Mega-rich recoup COVID-losses in record-time yet billions will live in poverty for at least a decade

Monday, January 25, 2021

The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, reveals a new Oxfam report today. ‘The Inequality Virus’ is being published on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Davos Agenda’.

The report shows that COVID-19 has the potential to increase economic inequality in almost every country at once, the first time this has happened since records began over a century ago. Rising inequality means it could take at least 14 times longer for the number of people living in poverty to return to pre-pandemic levels than it took for the fortunes of the top 1,000, mostly White male, billionaires to bounce back. 

In Asia, 711 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by $1.5 trillion dollars since March, enough to give all 157 million people forced into poverty by Covid-19 in the region a cheque for $9,000 each.

In South Asia—the poorest subregion—101 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by $174 billion dollars since March, enough to give all 93 million people forced into poverty by Covid-19 in the region a cheque for $1,800 each.

East Asia and Pacific’s 610 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by $1.3 trillion dollars since March, enough to give all 64 million people forced into poverty by Covid-19 in the region a cheque for $20,000 each.

The recession is over for the richest. The world’s ten richest men have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began —more than enough to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone and to ensure no one is pushed into poverty by the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has ushered in the worst job crisis in over 90 years with hundreds of millions of people now underemployed or out of work. 

Women are hardest hit, yet again. Globally, women are overrepresented in the low-paid precarious professions that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. If women were represented at the same rate as men in these sectors, 112 million women would no longer be at high risk of losing their incomes or jobs. Women also make up roughly 70 percent of the global health and social care workforce − essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from COVID-19. 

Fairer economies are the key to a rapid economic recovery from Covid-19. A temporary tax on excess profits made by the 32 global corporations that have gained the most during the pandemic could have raised $104 billion in 2020. This is enough to provide unemployment benefits for all workers and financial support for all children and elderly people in low- and middle-income countries. 

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said:

"We stand to witness the greatest rise in inequality since records began. The deep divide between the rich and poor is proving as deadly as the virus.”

“Rigged economies are funnelling wealth to a rich elite who are riding out the pandemic in luxury, while those on the frontline of the pandemic —shop assistants, healthcare workers, and market vendors— are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table."

Countries in Asia have taken several bold steps during the pandemic which include progressive policies unthinkable before the crisis. There can be no return to the old path.  For countries in Asia, the fight against inequality must be at the heart of economic recovery efforts. Governments must ensure everyone has access to a Covid-19 vaccine and financial support if they lose their job.

They must invest in public services and low carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs and ensure everyone has access to a decent education, health, and social care, and they must ensure the richest individuals and corporations contribute their fair share of tax to pay for it. Achieve Universal Health Coverage, establish a fund to achieve universal social protection and ensure informal workers in Asia benefit from social protection. To reduce massive gender inequalities and disproportionate burden of pandemic on women, governments in Asia need to use this opportunity and pro-actively adapt measures that reduce gender inequalities.

Lan Mercado, Oxfam International Director for Strategy and Feminist Futures and Asia Regional Director, said:

“Stop the inequality virus! Governments in Asia can take the right actions to protect Asians from the coronavirus and fight poverty and inequality. People in Asia must come together in solidarity and united action to secure a fair and just future”.

“Some countries in Asia have taken bold steps during the pandemic, progressive policies unthinkable before the crisis. There can be no return to the old path. The fight against inequality must be at the heart of Covid-19 economic recovery efforts. Governments must ensure everyone has access to a Covid-19 vaccine and that people who lose their job receive financial support.”

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Notes to editors

Download ‘The Inequality Virus’ and a methodology document outlining how Oxfam calculated the statistics in the report.

During the week of 25 January, the World Economic Forum (WEF) will digitally convene the ‘Davos Dialogues’, where key global leaders will share their views on the state of the world in 2021.

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available. Figures on the very richest in society come from Forbes’ 2020 Billionaires List. Because data on wealth was very volatile in 2020, the Credit Suisse Research Institute has delayed the release of its annual report on the wealth of humanity until spring 2021. This means that we have not been able to compare the wealth of billionaires to that of the bottom half of humanity as in previous years.

According to Forbes the 10 richest people, as of December 31st 2020, have seen their fortunes grow by $540 billion dollars since 18 March 2020. The 10 richest men were listed as: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault and family, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Warren Buffett, Zhong Shanshan, Larry Page, and Mukesh Ambani.

The oldest historical records of inequality trends are based on tax records that go back to the beginning of the 20th century.

The World Bank has simulated what the impact of an increase in inequality in almost every country at once would mean for global poverty. The Bank finds that if inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) increases by 2 percentage points annually and global per capita GDP growth contracts by 8 percent, 501 million more people will still be living on less than $5.50 a day in 2030 compared with a scenario where there is no increase in inequality. As a result, global poverty levels would be higher in 2030 than they were before the pandemic struck, with 3.4 billion people still living on less than $5.50 a day. This is the Bank’s worst-case scenario, however projections for economic contraction across most of the developing world are in line with this scenario.

In the World Economic Outlook (October 2020), the International Monetary Fund’s worst-case scenario does not see GDP returning to pre-crisis levels until the end of 2022. The OECD has warned this will lead to long-term increases in inequality unless action is taken.

Oxfam calculated that 112 million fewer women would be at risk of losing their jobs or income if men and women were equally represented in low-paid, precarious professions that have been most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis based on an ILO policy brief published in July 2020.

All amounts are expressed in US dollars.

Oxfam is part of the Fight Inequality Alliance, a growing global coalition of civil society organizations and activists that are holding the Global Protest to Fight Inequality from 23-30 January in around 30 countries, including Kenya, Mexico, Norway and the Philippines, to promote solutions to inequality and demand that economies work for everyone.

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Contact information

Mustafa Talpur Islamabad, Pakistan | Mustafa.talpur@oxfam.org | +92 345 5576460

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