COVID-19 has let the virus of inequality run rampant

By Nabil Ahmed

July 15, 2020

Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty

Meet Sampa Akter. She sews clothes for global brands in Bangladesh. As with millions of others, she was sent home in March with no pay as COVID-19 cancelled orders. Ninety-eight percent of buyers said no to paying lost wages, rich multinationals included. Some are paying now. More factories have reopened. But women like Sampa across the industry, who already lived pay cheque to pay cheque, now face wage cuts. They fear hunger more than sickness. Not all are hit equally, however. It takes a top fashion brand CEO four days to earn what Sampa does in a lifetime.

Think of Jason Hargrove, a bus driver in Detroit, US. He posted a video expressing his frustration about people spreading the virus. Days later, he died. Black Americans, making up a disproportionate number of bus drivers, have been killed at three times the rate of white people by COVID-19. In the UK it’s four times. Two times if you’re ethnic Pakistani. Again, not all are equally hit. If you live in a rich area, your chance of dying of COVID-19 is halved.

Now consider billionaires. If the richest man on Earth made a pile of all his wealth in $100 bills and sat on top, he would be in outer space. US billionaires are half a trillion dollars richer than when the pandemic began. We’re seeing similar trends across the world. This at a time in which half a billion people face being pushed into poverty, amid the world’s worst recession since the Great Depression, according to the IMF. By December, more people could die each day from hunger linked to coronavirus than from the disease itself.

Such extreme differences define our divided world. They also explain this “inequality virus”. But it’s seen as improper to speak out politically, as our families have been hit personally. That politeness looks increasingly like a fig leaf, stopping us from asking hard questions.

Is it not time to get talking again about the economic model that betrays us? About the role of billionaires, and an extreme and widening gap between the richest and the many? COVID-19 entered a world that hasn’t seen such concentration of wealth since the days of robber barons and empire. This great divide has made the 99% of us less safe as a result.

It is time to talk, too, about how our great challenges share roots in inequality. The plunder of our planet for profit by a tiny few. White supremacy and racism that systemically excludes people of colour from safety and opportunity, and is used to divide us. Sexism and patriarchy that exploits women’s unpaid care work and cheap labour, like that of Sampa, for profit. The democratic breakdown caused by elites buying policies, politicians and a pliant media.

“A world in which 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99% will never be stable,” said President Barack Obama at the UN in 2016, citing our new data.

By 2017, based on the data at the time, we showed that eight billionaires – just eight men – then owned more wealth than the bottom half of the global population, 3.7 billion people.

By 2019, our data revealed how billionaire fortunes were growing by $2.5 billion each day, while the wealth of half the world, collectively, had dropped by over 10%.

I hope these data are taught in classrooms some day soon, recalling a foolish era we must never return to. Neoliberalism for four decades told us GDP would be good for us all, but it was mostly good for the rich. It told us cutting regulation, taxes and labour laws would offer freedom, but instead it gave us fear. It got rid of referees and left the bullies in charge.

Some wish to return to normal after the coronavirus. Normal is a world in which 10,000 people die each day for lack of access to healthcare – what chance did we have to beat COVID-19? – while the richest still try to privatise our public health. In which governments, lobbied by big business, undermine the unions we rely upon more than ever for security at work, with 85% of governments violating the right to strike. In which we’ve long been hurtling towards “climate apartheid”, with the carbon footprint of the top 1% 175 times that of the poorest 10%.

Aiming to restore the pre-COVID-19 normal is to forget why 2019 saw protests against inequality all over the world. Our economic models need transformation, not restoration. The Financial Times recently called for “radical reforms” to reverse “the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades”. They are right.

Change is coming. Neoliberalism faces its reckoning. But the old way will not die fast. Those who burned down forests will lecture us on planting seeds. Greed-washing will be in vogue.

So we must be explicit. A better future relies on our actively and significantly redistributing the wealth and power of the 1% to everyone else. A great reset for our world must be a great equaliser. One that ends the billionaire boom, creating hope for a post-COVID-world.

We know what works. Quality public healthcare, for free, for all. High and inescapable wealth taxes, as rich people are now calling for. A universal labour guarantee that protects workers and ensures a living wage.

Go further yet. Sledgehammer emissions cuts towards net zero. Recognise care work as real work and pay care workers – who do the vital work of caring for our children, parents and the vulnerable – a living wage. Begin exploring reparations for slavery and colonialism. Regulate who owns, and benefits from, innovative technologies. Grow equitable business models. Go beyond GDP to well-being, as New Zealand has. These are supposedly radical policies that leaders are already trying. It is achievable. It’s exciting.

Nabil Ahmed is head of Executive Strategy and Communications, Oxfam International.

This article is curated from the World Economic Forum.

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