At the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 was often depicted as an agent of random chaos, a disease that affected everyone irrespective of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status. On virtually every count, this assumption has proved to be false. Although the coronavirus managed to disrupt how human beings live and work, it didn’t do so proportionally. The crisis hit an unequal world and, when it did, exacerbated those inequalities. By and large, living through the worst of the pandemic has been easier for the wealthy, many of whom could afford to maintain a certain semblance of normalcy while mitigating health risks. The superrich got even richer.
To get a glimpse into the world of the affluent during the pandemic, I reached out to many of the businesses that flourished off them. Private jets, superyachts, personal catering, concierge medicine—these industries have not only survived but thrived during the pandemic, in large part because they could provide their customers with all the things that COVID-19 had rendered in short supply, like safety, seclusion, and, above all, a sense of control. The wealthy have already learned how to live with COVID-19 (albeit at a very high cost). Now the rest of the world must figure out how to do the same, on a budget.
Perhaps the most obvious luxury enjoyed by the wealthy during the pandemic has been relatively safe and reliable travel. Take private jets. Yann-Guillaume Jaccard, the CEO and a co-founder of the private aviation company Simply Jet, told me that at the start of the pandemic, his business, like most others in the travel industry, nearly came to a grinding halt, save for flights to get people back to their home country. But once international-travel restrictions started to loosen, Simply Jet began to experience what would ultimately become an industry-wide boom. At a time when travel feels precarious and expensive, “we are seeing unprecedented levels of activity,” Jaccard said, noting that demand for private jets is higher now than it was before the 2008 financial crisis, which he said had previously been considered the “golden age of private aviation.” Back then, clients might have sought out private jets for the luxury or the privacy. But now, demand is being driven by one thing: safety.
When you fly with a commercial airline, you might come in contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of people during check-in, security, and boarding. But when you fly private, the number of interactions is significantly reduced. Private-jet fliers typically depart from and arrive at a private terminal, where they are joined only by security and their flight crew. Additional services, such as rapid COVID-19 tests and even private doctors, can be provided on-site. “This is impossible to replicate with a commercial flight,” Jaccard said.
That kind of peace of mind doesn’t come cheap. Although short-haul private flights on a small, four-person jet can start at $6,000 to $7,000 one way, a transatlantic flight on a larger, 12-person aircraft can go for as much as $120,000 one way.
Over the past two years, private-island brokers and yacht sellers have also reported a surge in sales, owing in large part to the influx of affluent clients seeking to escape the pandemic by any means necessary. “Islands in the strong local markets have all basically sold out,” Chris Krolow, the CEO of the online marketplace Private Islands Inc. and the host of the reality-TV show Island Hunters, told me. Buyers can spend $1.5 million to $3 million on a small island, depending on the size and location, with bigger ones going for as much as $300 million. Size and location aren’t the main criteria buyers are worried about, though. “It’s telecommunications,” Krolow said. “It’s ‘Can I work from the island?’” Meanwhile, in the yachting world, Raphael Sauleau, the CEO of Fraser Yachts, told me that his business saw a 175 percent increase in sales last year after selling $1.7 billion in yachts, prices for which start at $2 million.
A refuge from the pandemic might have been the original reason behind the private-island boom—partly inspired, perhaps, by the rich and famous touting their own archipelagic excursions as means of enjoying some pre-pandemic normalcy—but several of the people I spoke with didn’t necessarily see it that way. “I don’t think people are fearful of COVID anymore,” Will Christie, the founder of Christie Yachts, a superyacht broker, told me. These days, he chalks up the heightened demand to people wanting to reclaim their freedom to travel and see the world from the comfort of their own floating home, complete with its own chef and crew. “That sense of wanting to escape and explore the world—the demand for that has never been higher.”
The desire for more quotidian luxuries, such as dining in a restaurant, has been a boon for another industry that caters (literally) to the rich: private-chef services. Michael Kaplan, a restaurateur and co-founder of New Wave Hospitality, in Miami, told me that during the pandemic, he has helped place more than a dozen out-of-work chefs with affluent clients, some of whom are willing to pay as much as $180,000 a year for a full-time chef. According to Kaplan, the appeal is more than re-creating experiences that the pandemic rendered temporarily unviable. “It’s no longer just about getting a reservation at a restaurant,” he said. “It’s transitioned to this idea of access and exclusivity,” one that he predicts will last long after the pandemic does.
Saima Khan, the founder of the Hampstead Kitchen, a London-based catering service, told me that some of her clients have been prepared to pay “ridiculous amounts of money” to mark special occasions during the pandemic while still abiding by public-health guidance. One such dinner took place on a private jet flying from London to Scotland at a cost of $3,377 a person. (Renting a plane also allowed her clients to avoid running afoul of Britain's COVID-19 restrictions, which forbade groups of more than six people from dining together in restaurants or pubs.) Another catered dinner, this time to celebrate a 15th wedding anniversary, was staged in a garden with an opera singer and a grand piano. “To bring families together within the rules that we have, we have to be creative,” Khan said. “To be creative, you have to spend money. [Our clients] see the value in that.”
Rich folks’ ability to access immediate and reliable health care and at-home COVID-19 tests, the latter of which were virtually impossible to find in the United States until recently, also made a different sort of pandemic experience available to them. In the early months of the pandemic, Sollis Health, a members-only medical service based in New York City, made headlines after reportedly providing its affluent clients with easy access to COVID-19 tests at a time when those resources were still scarce. Sabine Heller, the chief commercial officer for Sollis, told me that the concierge service has expanded since then, with members now enjoying unlimited rapid, PCR, and antibody testing as well as monoclonal antibody treatments and other services. Memberships start at $3,000 a year.
For the wealthiest, this kind of opulence offers a sneak peek of what adapting to life with COVID-19 in perpetuity—and, by extension, all of the new variants, exposure risks, and health issues that come with it—might involve. For the rest of society, however, the path forward is less clear. Air travel, while picking up, remains subject to changing restrictions and, for some families, is prohibitively expensive. Dining out and other activities, although possible in most places, come with their own share of potential health risks. Meanwhile, regular COVID-19 testing is still costly despite the Biden administration’s commitment to distribute 1 billion at-home rapid tests to Americans for free (a service that is currently limited to just four tests per household). Not everyone who catches the virus can necessarily afford to take time off work to isolate and recover, let alone decamp to a private villa on the sea.
Nearly 500 people became billionaires over the course of the pandemic, and the richest among them doubled their fortune. Meanwhile, “the great majority of humanity are worse off,” Gabriela Bucher, the executive director of Oxfam International, told me. Those widening disparities—and the huge gap between how the rich and the poor experienced the pandemic—have led some to call for wealth redistribution. If the 10 richest people on the planet were to surrender 99 percent of the wealth they gained during the pandemic, “we would have enough money to vaccinate the world; we would have the money to invest in having universal health care,” Bucher told me. That would be a hefty levy. But hanging on to just 1 percent of their gains would still leave the 10 most deep-pocketed humans $8 billion better off than they were at the beginning of March 2020.