On May 7, Indian cricketer Virat Kohli, and his wife, Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma, announced through a video on Twitter that they were setting up a fundraising campaign for COVID-19 relief.
“It really pains us to see our country like this. We need to stand with our frontline workers,” Sharma says in the video. “We request you all to join this initiative and donate.”
India is going through a horrific second wave of COVID-19 infections and is recording almost 400,000 new cases per day with the total death count at 245,000.
The power couple set the goal for the fundraiser to 7 crore rupees (about $950,000). They themselves donated 2 crore rupees ($272,757) to the fund, which will be used towards tackling the ongoing oxygen shortage in Indian healthcare facilities.
While some called Kohli and Sharma good samaritans for helping out during a crisis, some others were quick to point out that the two could have donated the collective amount themselves.
According to Forbes, Kohli’s salary and endorsements stood at $26 million as of June 2020. He draws a salary of nearly $1 million every year and a further $20 million through brand deals and endorsements. Kohli was the only Indian on their world’s highest-paid athletes’ list.
According to GQ India, actress Sharma’s net worth stood at an approximate 350 crore rupees ($47 million) and Kohli’s at 900 crores ($122.5 million) in 2019. Together, that makes their 2019 annual net worth stand around $170 million. Assuming their current net worth is around the same figure, the couple would have donated 0.0016 percent of their combined monies to the fundraiser.
In April, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas also launched a fundraiser along with her husband Nick Jonas, with the target goal of $950,000. In an Instagram post, Chopra Jonas said, “Even if 100,000 of you donate $10, that’s $1 million, and that’s huge.” In her caption, she shared that she and Nick Jonas had already donated for the cause and would continue to donate more. However, they did not specify how much money they donated.
Willow Smith, Deepak Chopra, Lilly Singh and Jay Sean have also been a part of a virtual fundraiser for India’s COVID relief.
These fundraisers are not the first instance of Indians getting irked by the behaviour of the rich and famous amid the pandemic. In April, several celebrities were criticised for going on exotic vacations and posting their #beachlife photos, while India saw record-breaking statistics in terms of cases and deaths.
“Since last year, the common person’s psyche has changed. Financial distress and lockdowns are leading to depression in the middle-class population,” Seema Hingorrany, a psychologist and trauma expert, tells VICE. “Even people with some financial stability are anxious about losing it in the future. All this is leading people to become more angry at the privileged.”
While the “eat the rich” sentiment – used to criticise income and wealth inequality – has been growing the world over, the rich-poor divide is especially stark in countries like India. Last year’s total shutdown led to a steep rise in unemployment across the country. According to a study, 230 million Indians fell below the poverty line in 2020.
According to an Oxfam report, the top 10 percent of the Indian population holds 77 percent of the total national wealth. With over 140 super-rich persons, India is home to the world’s third-highest number of billionaires.
While the pandemic has devastated the lives of many across India, the rich in fact just got richer through this period. Oxfam’s “Inequality Virus Report” report also states that Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35 percent during the lockdown to 3 trillion rupees, ranking India after the U.S., China, Germany, Russia and France.
The country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, became 24 percent richer last year, while the net worth of the second-wealthiest man, Gautam Adani, went up by a startling 174 percent.
Ambani’s company, Reliance Industries Limited, now produces 11 percent of India’s medical grade oxygen and recently supplied 15,000 metric tons of oxygen for free of cost. But billionaires like him have been criticised for doing too little in comparison to what they can potentially do.
It is hopeful that celebrities are managing to draw global attention to India’s COVID crisis, but do we really need them to ask a common man to donate at a time when many of them have lost their jobs and are fighting to just stay alive? Or do fundraisers gain more legitimacy after endorsements from celebrities? “It depends,” says Hingorrany. “If it’s a celebrity the people like and follow, they are more likely to donate.”
Of course, many think that celebrities have a right to do whatever they want with their money, and that the public should be grateful that they are donating it in the first place – instead of asking why they can’t do more.
But it’s important to note that charitable donations are also advantageous in the way tax deductions work. So when someone donates to charity and not on the ground, they’re liable to receive tax breaks. This means that the lost revenue is actually being chipped in by the taxpayers in a sense. “For this reason, the philanthropy of billionaires is at best understood as a public-private partnership,” a Guardian piece explains. “We taxpayers have a legitimate interest in ensuring these funds serve the public interest.” Critics have argued that this makes India as good as a “tax haven” for billionaires.
This is not to say that celebrity fundraisers should be banned, but it’s important to take note of the power dynamics at play. Celebrities often have immense amounts of social and cultural capital, and not to forget, privilege.
Their experience with COVID isolation and lockdown is not the same as the rest of us, no matter how many times they might be singing “Imagine” or telling us that we’re all in this together. Are we really?
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