We are beginning to see some glimmers of hope that the Omicron wave is cresting in California and the nation at large. While there will surely be more suffering and chaos in hospitals, schools, and workplaces in the coming weeks, many medical experts are speculating that we may finally be on the brutal road from pandemic to endemic. One should leave it to epidemiologists and public health experts to parse precisely how and when that determination is made, but, in social and political terms, maybe there is a time on the horizon when Covid-19 will cease to dictate what is possible in our everyday lives.
It’s been a truly awful couple of years for many of us, and the costs of the pandemic in terms of physical and mental health, economic well-being, and social fragmentation have been steep.
All the costs, however, have not been equally shared. As the most recent Oxfam report, Inequality Kills: The Unparalleled Action Needed to Combat Unprecedented Inequality in the Wake of Covid-19, clearly outlines, the global elite have profited greatly during this era of unspeakable human suffering:
The world’s small elite of 2,755 billionaires has seen its fortunes grow more during Covid-19 than they have in the whole of the last fourteen years combined. This is the biggest annual increase since records began. It is taking place on every continent. It is enabled by skyrocketing stock market prices, a boom in unregulated entities, a surge in monopoly power and privatization, alongside the erosion of individual corporate tax rates and workers’ rights and wages. Since the pandemic began, a new billionaire has been created every 26 hours.
Some of the other stunning facts that the Oxfam report reveals are that the wealth of the 10 richest people has doubled while the incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off because of Covid-19, and that the top 1% have captured nearly 20 times more of the global wealth than that of the bottom 50% of humanity in recent years. And the costs of this stark and growing economic inequality are murderous. Oxfam again:
Inequality is deadly. We estimate that it contributes to the deaths of at least 21,300 people each day—or one person every four seconds. This is a highly conservative estimate for deaths resulting from hunger, lack of access to healthcare and climate breakdown in poor countries, as well as gender-based violence faced by women and rooted in patriarchy and sexist economic systems. Millions of people would still be alive today if they had had a Covid-19 vaccine—but they were denied a chance while big pharmaceutical corporations continue to hold monopoly control of these technologies.
And lest we forget the other, parallel existential global crisis of catastrophic climate change, Oxfam reminds us that the beneficiaries of our historic level of global inequality are the most responsible for pushing us towards extinction, “The richest 20 billionaires are estimated, on average, to be emitting as much as 8000 times more carbon than the billion poorest people.”
The fundamental take-away from the Oxfam report is that extreme inequality is both brutal and intersectional in its impact:
Extreme inequality is a form of economic violence that is perpetrated when structural and systemic policy choices are made for the richest and most powerful people. This causes direct harm to us all, and to the poorest people, women and girls, and racialized groups most.
In response to this dire situation, Oxfam points out that there are simple solutions that could do real tangible good. For example, the kind of revenue that could be raised by a windfall tax on billionaires’ pandemic gains is stunning:
A 99% windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men could pay to make enough vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender- based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8bn better off than they were before the pandemic.
Of course, economists like Thomas Piketty have been pointing this out for years now (insert link: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/thomas-piketty-capital-ideology): the level of inequality we face is not the result of chance; it is a political choice NOT to pass policies that redistribute wealth to serve the public good, even in the face of looming disaster.
It’s true that the global poor in distant places are currently and will be paying the most severe prices for this, but, as the American political paralysis in the face of clear and present threats to our democracy shows, it can happen here, and the more we enshrine minority rule, the closer we get to a world where everything we hold dear will be sacrificed in order to maintain plutocratic rule.
For the full Oxfam report go here: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621341/bp-inequality-kills-170122-en.pdf