the best way for an average American to find out if they have Covid-19 is to cough in a rich person’s face and wait for their victim’s test results. “The coronavirus is affecting us all! Globally!
But is everyone suffering equally? No. Because self-isolation, remote working and maintaining a safe, two-meter distance to other people remain the privilege of the wealthy. In the United States, this is amply demonstrated by the upper class hastily fleeing New York and barricading themselves into their summer retreats on the coast, with more space than in the city, less exposure to the coronavirus —and beautiful sea views to boot. And anyone who can afford it is now making their escape by private jet. According to CNBC, demand is booming. What’s more, reports are already pouring in that the country’s richest people are also enjoying preferential access to corona tests.”
The superrich are being blamed for the crisis
We know from the field of prejudice research that minorities are often scapegoated for major societal problems. Scheduled for publication in May 2020, the international study The Rich in Public Opinion explores the pervasiveness of prejudices against the rich and people’s general willingness to denounce the wealthy as scapegoats during major crises.
At one point in the study, respondents were presented with the following statement: “Those who are very rich and want more and more power, are to blame for many of the major problems in the world financial or humanitarian issues.” Far more of the study’s “social enviers” agreed with this statement than did “non-enviers.” In the United States, for example, 57 percent of social enviers blamed the rich for many of the world’s major problems, compared with only 12 percent of non-enviers.
In the other countries, too, agreement among social enviers was far higher than it was among non-enviers (Germany 62 percent versus 36 percent, France 46 percent versus 17 percent and Great Britain 44 percent versus 10 percent).