One might think that Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, would be among the billionaire business leaders with the best understanding of the science and public health risks of the coronavirus; after all, his wealth is based on his science and engineering acumen. But, instead, he is seemingly treating the pandemic like it’s a game of The Sims, in which his choices are nothing more than tactics to win a challenge in a virtual world.
But unlike in the video game, Musk’s choices — like reopening his California factory on Monday without a county-approved safety plan to address worker safety in a post-coronavirus world — can have life-and-death consequences.
When the pandemic began, Musk first downplayed the threat of the virus, tweeting that the panic was “dumb.” Then, as Americans started dying by the thousands, he tried to be a hero, promising delivery of “ventilators” for the most severely affected patients. What he delivered turned out to be common home-health appliances — continuous positive airway pressure machines — often used for sleep apnea (though they seemingly can be used, in certain circumstances, for less severe cases).
Not getting the glory he apparently desired from delivering CPAP machines to hospitals when he promised them ventilators, he reversed tactics again. After trying unsuccessfully to order his Tesla employees back to work against the shelter-in-place orders of the California authorities, he engaged in the most childish maneuver of all: throwing a tantrum.
“Frankly, this is the final straw,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Tesla will now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately.” And on Monday, he announced via Twitter that they were restarting the production line, despite not having a plan in place to address the safety protocols issued by the state on May 7, and invited officials to arrest him. (Via Tweet, they seemingly declined.)
Clearly, Musk is in no mood to contemplate the reasoning behind the shelter-in-place order or the safety plan required to reopen beyond minimum basic operations — namely, the health of his employees. What mattered to him was the setback to his production schedule. Or, to put it in terms of The Sims, he had just lost “energy points.”
And what do billionaires do when they’re incensed about losing energy points? You guessed it: File a lawsuit (in his case, against Alameda County) and invite the cops to arrest him.
It’s as if Musk doesn’t understand that he is not the protagonist in this story and his employees are not virtual characters who say cute things like “dag dag” instead of “goodbye”; they are human beings, and their lives are being unethically put at risk by this reopening without a plan in place. And, apparently, not even the birth of his baby last week could soften his stance on the eternal question of people or profits.
This, of course, is the same guy whose rocket company is due to send astronauts into space from the Kennedy Space Center at the end of this month. If Florida authorities have a specific health or safety request that he doesn’t like, will he throw another fit and take his astronauts elsewhere — to a place that bows down to his business demands over the guidance of public health or safety experts?
Musk, of course, has a long record of acting childish whenever the game of life doesn’t go his way. When a young soccer team in Thailand got stuck in a cave — drawing the world’s attention to their plight — Musk offered to build a kid-size submarine to rescue them. When an expert cave explorer pointed out the impracticality of the device, Musk vented his rage by calling him a “pedo.”
Musk naturally drew from the same insult playbook when he was criticized for his ill-fated attempt to address the ventilator shortage. When CNN quoted the California’s governor’s office as saying that none of the hospitals had received his promised ventilators, Musk responded by saying, “What I find most surprising is that CNN still exists.”
There is seemingly no aspect of life or business that Musk doesn’t treat as a childish game to be won in an insult war. After reaching a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a lawsuit over other problematic tweets in which he suggested he would take his company private, thereby driving up the stock price, he mocked the agency on Twitter, calling it the “Shortseller Enrichment Commission.”
Pushing boundaries of SEC regulations — while serious enough — only involves people’s money, though, and not their lives. Trying to evade public safety orders by moving your production line and your employees to a state with fewer precautions, or simply defying the state's request to implement a plan for workers' safety, shows a stunningly cavalier attitude toward your workers’ lives.
Furthermore, some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country have been in other factories, forcing many of those companies to close facilities even in states without shelter-in place orders and seek special protections from the president of the United States to avoid lawsuits from their employees. Why, then, would a business owner question California authorities when they ask you to ensure workers' safety before ordering them back to work? Especially when the nation’s best strategies to contain the outbreak debuted in California?
The pandemic has been an opportunity for our leaders — especially in health care and in state and local government — to show both maturity and that they are working in the public interest, rather than solely in their own. Many have responded to the greatest challenge of our lifetimes by making tough decisions and taking full responsibility for them. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, for example, has been widely praised for his efforts, which included canceling major events before a single reported case, issuing shelter-in-place orders early, issuing clear stages for reopening his state in line with public health guidance and, in a moment very uncharacteristic for a politician in 2020, actually saying, “The buck stops with me.”
During the pandemic, we now know who the solid leaders are: They’re the ones who are selflessly and soberly looking out for the safety and well-being of their fellow humans, not the ones looking to settle feuds, score points or play games. I know we’re all a little delirious from the quarantine, but let’s not confuse video games with real life.