Davos 2021: New Oxfam report highlights rising inequality fuelled by pandemic

Davos 2021: New Oxfam report highlights rising inequality fuelled by pandemic

Nur Jahan* with her daughter Ismat* is walking through the narrow alley beside her tent. Rohingya refygee camp. Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Every January, the wealthy leave their exclusive, gated residences, hop in their private planes and jet off to a Swiss ski resort in Davos to hear experts and politicians discuss a range of global issues.

The pandemic resulted in a different format for this year’s twin summit (Davos 2021 featured a mixture of virtual and in-person events) – but for many affluent attendees, a slight change to the proceedings were the only blip they’ve experienced due to Covid-19.

A new Oxfam report, published for the opening day of the World Economic Forum, reveals that the world’s 10 richest men saw their wealth increase by half a trillion dollars during the pandemic, while the 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their Covid-19 losses within just nine months.

Meanwhile, it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest – people like carers, factory workers and cleaners – to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

A woman works on a clothing line making winter jackets for an international brand in a garment factory in Dong Nai province, Vietnam. Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Oxfam commissioned a survey of 295 economists from 79 countries, including Ireland, and found that 87 percent of respondents expect an “increase” or a “major increase” in income inequality in their country as a result of Covid-19. This finding was echoed by 85 percent of the Irish economists surveyed, with the majority believing it would result in the worst rise in inequality in Ireland since the 2008 financial crash.

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 billionaires to recover.

Closer to home, Ireland’s own nine billionaires saw their fortunes increase by €3.28 billion since March – a tenth of which would pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for every person in the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, essential workers - such as our carers and supermarket and factory workers – cared for our vulnerable and kept our food supplies running throughout the pandemic -  quite often on minimum or low-paid wages. 

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said:

“Rigged economies are funnelling wealth to a rich elite who are riding out the pandemic in safety, while those on the frontline – our shop assistants, healthcare workers, and factory workers – are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table, and often do not have benefits such as paid sick leave.

“The world’s 10 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.”

The road to recovery will be much longer for people who were already struggling before the pandemic. When the virus took hold, more than half of workers in poor countries were living in poverty, and three-quarters of workers worldwide had no access to social protections such as sick pay or unemployment benefits.

The fight against inequality must be at the heart of economic rescue and 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.

These measures must not be band-aid solutions for desperate times but a ‘new normal’ in economies that work for the benefit of all people, not just the privileged few.

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