Gerry ChidiacTwo years ago, Matt Colvin was the most hated man in America. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had almost 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and was charging up to $70 per bottle, delivered.

Colvin had been making a living by following the supply-and-demand principle of economics. He would study market trends, buy products when the prices were low and charge more for them online as demand increased. By following this method, he was able to provide a middle-class lifestyle for his family.

As COVID-19 spread around the world, it became clear to Colvin that the demand for certain products, including hand sanitizer, would increase significantly, so he prepared for it by buying as much as he could.

In March 2020, an article in the New York Times made Colvin infamous. The social media backlash was unbelievable and traditional media was also quite cruel. Not only did his online distributor suspend his account, but Colvin was also harassed mercilessly. He and his family had to go into hiding and were nearly ruined financially.

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Colvin ended up donating nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to local charities.

Clearly, a global pandemic is a time to come together as humans and support one another for the good of all. It’s not a time for financial profiteering.

Or is it?

Drug companies, whose work is made possible by knowledge generated by academic researchers, were given generous government grants to develop vaccines for COVID-19. In turn, they were able to sell these vaccines back to governments at astronomical profits. Not only that, they refused to allow these vaccines to be given to people whose governments couldn’t afford their asking prices.

Failing to vaccinate our neighbours in less wealthy countries has likely promoted the mutation of the virus into new, more infectious strains, requiring wealthy governments to buy more and more vaccines to give boosters to their citizens.

Pfizer doubled its profits to $22 billion in 2021 and paid $24.3 million in compensation to its CEO Albert Bourla, according to a report in CNBC.

And we think Colvin is terrible?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making money: those who offer needed services deserve to be financially compensated for their efforts. And there’s nothing wrong with being in the right place at the right time. If you take a financial risk, you deserve to be rewarded if things turn out as you hoped.

It’s very curious that Colvin was ostracized for his opportunism, yet wealthy governments continued to pour money into the coffers of drug companies and refused to pressure them to make their vaccines available in poorer countries, despite repeated pleas from the World Health Organization. Many private citizens also hopped on the gravy train, seeing their portfolios balloon as stocks in these companies reached record levels due to the pandemic.

As the dust settles and we optimistically begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to look honestly at what we did right and what we did wrong. Medical workers were tremendous, as were other public servants. People in the service industry dealt politely with disrespectful customers who took their frustrations over public health measures out on them. These are the heroes.

However, the pandemic has made it clear that we need to enact laws that require industry to do what’s best for the public good. Vaccines can’t be offered only to the highest bidder. And if public funds are used to develop pharmaceuticals, public health, not profitability, needs to take precedence.

Colvin made a mistake and suffered a more severe consequence than he deserved. Why is there no consequence or public outcry toward those who made millions and even billions of dollars from the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is the harsh question we need to ask ourselves.

Roslyn Kunin specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.

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