Right now, a lot of countries are fighting a second (or third? fourth? who’s counting?) coronavirus wave. But my friend who was a face-mask broker in Hong Kong has moved on…
Moved on, that is, to dating supermodels. Let me explain…
In bygone days (as in just a few months ago), face masks were as necessary as water in the desert, a fix for the junkie, or coffee in the morning… Every hospital, county, country, organization, university – everyone on Earth – needed face masks because they’re a simple and easy way to limit the spread of COVID-19.
(My kid brother who’s an ER doc wishes everyone got that message… More from him below.)
And as I wrote in May, 29-year-old American James Steinberg was helping scratch that global itch for face masks. He was running a logistics company in Shanghai when some guy in Wuhan ate a bat… And the opportunity of a lifetime struck.
James had no more than a casual-viewer-of-Grey’s-Anatomy-level of expertise about face masks. But within weeks, he was talking with face-mask producers from Texas to India to Uzbekistan and China about the finer points of “meltblown” (that’s the non-woven polypropylene that’s used as a filter) on behalf of buyers of tens of millions of face masks in Hong Kong, France, Australia, and elsewhere.
When I spoke with James in late April in Hong Kong, he was in the middle of negotiating the transport of around three dozen cargo planes – each as big as nine 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks – all packed with face masks.
You’ve heard of asset bubbles in tulips, and Tokyo real estate, and dot-com stocks, and the FAANGs… James was at the eye of the hurricane of a massive face-mask bubble, driven by terrified, what-does-it-cost-OK-how-many-can-I-get demand.
“I got lucky one week, and my life changed,” he told me a few weeks ago.
James almost got blown into the next country a few times by said hurricane, though. One producer in India – the Wild West of face-mask scammers – took his money but didn’t deliver. “That wiped me out,” James told me in April.
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Another time, he almost lost part of a monster order from the French government. The buyer wanted to confirm the quality of the filtration in a huge shipment of masks that James delivered. He’d gotten each supplier to provide the results of official filtration quality control tests – except for one supplier in China, who had provided 30 million masks to James for France.
“I kept pushing them, but they wouldn’t get the test done,” James told me. The French government was threatening to burn the masks in question if they couldn’t certify their quality. James would be left holding the bag for millions of dollars’ worth of face masks.
Finally, the French buyer tested the questionable face masks themselves. And the masks’ filtration quality was higher than the required threshold. Crisis averted.
Which begs the question – why didn’t the Chinese supplier just do the easy thing and show that its masks were champagne compared with the prosecco that the French were prepared to settle for?
It turned out that the Chinese government, in order to keep more of the higher-quality masks for in-country consumption, had changed the rules regarding the quality of masks that could be exported. James’ supplier was afraid that if they’d submitted their masks to the authorities for quality control, they’d have gotten in trouble for exporting them because they were too good… even though the export was perfectly legal at the time. “That was a close call,” James said.
But now? Stick a fork in it – the face-mask market is done. “The PPE stuff is pretty much over,” James told me.
There’s still huge demand – conservatively, hundreds of millions of them are used every day around the world – but the magic of the free market has arbitraged away the hefty profit margins that James and his fellow face-mask millionaires enjoyed in the early days of the pandemic. “There are no shortages anymore because now everyone knows that’s where the money is,” he told me.
In January, no one in Hong Kong was making face masks… Today, there are 32 factories, James says. Some are small scale, making only 5,000 or so masks a day – but there’s enough production to reduce the profit margin to nothing interesting.
So James has gone back to his firm’s original raison d’être to become something like an Amazon for foreigners in specific markets – Taiwan, Bermuda, and soon Sri Lanka – who want products from home that they can’t buy locally.
He’s doing that… and dating Russian models. “I never was the guy who got the cute girls,” James told me. But thanks to his face-mask escapades, he now has some cash.
And there’s a steady flow of models at the hotel where James lives – who, like everyone else, adhere to strict quarantine rules for two weeks upon arrival in Hong Kong. Bored, locked-down, and (very) rich Hongkongers bankroll a small fleet of very attractive 20-somethings from the former eastern bloc and put them up at a swanky hotel.
But it’s not what you might be thinking…
Bizarre as it may sound, the models and local businessmen play competitive rock, paper, scissors – yes, that two-person hand game you used to play as a kid.
The losers have to drink… So before long, it becomes a party. And the winners – in addition to having a great story to tell when they’re asked “So tell me about your prior work experience” in a job interview – get to take home cash.
India Has Fared Surprisingly Well
But the lockdown hijinks are a lot less interesting in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where my friend Rahul runs a big investment research publishing company.
Back in March, I said that India was the one country I didn’t want to visit (this was back before no one could visit any countries anyway) because it’s custom-built to be absolutely obliterated by an airborne virus.
India is the world’s second most-populous country, with more than 4 times the population of America, all stuffed into just 40% of the landmass of the continental U.S. Social distancing (in a country where even in normal times there’s little sense of personal space) is as aspirational as crawling to Mars for all but the wealthiest Indians.
To make matters worse, many households are multi-generational, with grandparents sharing space with grandchildren – who are walking superspreaders because they go to school, play with friends, and scatter germs like Tinker Bell does pixie dust.
Not surprisingly, India has the second-most coronavirus cases of any country, with 8.9 million cases (America is No. 1 with 11.5 million cases).
But India has one-sixth the number of cases per million people than the U.S. Deaths per 1 million people are around one-tenth the rate in the U.S. Even if you adjust those figures upwards (to account for misclassified causes of death, and to reflect low testing rates), India seems to have done something right. (Experts believe India’s young population, early and severe lockdown practices, and poor data tracking contribute to its lower COVID-19 death rate.)
And now, Rahul told me last week, some things are more or less back to a new normal. The local market down the block from him was bustling, as shoppers stocked up for Diwali, a big Hindu holiday. Buses are “as packed as usual,” Rahul told me. India had one of the harshest lockdowns in the world, giving people just hours to prepare… and now “it’s all bouncing back strongly,” Rahul said.
But like much of the rest of the world, there’s a lot that’s not normal. All of Rahul’s employees are working remotely, and he doesn’t see that changing. The coronavirus initially ripped through the slums, and now it’s hitting wealthier Indians who live in the city’s towering high rises.
And while the coronavirus is under control in some parts of the country, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations is hitting new highs in New Delhi, the country’s capital. That’s partly because of the city’s extraordinary air pollution (which is 10 to 20 times what are considered safe levels) – the virus spreads faster in polluted air, and symptoms are also more severe.
‘Did I Sign Up for This?‘
Things are worse for my kid brother, who’s an emergency room doctor at a public hospital in the American southwest. A regular day at the office for him is an episode of ER – only without the pretty people and the tidy Hollywood ending at the end of the hour. But the blood and guts, and dire viral danger to health care workers, is very real.
Back in March, my brother was cooling his heels for two weeks of quarantine after he’d treated a patient who had contracted COVID-19. Today, of course, coronavirus is as common as cacti where he lives.
For a while, he stayed in an Airbnb to not risk infecting his wife or kids (or our parents, who live nearby and visit often) after he left the hospital every day. But once it became clear that the coronavirus wasn’t going to go away like a puddle in the southwestern summer, he and the family had to adjust.
Now their five-year-old daughter – who’s been doing school from home for months – stays at home with his wife, who is part of a higher-risk group. Their two-year-old son is living with our parents (who only leave the house for morning jogs) to ease the childcare burden. My brother makes grocery runs for everyone between shifts.
It’s an inelegant compromise that is deeply unsatisfying for everyone. But it’s better than a lot of the alternatives. (“I’d very likely die if I contracted it,” my not-so-young-anymore, pull-no-punches, believer-in-science nuclear engineer dad has said to me a number of times.)
“I often wonder, did I sign up for this as an emergency physician?” my brother said to me.
It’s one thing to dedicate your career to helping people in most dire need, when sometimes you’re the only obstacle to death… But it’s another thing to face death yourself as a byproduct of helping others.
Kids falling off of bikes and jaws-of-life car accidents and projectile vomiting and other day-at-the-office ER challenges are sad and difficult… But at least the scope for harm – except for a chunky dry-cleaning bill – to the doc is limited. The coronavirus is different.
“It boggles my mind how people can do the things they’re doing,” he says. “I’m past the point of trying to understand how other people make their decisions and what they’re thinking.”
And it’s getting more difficult over time. “The difference now [with this wave of the coronavirus] is that everyone is tired.” A lot of people have left the health care industry, particularly nurses. “We don’t have space constraints. Now it’s nurses we don’t have,” he told me.
“Thousands of medical practices are closing, as doctors and nurses decide to retire early or shift to less intense jobs,” the New York Times reported earlier this week.
And there’s no clear ending. My brother puts one foot in front of the other, washes his hands, doesn’t hug our parents or see much of his little boy, and pushes on.
“If you don’t want to protect the people around you by wearing a mask, please protect us,” he said to me. “If you don’t, you’re putting the people who care for you at risk by not behaving responsibly,” he said to me.
I wish – for the sake of my brother and his colleagues, and everyone else – people would.
Publisher’s Note: Reader feedback has revved up lately, and we love it! We truly read every e-mail… Keep ’em coming!
Here’s one we got this week, with a response from Editor in Chief P.J. O’Rourke…
Reading the email from American Consequences makes my day. These past months of the “Boomer Remover” pandemic (thank you Poppet O’Rourke) and election cluster f***, it’s been a sanity saver. P.J is doing a great job injecting humor into topics, and John Stossel is always a sardonic treat and devilish interviewer. Ron Paul, though not necessarily a laugh riot, is always trustworthy and fiscally educational.
The old saying used to be, politicians get elected by making libertarian promises: anti-war, personal freedom, less government, lower taxes, or drug legalization. Unfortunately we seldom get those from a single candidate within the two party system. The greatest threat to a libertarian civil society is politicians getting elected by making socialist promises. Humorous mockery is a great tool to go after these nitwits. I say hoist them on their own petard – or on their own hammer and sickle. Thank you, Kathy M.
- J. O’Rourke’s Response: You’re welcome, Kathy. I love your image of politicians getting hoisted on their own hammer and sickle – especially on the sickle point. And thank you for your kind words. My daughter Poppet will be delighted to see her “Boomer Remover” remark cited. (Poppet thinks her dad is funny – but hasn’t made up her mind whether I’m “funny ha-ha” or “funny weird.”) And John Stossel and Ron Paul are two of the people I’m proudest to have writing for AmCon.
You make a good point about the problems of having to go to both parties to hear the promises we want to hear – Democrats promising personal freedom and Republicans promising economic freedom. But the real problem, of course, is that both parties are lying. And you make another good point that socialist promises are the worst of all. Socialism promises that people can get everything they want from government for free. This is more than a lie. This is a denial of reality. Everything government does has to be paid for, and it is “we the people” who pay every penny of that price.
One thing I’d add, however, is that socialist lies aren’t always told by people who are at least honest enough to call themselves socialists. Politicians from the right, the left, and the middle of the road all promise to give voters a free lunch. Never mind that lunch always turns out to be an air sandwich with a side order of nothing and a big glass of zilch.
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Managing Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
November 20, 2020