COVID Has Made the Wealth Gap Even Worse Than We Thought

Earth’s top 10 billionaires watched as their collective wealth increased by $540 billion between March 18 and the end of December.
January 25, 2021, 6:31pm
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£180 Million Eco-Friendly Superyacht Runs On Batteries And Has Its Own IMAX Cinema. (Cover Images via AP Images)

It took the world’s top 1,000 billionaires just nine months to recoup their pre-pandemic fortunes after the virus ravaged the global economy, while the poorest people might not recover for more than a decade, according to a new report from Oxfam on “The Inequality Virus.” 

“The increase in the fortunes of those at the top of the economic ladder, alongside the significant negative impacts on those at the bottom, is driving up economic inequality,” Oxfam, a global anti-poverty organization, wrote in its brief, which drew from a survey of 295 economists from around the world to support that view. “In fact, the pandemic could cause the biggest increase in inequality since records began, as it precipitates a simultaneous and substantial rise across many countries.”

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The planet was already astoundingly unequal before the virus hit—with more than 2,000 billionaires holding “more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes,” Oxfam said in its brief. But the chasm between the rich and the poor has deepened since COVID-19, burdening historically marginalized groups—including Black people, Afro-descendants, and indigenous peoples, according to the brief—and women most of all.

In just the U.S., for example, about 10.7 million people remain unemployed in a crisis that’s hit Black women and Latinas hard, according to the National Women’s Law Center. American women of color also face a disproportionate rate of food insecurity and the threat of eviction and homelessness, despite residing in the richest country in the world. 

Ultimately, the pandemic could widen the country’s racial economic gap after a year in which politicians pledged to address systemic inequities—a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“While poverty rates among White individuals are projected to increase by 4.2 percentage points due to the pandemic” in the U.S., Oxfam said, “Black individuals will face an increase of 12.6 percentage points and Latinx people one of 9.4 percentage points.” 

And worldwide, the total number of people living in poverty might’ve increased by an estimated 200 million to 500 million people last year, according to the Oxfam brief, potentially reversing the decline in global poverty that’s taken place over the past two decades.  

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“The number of people living in poverty might not return even to its pre-crisis level for over a decade,” Oxfam said in its brief. 

Unsurprisingly, the fallout has looked far different for the global elite, who’ve fled to private islands during a public health emergency, turned to private jet services to insulate themselves while traveling, and pleaded with their physicians to give them early access to the vaccine. 

The world’s billionaires took a hit in the first few months of the pandemic, when the stock market went into meltdown, Oxfam noted in its brief. But that was a blip. The markets rebounded dramatically, buoyed by government stimulus and the rise of the tech sector. And the ultra-rich benefited: Earth’s top 10 billionaires watched as their collective wealth increased by $540 billion between March 18 and the end of December, an amount that could prevent anyone else from falling into poverty due to the virus while covering the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone, Oxfam wrote. 

The organization urges in its brief that governments need to act to create a fairer world, including by investing in “free quality public services and social protection to support everyone, from cradle to grave.” And the governments could draw revenue by “ensuring fair levels of taxation” among profitable corporations and the ultra-wealthy, Oxfam said.

“We cannot return to the brutal, unequal and unsustainable world that the coronavirus found us in,” Oxfam said in its brief. “Humanity has incredible talent, huge wealth and infinite imagination. We must put these assets to work to create a more equal and sustainable economy that benefits all, not just the privileged few.”