Of Covid Billionaires & Toxic InequalityJun 3, 2022 | Shalini Rai
In an indication of just how lopsided wealth distribution and retention has become in our world, reports suggest that the Covid pandemic created a new billionaire every 30 hours. That’s not all.
One million people could descend into extreme poverty at the same pace, said Oxfam at the Davos summit last month, adding that it expects 263 million people to sink into extreme poverty in 2022, at a rate of one million every 33 hours. This is because soaring inflation has added a cost-of-living crisis on top of Covid.
By comparison, 573 people became billionaires during the pandemic.
As is evident, extreme inequality is a form of economic violence, where policies and political decisions that perpetuate the wealth and power of a privileged few result in direct harm to the vast majority of ordinary people across the world and the planet itself.
“The world’s response to the pandemic has unleashed this economic violence particularly acutely across racialized, marginalized and gendered lines. As COVID-19 spikes, this turns to surges of gender-based violence, even as yet more unpaid care is heaped upon women and girls,” Oxfam executive director Gabriela Bucher said.
“Billionaires are arriving in Davos to celebrate an incredible surge in their fortunes,” Bucher said in a statement on May 23. “The pandemic and now the steep increases in food and energy prices have, simply put, been a bonanza for them,” Bucher said. “Meanwhile, decades of progress on extreme poverty are now in reverse and millions of people are facing impossible rises in the cost of simply staying alive,” she said.
Meanwhile, Oxfam called for a one-off “solidarity tax” on billionaires’ pandemic windfall to support people facing soaring prices as well as fund a “fair and sustainable recovery” from the pandemic.
It also said it was time to “end crisis profiteering” by rolling out a “temporary excess profit tax” of 90 percent on windfall profits of big corporations. Oxfam added that an annual wealth tax on millionaires of two percent, and five percent for billionaires, could generate $2.52 trillion a year.
Such a wealth tax would help lift 2.3 billion people out of poverty, make enough vaccines for the world and pay for universal health care for people in poorer countries, it said. Oxfam based its calculations on the Forbes list of billionaires and World Bank data.
With the value of everything from crypto currency to stock prices and commodities shooting up, India added 40 billionaires to 142 last year during the Covid crisis, whose combined fortune is more than the poorest of the population, according to the global Oxfam Davos report of 2022.
Oxfam is recommending that the government impose a 1% surcharge on the richest 10% of the population to invest in health and education. It notes that the fortune of India’s 10 wealthiest billionaires would be enough to fund the school and higher education needs of the nation’s children for more than 25 years.
With 84% of the households suffering a decline in income at the start of the pandemic, India is in line with sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the highest increase in poverty. In 2020, the number of poor in the south Asian nation doubled to 134 million, more than a Pew research had estimated, Oxfam said.
To correct this gaping inequality, Oxfam recommends that governments urgently:
- Claw back the gains made by billionaires by taxing this huge new wealth accumulated since the start of the pandemic through permanent wealth and capital taxes
- Invest the trillions that could be raised by these taxes toward progressive spending on universal healthcare and social protection, climate change adaptation, and gender-based violence prevention and programming
- Tackle sexist and racist laws that discriminate against women and racialized people and create new gender-equal laws to uproot violence and discrimination. All sectors of society must urgently define policies that will ensure women, racialized and other oppressed groups are represented in all decision-making spaces
- End laws that undermine the rights of workers to unionize and strike, and set up stronger legal standards to protect them
- Rich governments must immediately waive intellectual property rules over COVID-19 vaccine technologies to allow more countries to produce safe and effective vaccines to usher in the end of the pandemic
Meanwhile, citing official crime data, Oxfam reported that daily wage workers, the self-employed, and the unemployed committed the most suicides in India, in no small measure due to the exacting cost of living, accessing medical treatment and the ability to invest in education.
Also, the pandemic has set gender parity back from 99 years to now 135 years. Women collectively lost $800 billion in earnings in 2020, with 13 million fewer women in work now than there were in 2019. 252 men have more wealth than all 1 billion women and girls in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean combined.
Other findings include that the pandemic has hit racialized groups hardest. During the second wave of the pandemic in England, people of Bangladeshi origin were five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the White British population. Black people in Brazil are 1.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people. In the US, 3.4 million Black Americans would be alive today if their life expectancy was the same as White people — this is directly linked to historical racism and colonialism.
Inequality between countries is expected to rise for the first time in a generation. Developing countries, denied access to sufficient vaccines because of rich governments’ protection of pharmaceutical corporations’ monopolies, have been forced to slash social spending as their debt levels spiral and they now face the prospect of austerity measures.
The proportion of people with COVID-19 who die from the virus in developing countries is roughly double that in rich countries.
Meanwhile, Bucher said, “There is no shortage of money. That lie died when governments released $16 trillion to respond to the pandemic. There is only a shortage of courage and imagination needed to break free from the failed, deadly straitjacket of extreme neoliberalism. Governments would be wise to listen to the movements — the young climate strikers, Black Lives Matter activists, #NiUnaMenos feminists, Indian farmers and others – who are demanding justice and equality.”
(with inputs from Oxfam)