30.01.2022 |

Inequality kills the poor and increases billionaires’ wealth, Oxfam

Inequality - between and within countries (Photo: CC0)

The wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled and a new billionaire has been created every 26 hours since the pandemic began, while over 160 million people have been pushed into poverty due to COVID-19. This is the sad message of a new Oxfam report, published on January 17th. Economic, gender, and racial inequalities – as well as the inequality that exists within and between countries – are blamed for the widening gap between the richest people and the vast majority of humanity. The title of the briefing is “Inequality Kills” because according to Oxfam, millions of people worldwide simply die because they are poor. “We estimate that inequality is now contributing to the deaths of at least 21,300 people each day – or one person every four seconds,” the authors write. “This is a highly conservative estimate for deaths resulting from hunger in a world of plenty, the denial of access to quality healthcare in poor countries, and gender-based violence faced by women and rooted in patriarchy.” The report also looks at the deaths resulting from climate change. 231,000 people each year could be killed by the climate crisis in poor countries by 2030.

Oxfam’s calculations are based on up-to-date and comprehensive data sources. Figures on the richest people of the world are from Forbes’ 2021 Billionaires Lists, while data about the share of wealth comes from the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s “Global Wealth Databook 2021” and the World Bank. According to Forbes, the 10 richest people, as of 30 November 2021, have seen their fortunes grow by $821 billion dollars since March 2020. This means they have doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion – at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion a day. The ten richest men were listed as Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bernard Arnault & family, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Ballmer and Warren Buffett. These ten men now own more than the poorest 3.1 billion people. “If these ten men were to lose 99.999 percent of their wealth tomorrow, they would still be richer than 99 percent of all the people on this planet,” said Oxfam International’s Executive Director Gabriela Bucher. Billionaires’ wealth has risen more since COVID-19 began than it has in the last 14 years, the report finds. “Billionaires have had a terrific pandemic,” says Bucher. “Central banks pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to save the economy, yet much of that has ended up lining the pockets of billionaires riding a stock market boom. Vaccines were meant to end this pandemic, yet rich governments allowed pharma billionaires and monopolies to cut off the supply to billions of people,” she added. “The consequences of it kill.”

Oxfam denounces that 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 worldwide. The gap between rich and poor nations is now expected to rise for the first time in a generation. The report finds that 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. Economic violence has different forms and faces. For example, an estimated 5.6 million people die each year due to lack of access to healthcare in poor countries. “Healthcare of good quality is a human right, but too often treated as a luxury for rich people,” the authors write. “Having more money in your pocket not only buys you access to healthcare; it also buys you a longer and healthier life.” For example, in São Paulo, Brazilians in the richest areas can expect to live 14 years longer than those who live in the poorest areas. Moreover, hunger kills over 2.1 million people each year at a minimum. “This is one of the ways in which poverty kills, and it is faced by billions of ordinary people all over the world each day. In every country, the poorest people live shorter lives and face earlier deaths than those who are not poor.”

The report also points to the fact that women and girls are hit hardest by the pandemic and are disproportionately affected by inequality. The pandemic has set back the time it will take to achieve gender parity by more than a generation, from 99 years to now 135 years. According to the briefing, women collectively lost $800 billion in earnings in 2020, with 13 million fewer women in work now than there were the year before. 252 men have now more wealth than all 1 billion women and girls in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean combined. Inequality also goes to the heart of the climate crisis, as the emissions of the richest people are driving this crisis. The richest 1% emit more than twice as much CO2 as the bottom 50% of the world, driving climate change throughout 2020 and 2021 that has contributed to wildfires, floods, tornadoes, crop failures and hunger.

But the report also presents solutions to address the systems that have allowed a tiny few to capture wealth, income, and power at the expense of the vast majority of humanity. Oxfam says that despite the huge cost of fighting the pandemic, in the past two years governments have failed to increase taxes on the wealth of the richest and continued to privatize public goods such as vaccine science. “Not only have our economic structures made all of us less safe against this pandemic, they are actively enabling those who are already extremely rich and powerful to exploit this crisis for their own profit,” says Bucher. Oxfam thus recommends that governments urgently claw back the gains made by billionaires by taxing this huge new wealth made since the start of the pandemic through permanent wealth and capital taxes. Just a one-off 99% tax on the ten richest men’s pandemic windfalls, for example, could pay to make enough vaccines for the world, the NGO calculates. Governments should also 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. The organisation also calls on governments to tackle sexist and racist laws and to define policies that will ensure women, racialized and other oppressed groups are represented in all decision-making spaces. The authors are optimistic that we can radically redesign our economies to be centered on equality. “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,” says Bucher. “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.” (ab)

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