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On today’s show, we’ll revisit the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic by looking at two alternative supply chains for masks during the fallout from the Trump administration’s failure to prepare.
We’ll be speaking with the ProPublica reporter David McSwane about his book Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick. The book details the shadowy supply chain of brokers looking to profit from the pandemic – to the tune of millions of dollars.
We’ll also hear from Mai-Linh Hong, co-editor and co-author of The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice, about a mutual aid organization that created a different supply chain for homemade masks based on community, care and connection over profit.
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Making Contact Staff:
Lucy Kang: On today’s Making Contact, we’ll be airing a story from our archives: Pandemic and Profit. Enjoy!
When I think about the early days of the Covid pandemic, what I remember most is the uncertainty. Things felt chaotic and scary. And part of that was not knowing much about this invisible threat. But a lot of it was also the way the Trump administration handled it.
On today’s show, we’re going back to that time by zooming in on two supply chains for face masks. And looking at what they can teach us about: the perils of unfettered capitalism. How not to prepare for a disaster. And finally, the importance of communities coming together for each other.
So to set the stage, cast your mind back to early spring of 2020. News is coming out about a novel coronavirus spreading around the world.
There was a window in those early days when the U.S. government could have acted before the virus hit us hard. Things like protecting the country’s supply of masks and medical equipment. But… it didn’t. And that meant the government had to turn to the free market. And that set the stage for rampant profiteering and fraud.
David McSwane: And in the end, we wasted a ton of money, a ton of time. And these folks who saw an opportunity were able to just make millions and millions of dollars. And just contract after contract that I looked into, it was clear that the federal government was just panic buying, and anybody with an LLC could get a major government contract.
Lucy Kang: But mutual aid organizations emerged from the vacuum created by the federal government’s inaction. We’ll focus on one, called the Auntie Sewing Squad, that was created on the values of care, community and connection over profit. The squad built an alternative supply chain for masks that rejected capitalist exploitation and profiteering – and ultimately provided hundreds of thousands of home-made masks to the most vulnerable communities.
Mai-Linh Hong: So Native Americans on reservations, other communities of color, unhoused people, incarcerated people. These were all communities that were really hard hit.
Lucy Kang: All that and more, coming up.
On today’s show, we’ll be speaking with award-winning ProPublica reporter David McSwane. He’s a recipient of Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, as well as the author of Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick.
Pandemic, Inc. takes us through the shadowy world of companies, brokers, and scammers trying to profit off government contracts for masks and other medical supplies in that first early and critical year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Welcome to the show, David.
David McSwane: Thanks for having me.
Lucy Kang: So Pandemic, Inc. tells a very complex story with so many twists and turns. // It might be helpful to remind listeners of the political landscape in early 2020 that would set the scene for the crisis to follow. Can you walk us through how decisions made by the Trump administration and the federal government paved the way for the profiteering, the fraud and the desperation that would show up soon after?
David McSwane: Sure. So in those early weeks of the pandemic, January, February, and into March 2020, the Trump administration’s strategy was really to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. It was a very politically inconvenient pandemic for the Trump administration. And because they lagged in their response, other countries had better prepared in terms of getting things like personal protective equipment, masks, hand sanitizer and all of that. And when the administration finally decided to catch up, there was already this crisis of supplies and the supply chain falling apart.
So the solution was really just to throw billions and billions of dollars out into the sea and hope that agencies like the Veterans Administration and other federal agencies were able to get this equipment. And that created a huge opportunity for people who wanted to price gouge or sell faulty equipment or counterfeits or otherwise just lie and get, you know, really big contracts.
Lucy Kang: So I wanna turn now to talk about some of the people that you met during your reporting. You profile many unscrupulous actors, many people driven by greed, and also many who even maybe saw themselves as heroes during this very desperate time. One of the story’s main characters that you lead with is Robert Stewart, Jr. What was his story?
David McSwane: Yeah, so Robert Stewart Jr. was one of the first contractors I noticed, you know, just sort of poring over the contracts that were being awarded. And he had a small LLC in Virginia, but had never had a major federal contract. And out of nowhere it seemed he got a 34 and a half million dollar deal with the Veterans Administration to supply N95s to the largest hospital system in the country. There were questions there as to how he got it, got the contract, how he had these masks, so I just decided to give him a call and ask him how he got his contract and how he managed to have 6 million N95s when no one else seemed to have them.
And he said to me, I’m hopping on a private jet in the morning to oversee the delivery of the CA. And I asked to tag along. And this was, this was April, 2020, so everything was shut down and just sort of ended up on this bizarre journey where it turns out he had really defrauded the federal government and there were no masks.
And it gave me this entree into this underworld of brokers and scammers and counterfeiters and price gougers and that really just became my life for about a year.
Lucy Kang: Yeah, so, so as, as shocking as Stewart’s story is, it’s actually similar to many of the others that you would report on, namely contractors with very little experience who got these multimillion dollar contracts with minimal oversight. And the people you profile come from all different business backgrounds. You have multiple used car salespeople, people from the cannabis industry, people selling juicing and sexual enhancement products. Many of them were first time government contractors with no experience in the field of medical supply chains, and who were never able to successfully deliver usable medical products. Why was there such little oversight in vetting of contractors during this time?
David McSwane: Well, it was sort of this perfect storm, you know. The Trump administration sort of prided itself in ridding the federal government of expertise, and that really matters in an emergency. So what ended up happening was pretty remarkable historically. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade advisor, really took government procurement into his own hands and started directing contracts all over the place.
He was trying to respond after the Trump administration had really lagged behind. So the solution was to just really break the rules and ignore the safeguards we have to make sure the government gets a good deal and isn’t being screwed over.
So you see these huge contracts being awarded all over the place, willy-nilly, no due diligence. And just contract after contract that I looked into, it was clear that the federal government was just panic buying, and anybody with an LLC could get a major government contract. And many of those folks wasted time and money and resources and, we’re coming into year three of the pandemic. And the federal government’s gonna be catching up to all of those swindlers probably for the next decade.
Lucy Kang: So one of the most fascinating parts of your book for me was how through your research you were essentially able to sketch out an outline of how shadowy broker chains operate when trying to procure masks and other supplies for lucrative government contracts. Can you walk us through how they work?
David McSwane: Sure. Yeah. It was, I mean, it truly was madness. So somebody like Robert Stewart could tell a government agency, hey, I’ll get you masks. That person gets a contract without any due diligence. Now, the world knows that the Veterans Administration was willing to pay $6 for an N95, which normally costs about a buck. So that signaled to the market that the government’s willing to pay six times the price. So that margin is pretty big. So then somebody like Robert Stewart Jr. would reach out to whoever his connections might be and say, hey, I’ve got this contract. Can you help me get masks?
And so begins what was described to me as a broker chain. Someone says, I know a guy who knows a guy. And in this network, people would share what they call proof of life videos, where somebody’s standing next to a lot of masks set labeled 3M, maybe they’re holding a newspaper to show that it’s a timestamp.
And these deals were being made over WhatsApp and over the phone. And you know, the broker would say, I can get you these masks for $4 a pop, and my margin will be 5 cents for every mask. And when you’re talking millions of masks, that’s a lot of money to be spread around.
So behind every government contract involving things such as masks, there might be a half dozen other people who flipped these masks, took a small profit, and in the end it’s, you know, taxpayers who ended up paying a really steep price for something that, you know, we should have just had on hand.
Lucy Kang: So, one of the bleakest things, in a book of many bleak things, that you describe is how essentially in this free market space, states and cities were left to fend for themselves, meaning that they were in this fierce competition between themselves in this zero sum game to get masks and other PPE that would often drive the prices even higher. How would different decisions made by the federal government have changed this?
David McSwane: Yeah. So experts in emergency management would say this is a time for a very visible hand. You know, you need to control the market and set prices so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. And instead, the Trump administration’s tack was to just let the free market work itself out, throw a bunch of money around and hopefully it solves itself.
So we created this over-reliance on the free market, just created this chaotic environment where we were shooting ourselves in the foot. And then, on the federal level, you have Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, sort of put in charge of handling the stockpile and deciding who gets who gets what.
And there was just this sort of blind reverence to free markets. And in the end, we wasted a ton of money, a ton of time. And these folks who saw an opportunity were able to just make millions and millions of dollars.
Lucy Kang: So many of the people you talked to who were trying to profit off these government contracts simultaneously describe themselves as wanting to help too. And I wonder, zooming out into a broader view, I wonder if you thought at all about whether there’s something unique here in the way that free market capitalism is, at least in this country, posed as the solution to crises that you know itself in many ways creates.
David McSwane: Yeah, I discussed this a little bit in the book. I mean, getting rich off of a crisis is really an American tradition. I mean, you can look back at the so-called Spanish flu, and we saw a lot of the same things happening. When we’re desperate, that’s when predators come out to play.
But we had a unique moment for folks where they could simultaneously really try to eke out big profits, but they could also pat themselves on the back and say, I am crucial to the American response, so I’m doing a good thing. And that’s entirely because we just failed to prepare. I mean, the federal government had the resources and the warnings and the know-how to have these things on hand, but we found ourselves flatfooted and prepared. So we had no choice but to rely on people with a profit motivation.
Lucy Kang: Wow, David, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.
David McSwane: Thank you for having me.
Lucy Kang: I’ve been speaking with award-winning ProPublica investigative reporter David McSwane. He’s the author of Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick.
Lucy Kang: This is Making Contact. You’ve been listening to Pandemic and Profit. Visit us online at radioproject.org for more information. And now, back to the show.
Now turning to the second part of today’s show, we’ll look at how one mutual aid organization responded to the need for masks in their communities. In stark contrast to the broker chains we heard about earlier, the Auntie Sewing Squad built a supply chain for home-made masks that rejected capitalist profiteering and prioritized people and care.
Dr. Mai-Linh Hong is a scholar of refugee storytelling, Asian American literature and critical race and ethnic studies. She is an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. She’s a co-author and co-editor of The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice. The book looks at the work of a mutual aid network led of mostly women and nonbinary people of color that sewed and distributed hundreds of thousands of masks during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. She’s also a member of that same squad. Welcome to the show, Mai-Linh, and thanks for joining us.
Mai-Linh Hong: Hi, Lucy. I’m glad to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Lucy Kang: So first off, can you describe the Auntie Sewing Squad? How did it start, and how did you get involved?
Mai-Linh Hong: Absolutely. So back in March of 2020, when we were starting to learn about the Covid-19 virus, there was some talk, if you can remember, about masks possibly being a helpful public health tool.
I think the government was a little bit resistant to that idea at first. But there were folks in the country who were already starting to make masks. And one of these folks was Kristina Wong, who is a performance artist who’s based in Koreatown in Los Angeles. And she actually got on Facebook and put out a message saying, hey, if I know any essential workers, healthcare workers who need masks, I have my Hello Kitty sewing machine, I can make you a mask. And then predictably, she was completely overwhelmed with requests.
And so pretty soon she got together with a few other mostly women of color who were also starting to sew masks at that time. And they became the Auntie Sewing Squad, which organized on Facebook. And so some of the other early original Aunties were in Los Angeles with Kristina, but pretty soon the group was all over California and then all over the country. And we’ve even had a few folks who were in other countries. So it ended up being several hundred, mostly women and non-binary people of color who were working together on the Auntie Sewing Squad.
So it sort of grew from there and it became this amazing community of people who were organizing to provide masks, not just to essential workers, but pretty soon we pivoted to providing masks to very vulnerable populations. So Native Americans on reservations, other communities of color, unhoused people, incarcerated people. These were all communities that were really hard hit by the pandemic and that weren’t receiving the kind of attention that some other groups were getting. And so throughout the height of the pandemic, during the entire time that cloth masks were being recommended, the Auntie Sewing Squad was sewing and sending out masks. And I think we eventually donated about 350,000 masks.
And the ways that we were organizing when we were looking for partners to distribute masks or looking for organizations that needed masks, we were looking for partners that we could really work with as equals so that we could follow their needs, their agendas. These were grassroots organizations that were working directly with communities that had a need.
There was a whole kind of structure within the Aunties Sewing Squad. So we had all different kinds of roles. I was a sewing Auntie. And so there were Aunties who were called Super Aunties who cultivated relationships with other grassroots organizations, including contacts that were on Native American reservations, in the prisons, in communities that didn’t necessarily have access to the kinds of fundraising and activity, like sort of awareness raising, that some groups might.
And so we were working really closely with these organizations to make sure that we gave them what they needed, what they asked for. And it wasn’t about us kind of saying, oh, we think that you need this. So mutual aid is really about trying to be in it together, with other people who are in need. And oftentimes that need comes out of structural inequality.
Lucy Kang: So, one of the most interesting parts of the book for me was learning about how the Auntie Sewing Squad essentially built up this alternative supply chain for masks. Again, this was like during a time when medical grade masks were in very short supply. Can you just talk about that process?
Mai-Linh Hong: Yeah, for sure. And this still boggles my mind that the organization became this elaborate. If any of your listeners were sewing masks in 2020, you’ll recall that a lot of the supplies for sewing masks were in shortage. So it was very difficult to get the right kind of fabric, to get elastic. At certain times there were different kinds of fabric that were recommended or not recommended based on very sort of minimal research that people were doing on the fly to figure out what was most effective as protection. And so there were several months there where it was very, very hard to find elastic especially.
And so one of the things that the group did was that for individual Aunties who were sewing, we needed a way to get this material. And so there were Aunties who were essentially our shopping Aunties. We called them haggling Aunties because oftentimes they were trying to get better deals on large amounts of stuff.
And it got to the point where if they had found a fabric store that was shutting down, we would buy out the inventory. Or they would make a huge order from a place in New Jersey that would ship it to somewhere in California. And then an Auntie would come with a forklift, and then it would be stored in another Auntie’s garage. And then it would be sent out all over the country.
There was a very elaborate process to make sure that the Aunties who were making masks were then supplied with the things that they needed. There were also cutting Aunties who were cutting fabric. So as you can imagine, there’s like a lot of different steps here for material to get from wherever it begins, to the right Auntie to do the cutting or the sewing, and to pass it on to the next person who would do the next part of assembling the masks. And then of course, to mail it to the right place and have it distributed to the people who needed it.
So over the course of several months, this operation just grew in complexity to the point where when we did the book, we made a map that doesn’t even really capture all of the different nodes of this network that we had built. But it really was quite an operation to get all of those materials around.
I mean, just for me personally, even before I joined the Auntie Sewing Squad, I was sewing masks in Pennsylvania. And some of these materials were in short supply. And so people would come, and they would take masks from the shoebox on my front porch. And I gave away hundreds of masks this way.
And people would come and take masks and they would leave supplies, like whatever they could or thank you notes or little thank you gifts. And I remember there was one time someone had left a box full of lace. And Lucy, this was, it was amazing because as a lifelong crafter, I know what it’s like to collect material over time to be really attached to it. And this was clearly a box of lace trim that had been collected over someone’s lifetime. And they were all kinds of lace that were very carefully spooled and organized in this box. So it must have, like, I imagine it was like someone’s relative had passed away and left this material. And so they left this big cardboard box full of this lace on my front porch. And I was like, what am I gonna do with lace? Because we’re making masks. I need elastic, I need cotton, you know? And then within a couple weeks I was completely out of elastic. And so I pulled out the box of lace and I started making masks with ties, and I started using that lace. And then all over the country, Aunties were doing these kinds of, you know, just trying to make do with whatever they had.
I think we had an ongoing joke that at some point an Auntie volunteered her son’s used underwear or something. And we did not end up using that to make masks, to take the elastic from it to make masks. But the joke is like, we thought about it. So you know that the Auntie Sewing Squad was really organizing to make sure that we all could work as productively as we could to fulfill the need that was out there.
Lucy Kang: Wow. That’s such an incredible story and just makes me think about how these sort of decentralized, mutual aid efforts stand in such stark contrast to the inaction of the Trump administration and the federal government during that time during the pandemic. I’m wondering whether you take any lessons from your time in the Auntie Sewing Squad?
Mai-Linh Hong: Yeah. You know, there were so many lessons. And honestly, I think a lot of us are still processing the experience. We operated until August of 2021, so about a year, almost a year and a half. And in that time the pandemic went through different phases. And the political situation was extremely stressful at various points.
And so for us in the squad, many of us were sewing as a way to relieve stress and anxiety because we felt like we needed to do something. But also because crafting and sewing for many of us are calming, meditative activities. And the fact that we could help other people by using those sewing skills, that was really important for us.
And what I haven’t mentioned yet is there was a whole system of care that was developed within the group called Auntie Care. And so there were care Aunties who ran the Auntie Care system. And so there were Aunties who didn’t sew or cut or really do anything directly involved with making masks. But what they did was they provided gifts and food and services like yoga classes and making hand salve and Aunties who did all sorts of things that could benefit the ones who were sewing or who were out there delivering masks, et cetera. So Aunties, as they were working, recognized each other’s labor and tried to care for each other as best we could in this kind of non-capitalist way.
So it wasn’t really, it wasn’t a group where you were valued more because you sewed more masks than another person or anything like that. It was, everybody was contributing in the ways that they could, whether they were sewing or doing other things, and no matter how much or how little is whatever you were able to give.
And so the lessons from that for me were quite profound, that we can have a way of being together that involves just caring for each other and accepting each other as we are, accepting each other’s abilities and appreciating what every person can contribute. This is not something that we see all that often in a capitalist society where we’re always being pushed to just produce more and more and more without regard to our own health, our own wellbeing. This was a very caring group.
And so my co-editors, Preeti Sharma and Chrissy Yee Lau, the three of us are scholars of Asian-American studies. And all three of us consider ourselves feminist scholars, working in ethnic studies. And when we saw the kinds of sociality that we’re developing within this group, including this system of care, we felt that it was really important to tell this story.
Because in the midst of this pandemic where a government that just flagrantly didn’t care, and not only didn’t care, but really contributed to the illnesses and the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, just by their inaction, their commitment to ignorance and racism. Like in the midst of all of that, we were able to build a community very quickly that had values that ran counter to that. And that enabled us to get through a very difficult time.
So, I think personally also for me, I learned to sew from my parents, from my mother who was a Vietnamese refugee. My family came to the United States when I was a baby, and we came as refugees. We were boat people. And I learned to sew and knit and crochet from my mother when I was very young. And I write about this in the book that I don’t actually remember learning to sew. It’s just always been in my body. Like I turn on the sewing machine, and my fingers know what to do. And this is a kind of knowledge that I had always viewed as being separate from my life as a scholar. Like this is a hobby, right? Sewing is my hobby. It’s a thing I do on the side, I do for fun. But it’s not attached to what I do as a scholar. And I’m a scholar of refugee storytelling and critical refugee studies.
And I think one of the things I learned personally that was extremely meaningful for me was that the knowledge I was using to contribute to a life-saving project was refugee knowledge. And this is knowledge that my parents, who didn’t have the chance to be educated, to go to college, they didn’t have the opportunities that I had, they gave me this lifesaving knowledge.
And I think there were many other Aunties who were experiencing a similar kind of realization about their family histories because there were Aunties who were from immigrant families who had grown up with relatives who worked in actual sweatshops and who were exploited workers and who had passed on sewing skills that they actually did not want their children to ever use because it was a source of their own exploitation. And we were able to reclaim that knowledge. And so that, for me, that was a really important part of the story as well.
Lucy Kang: Wow, that’s beautiful. And thank you so much for sharing that. Well, Mai-Linh, thank you so much for joining us today on Making Contact.
Mai-Linh Hong: Thank you, Lucy. I appreciate having been here. It was a really nice chance to just reflect and talk about this time that was really very intense and I think, you know, like I said, we’re still all sort of processing.
Lucy Kang: Yeah, same, same here.
We’ve been speaking with Dr. Mai-Linh Hong. She’s a scholar of refugee storytelling, Asian American literature and critical race and ethnic studies, and an assistant professor of literature at UC Merced. She’s also a co-editor and co-author of The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice.
You’ve been listening to Pandemic and Profit on Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.