COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the 'billionaire class'

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Some members of the billionaires' club have made questionable choices in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic (Screenshots via YouTube)

The worthiness of the world's billionaires has been tested by recent crises including responses to the coronavirus pandemic, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

DURING THE CRISIS of 2020, billionaires are having a field day, increasing the trend where they try to set national policies — drawing extra attention to themselves.

The last few months have seen many curious developments, among them certain billionaires pushing to cause people to use the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for COVID-19.


  • American real estate billionaire, President Donald Trump, included it in the list of nostrums he thought would be “worth a try”;
  • The Palmer Foundation, funded by the real estate and mining magnate Clive Palmer, bought full-page newspaper advertisements proclaiming it had given the national stockpile over 32,900,000 doses of the drug — over a million more than Trump had available in America; and
  • West Australian mining entrepreneur Gina Rinehart has given a reported $4.6 million in total to support research in Australian and American hospitals into the use of the malarial drug in combination with an antibiotic and high dose vitamin C.

Public health authorities have approved such research in laboratories and even controlled trials, but have been anxious to warn ordinary citizens against using hydroxychloroquine untested against the coronavirus. Their anxiety has been heightened by the interception of uncontrolled quantities of it entering Australia.   

Other ventures of this kind come from billionaires who make more orthodox choices, while still moving for them to decide what will be done by all of us, in the process giving away much of their money:

  • the long-standing and productive global drive by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and wife Melinda against malaria, mostly as lead funders of the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) — more than most governments; and
  • West Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s buying up and directly importing planeloads of personal protection equipment (PPE) and virus testing kits from China, said to be worth $160 million. Things came somewhat unstuck on the PR side of that. With the Australian Government backing an international inquiry into the pandemic, Forrest brought a Chinese official, Long Zhou, to a media conference with the Health Minister Greg Hunt, where the man got up and denied any cover-ups back home.

Reasons for members of the billionaires’ club to go for an outlier like hydroxychloroquine include:

  • altruism and a simple drive to help; an impulse frustrated by problems with unregulated use of the drug and side effects;
  • a gambler’s habit, high stakes and high return. Billionaire money is in massive surplus and behaving differently to ordinary incomes, it goes out to work and can be put out at risk with no great consequence if you fail. If you save the world by promoting a wonder drug, you can beat the tin for the next half century; if that does not come off, you can shrug, like Donald Trump;
  • perversive politics. Trump, for one, wants to show he can get down to the level of some of his most basic supporters and think just like them. If disinfectant kills the virus why not inject some? People who got into senior public positions by studying this might point out it is toxic, but what would they know? Give it a try. Making such things happen can show who is boss and build up a cheer squad. This lead given by Trump on the malaria concoction may have prompted other big spenders to join the movement;
  • some abnormal psychological pressure that sets in if you can get hold of money to do whatever you want. If only governments and laws are in the way, maybe you can be like a government. You can fast-forward trials of hydroxychloroquine; show you have the power to do it and see what happens; and
  • another possibility is the Peter principle. If the job of running the financial empire demands genius and the proprietor, with all the help in the world, is still an ordinary thinker, they will do extravagant and unwise things.


A “billionaire class” is getting talked about in popular sociology. In societies that are as financialised as today’s, money will become the strongest denominator of status, even the only one. That will be true especially if the deregulated economic system gets so anarchic, very few will get most of the money, becoming able to get anything, even the esteem of others — hence high socioeconomic status (SES).

Billionaires in appreciable numbers are a product, especially of the last 50 years of neoliberal economics. This stands for getting wealth out of public hands and government legal controls and into private hands, turning life into a business-driven free-for-all. It means the emergence of private fortunes as big as the wealth of many counties or Australian states. The actual characters and personalities are diverse; they would acknowledge one another’s status, having so much in common (money).


Before getting into the confusion of thinking that these are all the same and uniformly high status individuals you’re supposed to look up to, consider using some standard metrics as worked out by sociologists before the money grab began — such as breakthrough studies on American social classes by W Lloyd Warner.

Such work typically set up investigations to determine status based on four independent variables: Housing (the value of your house and land), Income, Education and Occupational Status (often obtained from sources such as periodic measures of public “trust” in certain occupations). Making all four variables equal in weight, construct a rubric where each variable is described, rated and given a number, like a percentage. For example, under “how much education”, billionaire Forrest’s PhD should get him 90/100, Palmer’s biography lists a Law diploma, evidently two years FTE, that might get rated 63/100.

In the disrupted world of rampaging communication and wild capitalism, this article suggests adding a fifth, subjective, more “qualitative”, moderating variable. For billionaires at least, gross holdings of money can swamp the calculus and obscure the picture across the board. The new variable might be one for “Esteem”. Conventionally, a player acquires a certain status if other holders of that status agree to let them in.

By extension, with “Esteem”, check how any reasonable observers might esteem the status seeker, giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the public on how much status they should have. In the two cases mentioned, consider the accolades conferred on Forrest for public service and systematic sharing of his wealth and set that against any public opprobrium; Palmer also has formal tributes or titles in his record, but has got into fractious party politics and as such, he finds both admirers and others who hold him in contempt. Which would get the higher marks for esteem?


A small SES exercise was embarked on for the two billionaires mentioned. Its idea is to say that even in 2020, status is not only about money. It should balance off the idea that access to huge amounts of money is in itself sufficient to guarantee the highest status. For convenience of reading, the results might be compared with the standard examination ratings used by most universities. In that case, Forrest would get a High Distinction (HD), with overall 91% over the five variables; Palmer, a Distinction (D) on 77%.

Getting wealth and status into perspective, such ratings remain attainable by many with more modest means, with scores that firm up where criteria other than money are taken into account. An exercise was done for Donald Trump, who scored 80% (D) — showing even the President of the United States does not automatically get into the top drawer of society.

See how these calculations might be made; maybe rate your own SES and that of many others. Go to the extended version of this article published by Lee Duffield in Subtropic.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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