Oxfam: Pandemic exposes systemic inequality

February 1, 2022
Oxfam describes extreme inequality as ‘economic violence’. Photo: Kasun Chamara / Pixabay

The ten richest men in the world have doubled their wealth since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Oxfam’s recent report, Inequality Kills.

While the world is still not vaccinated, its 2755 billionaires have become wealthier during the pandemic than they did over the previous 14 years.

According to the report’s authors Nabil Ahmed, Anna Marriott, Nafkote Dabi, Megan Lowthers, Max Lawson, Leah Mugehera, this is the largest increase in billionaire wealth since records began.

Since the pandemic began, a new billionaire has been created every 26 hours. By contrast, more than 160 million people have been pushed into poverty and 17 million have died from the deadly virus.

In parts of the world, the poorest people are nearly four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the richest.

Inequality Kills discusses the unprecedented inequality that contributes to the deaths of at least 21,300 people every day and details the action needed to combat this.

It presents some alarming statistics:

• The wealth of the 10 richest men has doubled, while the incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off, because of COVID-19.

• Inequality contributes to the death of at least one person every four seconds.

• 252 men have more wealth than all 1 billion women and girls in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, combined.

• Since 1995, the top 1% captured nearly 20 times more global wealth than the bottom 50% of humanity.

• 3.4 million Black Americans would be alive today if their life expectancy was the same as white people. Before COVID-19, that number was already 2.1 million; and

• 20 of the richest billionaires are estimated, on average, to be emitting as much as 8000 times more carbon than the billion poorest people.

Inequality, Oxfam said, is enabled by skyrocketing stock market prices, a boom in unregulated entities, a surge in monopoly power and privatisation and the erosion of individual corporate tax rates, deregulation and cuts workers’ rights and wages.

Instead of making life-saving vaccines available to billions of people in low- and middle-income countries where new variants of the virus often originate, rich countries including Australia are hoarding vaccines and creating billions in private profits.

The authors of the report describe extreme inequality as “economic violence”.

“This was never by chance, but by choice, where structural and systemic policy and political choices that are skewed in favour of the richest and most powerful people result in direct harm to the vast majority of ordinary people worldwide.”

Further, it said the wealth divide is directly linked to ‘historical legacies of racism, including slavery and colonialism”. People who live in low- and middle-income countries are around twice as likely to die from COVID-19 infection as people who live in rich countries.

What can we do?

When it comes to addressing inequality, Oxfam said governments have been talking the talk but not walking the walk. This inaction left them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Projections from the United States show that poverty has nearly halved compared to pre-pandemic levels due to expansion of government programs, although this is expected to be temporary.

New Zealand, Bhutan and Iceland have adopted national budgets that prioritise indicators of well-being over GDP growth. Oxfam said Australia must also identify economic strategies that centre improved equality and ensure these strategies are supported by explicit, time bound and measurable milestones.

Systemic change is required to address the current systems which allow a small few to capture wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority.

Unlocking trillions for people

Oxfam has proposed three areas of action.

The first is wide-scale debt cancellation and restructuring. Rich countries must deliver on a commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on aid to low- and middle-income countries. Since 1970, they have under-delivered by $5.6 trillion.

Oxfam said governments could claw back the billionaire’s gains over the pandemic through a one-off 99% solidarity tax on the new wealth. Such a tax on the 10 richest men would raise $812 billion.

“A 99% windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men could pay to make enough vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8 billion better off than they were before the pandemic,” Oxfam said.

A similar tactic was deployed by the French government after World War II when it applied a 100% tax rate on excessive wartime wealth.

Other parts of Europe and Japan also levied one-off wealth taxes. The United States applied a 94% tax to those on “excessive incomes” during the war, with an average tax of 81% applied to top earners between 1944–1981.

Governments must implement or raise permanent wealth and capital taxes, and eradicate tax havens and corporate tax dodging, the report said. This would help tip the scales from loading the tax burden onto the majority.

Redirecting wealth to save lives

Oxfam said governments could save millions of lives and prevent millions of people being pushed into extreme poverty every year by implementing universal healthcare, which must be protected from creeping cuts and privatisation.

Universal social protection should be available to all, it said, including income security, child benefits, pensions and other care programs.

If Indonesia invested 1.7% of their GDP into universal social protection schemes, they could cut their poverty rates by 31% by 2030. Rich countries can support low-income countries by contributing to a global fund for social protection.

For those communities facing the harshest impacts of the climate crisis, rich countries need to help fund climate adaptation measures and a transition to a clean energy economy.

The report noted that while gender-based violence cannot be solved by money alone, an estimated $42bn could finance prevention and treatment programs in 132 priority countries by 2030.

It said that investment must be made to organisations that support the fight for women’s rights and autonomy and the transformation of their communities.

Shift power and income

Oxfam wants rich countries to agree to a waiver of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellection Property Rights (TRIPS). This would allow low- and middle-income countries to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines for themselves.

Requiring multinational corporations to conduct mandatory due diligence on supply chains could be achieved if governments refused to pay out dividends unless the company paid a living wage to its workers and invested in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The encouragement of democratic business models, such as cooperatives and social enterprises, would allow workers, farmers and communities to hold real power.

Governments must also protect the rights of workers to unionise and strike and rescind any laws which undermine labour rights.

New laws are needed to tackle discrimination against women. Of the 189 economies assessed by the World Bank in 2018, 104 still have laws that prevent women from working in specific jobs. In 18 of these countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

Globally, women only make up 25.5% of parliamentarians, and rich elites have a disproportionate presence in politics.

Oxfam said diversity strategy targets are needed to ensure that governments and companies achieve diversity in race, gender, educational background and expertise.

As the report noted, there is no shortage of money.

“That lie died when governments released $16 trillion to respond to the pandemic.” What’s lacking, Oxfam said, is the courage to tackle inequality. Breaking free from the “failed, narrow straitjacket of extreme neoliberalism” will mean strengthening the social and labour movements and learning from the ambition of progressive governments.

The pandemic has shown, again, that greater economic equality and gender and racial equality is never going to be handed to us.

[Read more from Jessie de Waal at littlebirdbigpond.com.]

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