The Rich Really Are Different. They Can Shelter In Nicer Places The coronavirus strikes both rich and poor people, but waiting out the pandemic is a lot easier if you've got a yacht. Ellen DeGeneres and other stars have been called insensitive about COVID-19.

The Rich Really Are Different. They Can Shelter In Nicer Places

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In these strange and unsettling times, sheltering in place means one thing for the rich - it means something altogether different for everyone else. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Madonna probably meant to say something uplifting and profound when she did her latest video. In it, the 61-year-old pop star sits naked in a tub in bathwater laced with rose petals hugging her knees to her chest.


MADONNA: That's the thing about COVID-19, it doesn't care about how rich you are, how famous you are...

ZARROLI: The coronavirus, she says, is the great equalizer. Which is true - even Tom Hanks and Prince Charles got it. But being rich does let you ride out the pandemic in much more pleasant surroundings. Hollywood billionaire David Geffen did an Instagram post last month about how he was self-quarantining in the Caribbean. He included a picture of his yacht, apparently shot from a drone.

MAUREEN CALLAHAN: And this is a super-yacht. I mean, it looks like the size of a cruise liner, almost.

ZARROLI: New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan says the post didn't come off well.

CALLAHAN: I think tone-deaf is an understatement. As many people noted, this is an individual whose net worth is reported to be $8 billion.

ZARROLI: Geffen appeared to mean well - he said he hoped everyone was keeping safe. Still, he found himself pilloried for the post. Singer John Mayer actually wrote a song about him.


JOHN MAYER: (Singing) Drone shot of my yacht. It's all I got. I'm all alone on the water. But let me flex these specs - 450 feet - six or seven decks.

ZARROLI: Geffen isn't the only rich and famous person whose efforts to express solidarity with regular people have come off as clumsy. Recently, Ellen DeGeneres did her talk show from home. She said lots of nice things about health care workers and her crew. Then, she told a joke comparing quarantine to prison.


ELLEN DEGENERES: This is like being in jail is what it is.

ZARROLI: Out came the pitchforks on social media, largely, because she was speaking from one of the plush mansions she owns. Paul Piff of UC Irvine, who studies the psychology of wealth, says episodes like this underscore a central fact about the epidemic.

PAUL PIFF: In times of crisis, you see class differences come into kind of stark contrast.

ZARROLI: Rich and poor people experience it differently. People with money, he says, can escape the virus more easily. They have the privilege of social space.

PIFF: It buys you distance from others.

ZARROLI: Working-class people don't have that luxury. They rely more on public transportation. They can't afford to stock up on weeks of food and supplies, and they often have service jobs that need to be done in person.

PIFF: They almost necessarily involve social contact. Who is it that's delivering your food or driving bride shares, right? It's the people who don't have the means to do otherwise.

ZARROLI: There's nothing unusual about this, he says. Some people have always had means, and some people haven't. But at a time when separating yourself from the crowd is literally a life and death issue, it's probably not the right moment to show off your yacht. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.