Ever since the coronavirus pandemic started, the world’s 10 richest men have more than doubled their fortunes. A new billionaire has been created every 26 hours. The world’s 10 richest raised their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion – at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion a day during the first two years of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a recent Oxfam report titled 'Inequality Kills'.
Oxfam further said that even if these 10 men were to lose 99.999 per cent of their wealth, they will still be richer than 99 per cent of all the people on this planet. “If these 10 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,” Oxfam International’s Executive Director Gabriela Bucher said. She added, “They have now six times more wealth than the poorest 3.1 billion people.”
The report also advocated for a one-off 99 per cent windfall taxation of billionaires’ incomes. A 99 per cent one-off windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men alone can generate $812 billion. “It has never been so important to start righting the violent wrongs of this obscene inequality by clawing back elites’ power and extreme wealth including through taxation – getting that money back into the real economy and to save lives,” Bucher noted.
According to Oxfam, this is the biggest annual increase in billionaire wealth and is taking place in every continent. This increase in billionaire income is triggered by exorbitantly high stock market prices; boom in unregulated entities; surge in monopoly power and privatisation alongside the erosion of corporate tax rates and regulations; and workers’ rights and wages all aided by racism.
How has this unequal access to wealth impacted the not-so-privileged throughout the world during the course of the pandemic? According to JNU’s Jayati Ghosh, the unequal access to income and opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic did much “more than create unjust, unhealthy and unhappy societies”. She added that over the past two years, people have died due to COVID-19 as they could not get vaccinated in time and due to the lack of essential healthcare facilities like medical oxygen.
She also noted in the foreword of the report that populations in low-and middle-income countries, women, girls and informal workers suffered the most. Ghosh added, “And while they died, the richest people in the world got richer than ever and some of the largest companies made unprecedented profits.”
Ghosh’s claims were further substantiated in the report as it states, “The cost of the profound inequality we face is in human lives. As this paper shows, based on conservative estimates, inequality contributes to the deaths of at least 21,300 people each day. Every four seconds, inequality contributes to the death of at least one person.”
Oxfam also noted that 2021 is defined by “vaccine apartheid” as these COVID-19 vaccines were kept behind the firewall of private profits and monopoly and we ended up creating vaccine billionaires instead of inoculating people in low-and middle-income countries.
“2021 is defined above all by this shameful vaccine apartheid, a stain on the history of our species. This man-made catastrophe has taken the lives of millions people who could have been saved in countries with scant access to vaccines,” Oxfam said.
“New billionaires were minted while the old billionaires added more and more billions to their stakes. Businesses like Amazon, rather than feel shame, saw opportunity and doubled down on the strategies that had left 40 percent American workers unable to rely on even the smallest amount of savings to address the hunger, homelessness and poor healthcare that presented all the more immediate threats to them and their families,” documentary filmmaker and activist Abigail E Disney said in the foreword. The filmmaker harkened back to Bezos’ “let them eat cake” moment when he thanked Amazon employees and customers for his space tourism.
The Oxfam report also mentions that due to this unequal access to income and opportunities, women’s rights and gender equality have been set back to 135 years, when it was 99 years previously. Women still make up only for 25.5 percent of parliamentarians globally.
“What makes this situation even harsher is that women in many countries face a second pandemic of increased gender-based violence- while, as with every crisis, having to absorb the shock of a mountain of unpaid care work that keeps them trapped at the bottom of the global economy,” the report underscored.
What are the solutions to this issue of rising inequality of access to income and opportunities? The Oxfam India report has listed three measures that governments across the world could take in order to bridge the unequal access to income and opportunities. Some of these measures includes rescinding laws that undermine workers’ rights to unionise and to strikes and setting legal standards to protect them and tackling the barriers to representation for women, racialised groups and working-class people. These are -- claw back extreme wealth into the real economy to tackle inequality; redirect that wealth to save lives and invest in our future; and change rules and shift power in the economy and society.
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