Policy and Advocacy

In a region brought to its knees, inequality kills

In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the pandemic.
In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Blog by Diana Kallas, Senior Inequality Policy Advisor - Oxfam in MENA

In the months after the pandemic was declared, Oxfam warned that huge and dangerous increases in inequality across the MENA region were likely.

Back then, in just a matter of months the region’s richest had amassed more wealth than the IMF and the UN combined had provided in aid for the coronavirus response. As we warned almost 45 million people were on the precipice of being pushed into poverty, the wealth of these elites has only climbed, lining their pockets at the expense of everybody else.

While last month the world’s leaders and elites gathered online for the Davos Agenda, discussing among other issues global social contracts and vaccine equity, this annual talk fest only paid lip services to the global good and hasn’t, so far, resulted in anything meaningful for the billions of people around the world who continue to lose out because of the inequalities translating into vaccine apartheid and gross disparities between rich and poor.

Pandemics are good for business

Almost two years on from the pandemic, the data is staggering. Not only has the chasm between the rich and the rest widened, but the small, powerful and exclusive club of millionaires and billionaires has grown. Their obscene wealth increased during the pandemic and so has their number. Pandemics are clearly good for business. In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the pandemic, while the bottom 90% of people saw their wealth drop in 2021.The 3 richest people (all of them men) own more wealth ($26,3bn) than the bottom 222,5 million MENA citizens ($25,5bn) combined. The number of people whose net worth was 5 million USD or more also in these countries increased by almost 40%, while in the entire nine years preceding the pandemic the increase was 24%. In Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, business was even better for the rich where there was a 39% combined percent increase in total wealth of millionaires and billionaires according to WealthX data. Moroccan billionaires saw their wealth triple during the pandemic.
This wealth does not trickle down to benefit others, and despite what they might argue to the contrary, these rich men are not contributing to their economies.

More rich people only means higher wealth concentration, more money in the hands of too few. Some of this increase could have gone into government coffers to help fund access to health care, education, sanitation systems, water and electricity.

Instead, because of a complete lack of reforms and governance to enable progressivity and redistribution, we saw more millionaires and billionaires as well as more people pushed into poverty, and more people dead from Covid because they couldn’t access the basic services they needed.

The MENA region needs a new, fair, and equitable economic model

Inequality kills, but it didn’t have to be this way. If governments had taxed the rich their fair share, and ensured those taxes worked to protect the most vulnerable and everyone in-between, the ramifications of the economic impact of the most recent pandemic crisis, in addition to decades of austerity measures that did little to improve the lives of ordinary people, could have been lessened.

If a progressive annual wealth tax was applied to the wealth of multimillionaires and billionaires in the region it would have generated US$ 79.3 billion a year, enough to increase public health spending across the region by half, or completely eliminate often unaffordable out of pocket health costs.  In Lebanon, a country in the throws of multiple crises, this would have allowed for a $1.1 billion USD annual increase to the government health budget.

The MENA region needs a new, real, social contract, and a new economic model where distribution of income and wealth is fair and equitable and where austerity is history. It needs redistributive policy measures that prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few and channel resources towards the good of society as a whole.

Inequality is not simply that some have more than others. Wealth that stays in the hands of the wealthy breeds societies where injustice is rife and public services and opportunities for those who need it most are inaccessible.

Inequality does and will continue to kill until we switch the game. Political and economic decision making must start working for the collective good, instead of the private interests of a few. It drives conflict, societal disintegration and hardship.

Until then, if we let the gap keep widening the inequalities it breeds will multiply just like the virus that keeps supercharging it, with disastrous consequences for all.

EU set to bin 25 million more vaccine doses than it has donated to Africa in 2022

February 16th 2022

The EU and Ireland have betrayed Africa by blocking proposals which would allow manufacturers on the continent to make their own COVID-19 vaccines while hoarding millions of doses set to expire at the end of the month, warns Oxfam.

Ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of African and European leaders at the AU-EU Summit, new analysis from Oxfam highlights how the EU will have to throw away 55 million doses of COVID vaccines by the end of February, significantly more than the 30 million doses they have donated to Africa so far in 2022. Ireland, who have not donated any vaccines to low-income countries so far this year, are throwing out hundreds of thousands of vaccines.

Despite the rhetoric of a special relationship with Africa, the EU – which is now the world’s biggest exporter of vaccines – has prioritised selling vaccines made on EU soil to rich nations and just eight per cent of its vaccine exports have gone to the African continent. The figures for Germany are even worse – just one per cent of vaccine exports from BioNTech, the German pharmaceutical company behind the Pfizer vaccine, have gone to Africa.

At the same time, EU member states, including Ireland, have been a major blocker of proposals tabled by South Africa and India and supported by the African Union and over 100 countries for an intellectual property waiver which would allow the generic production of COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Leaked drafts of the summit declaration show a divide between the EU and the AU, with the AU insisting language on the waiver is included. Last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron - who is hosting the AU-EU summit - announced his support for the waiver but has done little since to challenge the EU’s stance on it.

Jim Clarken CEO of Oxfam Ireland, said: “The European Commission said at the beginning of the pandemic that the vaccine should be a global public good. Instead, they have ensured it is a private profit opportunity, raking in billions for Big Pharma and the EU, while almost 9 out of 10 people in Africa aren’t fully vaccinated, two years into this deadly pandemic. This is shameful.”

“It is estimated that almost 7,000 people in Africa have died per day as a result of COVID-19 in 2022, a quarter of a million since the beginning of the year. Due to very low vaccine supplies, just 11 per cent of people on the continent have received their first two COVID-19 vaccines to date.”

The EU has made much of plans to support the set-up of vaccine factories in Africa under the monopoly control of European pharmaceutical corporations – but this still wouldn’t give countries autonomy on vaccine supplies produced. BioNTech recently announced plans to produce 50 million vaccines in Africa once fully operational, however, this is less than their factory in Germany produces each month.

Clarken said: “It is shameful that Ireland continues to support the EU’s policy of blocking African producers from making their own doses of COVID-19 vaccines. If there truly is a common agenda between the Unions, then the EU would stop putting the interests of pharmaceutical companies, who have reaped billions from the pandemic, ahead of African lives.

“These vaccines were publicly funded and the recipes should be shared with the world to allow all qualified producers to make these vital shots.”

The EU have contributed €3 billion in funding to COVAX, the initiative designed to help developing countries to access vaccine doses, but the scheme has now run out of funds after failing to reach its target of vaccinating 20 per cent of people in poorer countries by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, Germany alone has received €3.2 billion back in tax revenue from BioNTech.

Clarken concluded: "Ireland and the EU claim they are promoting a ‘prosperous partnership of equals’ with the African Union and yet they are dumping more vaccine doses than they are donating to Africa, while continuing to block a waiver on vaccine patents which would enable African countries to produce our own vaccines. What's equal about that?

“This vaccine apartheid - perpetuated by the EU and Ireland - has a brutal human cost. Livelihoods continue to be destroyed, economies are being shattered and health workers pushed beyond the brink.

“It is encouraging that the African Union is standing up to the EU and asking for a reference to the TRIPS waiver to be included in the Summit's outcome document. We need the TRIPS waiver now and the EU and Ireland must stop standing in the way.”

One woman's fight against inequality saves lives in her neighbourhood

Janet Fuentes leads a march in her community of Santa Rosa in Lima, Peru. Miguel Villalobos/Oxfam

In Peru, Janet Fuentes mobilised her community to save lives during the pandemic while they received little to no support from the government.

Peru is the country with the most COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world. When COVID-19 hit in Santa Rosa, a neighbourhood of Lima, people weren’t just dying from getting sick, but also from starvation. Janet Fuentes witnessed dozens of her neighbours fall seriously ill and sometimes die, while the government provided no support and their local health centre shut down.

“The levels of inequality are horrendous... When [a family] waved a white flag from a house, it meant they didn’t have anything left to eat,” Fuentes says. “People are dying in Santa Rosa and nobody is coming."

Fuentes brought together members of her community to found the Anti-COVID Committee to support her neighbours at the height of the crisis. The committee collected and distributed medicine and bottles of oxygen, organised food deliveries to vulnerable families, took care of children with ill parents, and distributed masks. Fuentes’s efforts likely save hundreds of lives in her community.

“Something that hurts us deeply is that these deaths could have been avoided if we had a government that truly cared,” she says.

Janet Fuentes delivers food and aid to her neighbours suffering during the pandemic. Miguel Villalobos/Oxfam

Tackling the root of the problem

When the pandemic hit Peru, there were only 248 intensive care beds for more than 30 million people. That number has now increased to 3,700 ICU beds through contributions from organisations like Oxfam in Peru and its partner ‘Foro Juvenilde Izquierda’ (Leftist Youth Forum), a grassroots organisation led by young activists promoting among other initiatives the Anti-Covid Community Committees. However, while groups like these are making strides within their communities, the systems and those in control of them are stilling failing people every day.

“We are facing a neo-liberal system that only prioritises wealth,” says Fuentes. “How is it possible that this pandemic has made billionaires out of the pharmaceutical companies?”

Now, Fuentes and the Anti-COVID Committee are demanding responses from the Peruvian government to address the systemic problems in their country that were made worse by the pandemic. They are asking the government to provide their communities with proper healthcare and to denounce “pandemic profiteers”—the transnational companies profiting from vaccines, medicines, and treatments—while Peruvians still lack decent public health coverage.

Through the work of ‘Foro Juvenilde Izquierda’, committees like the one in Santa Rosa are participating in grassroots democratic discussion, engagement, and advocacy with public authorities, and targeting structural problems in the national health system, beyond the immediate context of the pandemic.

Oxfam’s recent report, Inequality Kills, found that inequality results in the death of one person every four seconds. Communities like Fuentes' are hit the hardest when a crisis strikes, meanwhile billionaires continue to amass wealth at a disgusting rate. Enough is enough.

“It’s an insult when money is more important that people’s lives,” Fuentes says.

Together we can fight inequality.

Ten richest men double their fortunes in pandemic while incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall

January 17th 2022

The wealth of Ireland’s nine billionaires has increased by a massive €18.3 billion (58 per cent) to €49.7 billion since the start of the pandemic. That’s according to Oxfam which published its Inequality Kills report today, ahead of the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda taking place this week.

The new report details how inequality is contributing to the death of at least 21,000 people each day, or one person every four seconds, based on deaths globally from lack of access to healthcare, gender-based violence, hunger and climate breakdown.

Globally, the world’s ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from €610 billion to €1.3 trillion—at a rate of €1.13 billion a day—during the first two years of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the aggregate incomes of 99 percent of humanity have stagnated and fallen and over 160 million more people were forced into poverty.

Calls for wealth tax in Ireland

Oxfam Ireland has today called for extreme wealth in Ireland and around the world to be taxed to help fund the recovery from the pandemic. Oxfam’s report shows the biggest surge in billionaire wealth since records began. Since the start of the pandemic, billionaires have seen their wealth increase by €4.35 trillion, with a new billionaire created every 26 hours.

Oxfam’s estimates show that an one and a half percent wealth tax on Irish millionaires owning above €4 million could raise €4 billion in tax revenue. A one and half percent wealth tax on Irish billionaires alone could raise a little over €0.7 billion.

Commenting on the report, Oxfam Ireland’s CEO Jim Clarken said:“Billionaires have had a terrific pandemic. Central banks pumped trillions of euros into financial markets to save the economy, yet much of that has ended up lining the pockets of billionaires riding a stock market boom.

“Now is the time to redress that imbalance through progressive wealth taxes, along with other progressive measures such as debt relief and cancellation. Within the EU, the Irish Government could lead by example by introducing a wealth tax of one and a half percent on the very wealthiest which would have a positive effect on Ireland’s society as it recovers from the pandemic."

It is right that we should ask those that have gained most from the pandemic to contribute to the recovery. The funds generated by a wealth tax could have a transformative effect on funding Ireland’s recovery from the pandemic and could be targeted at those areas most in need –homeless people and people trapped in the increasing poverty trap of private rental accommodation, especially lone parents. It could be used to modernise our struggling health system, help advance gender equality by addressing funding gaps in the care economy and fund a just transition to a zero-carbon society. It would also enable Ireland to meet our long-standing commitment to spend 0.7per cent of our gross national income on overseas development assistance.

Progressive wealth taxes at a global level could have a similar galvanising effect. We can choose a global economy centred on equality in which nobody lives in poverty, in which everyone has the chance to thrive. Governments must act now to claw back the exponential rise in billionaire wealth during Covid-19 by implementing solidarity taxes to fight inequality,” Clarken added.

Inequality between countries rises for first time in generation

The Oxfam report also highlights that inequality between countries is expected to rise for the first time in a generation. Developing countries, denied access to sufficient vaccines because of rich governments’ protection of pharmaceutical corporations’ monopolies, have been forced to slash social spending as their debt levels spiral and now face the prospect of austerity measures. The proportion of people with COVID-19 who die from the virus in developing countries is roughly double that in wealthy countries.

Speaking on the issue of vaccine inequality, Clarken continued: “Vaccines were meant to end this pandemic, yet rich governments allowed pharma billionaires and monopolies to cut off the supply to billions of people. This is having life and death consequences around the world.

“The world’s response to the pandemic has unleashed this economic violence particularly acutely across racial, marginalised and gendered lines. As COVID-19 spikes, this turns to surges of gender-based violence, even as more unpaid care is heaped upon women and girls.Most poignantly, following the horrific recent murder in Tullamore, the Inequality Kills report shows that violence against women has soared during the pandemic. Yet gender-based violence has accounted for only 0.0002% of global pandemic response funding.”

The full Inequality Kills report, key findings summary and research methodology is available to download here

For more details of Oxfam Ireland's wealth tax proposal please see our submission to the Commission on Taxation and Welfare here.

Rich countries have received more vaccines in run-up to Christmas than African countries have all year

Published: 24th December 2021

  • The EU, UK and US have received more doses in the last six weeks than African countries have received all year.

  • Global rollout at speed of UK’s booster programme could vaccinate the world by February.

  • At current rates vaccine manufacturers will fail to deliver enough doses to fully vaccinate everyone in Africa by next Christmas.

More doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to the EU, the UK and the US in the six-week run up to Christmas than African countries have received all year, new analysis from the People’s Vaccine Alliance reveals today.

As COVID-19 clouds a second Christmas season in uncertainty and fear in many countries, campaigners warn that governments risk trapping the world in an endless cycle of variants, boosters, restrictions and even lockdowns, if low vaccination rates are allowed to persist in the global south.  

Low and middle-income countries must be allowed to manufacture vaccines themselves to end vaccine inequality and prevent variants from derailing future Christmases, campaigners warn.

Between 11 November and 21 December 2021, the EU, UK and US have received 513 million doses of vaccines while countries in Africa received just 500 million throughout the whole of 2021. 

The UK government, facing a rapid surge in Omicron variant, has a target of administering one million booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines a day in response, equivalent to vaccinating 1.46 percent of the population every day. If every country was able to vaccinate at the same rate as the UK target, it would take just 68 days to deliver a first dose to everyone who needs one, leaving no one unvaccinated by the end of February 2022.

Just 8.6 percent of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated to date and at the current rate of delivery by vaccine manufacturers, it won’t be until April 2023 that everyone will receive their first dose. Recent research found that 78 percent of people in Africa are willing to get vaccinated, higher than in many rich countries.

G7 countries will have 1.4 billion surplus doses by March 2022, even after giving all adults a booster but are failing to deliver on donation pledges. The US has delivered just a quarter of the vaccines it promised to donate while the UK and Germany have delivered 15 percent and 14 percent respectively.

Anna Marriott, Health Policy Manager, Oxfam and the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: “Make no mistake rich country governments are to blame for the uncertainty and fear that is once again clouding Christmas. By blocking the real solutions to vaccine access in poorer countries they are prolonging the pandemic and all its suffering for every one of us. 

“Rich countries are banking on boosters to keep them safe from Omicron and future variants of COVIDd-19. But boosters can never be more than a temporary and inadequate firewall. Extinguishing the threat of variants and ending this pandemic requires vaccinating the world. And that means sharing vaccine recipes and letting developing countries manufacture jabs for themselves.”

Experts have raised concerns that low vaccine coverage in the global south created conditions where a variant like Omicron was likely to emerge. Nine months ago, a survey of leading epidemiologists warned that persistent low vaccine coverage in parts of the world increased the risk of vaccine resistant variants emerging within a year or less.  

Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, said: “If we ever want to have a normal Christmas again, we need to vaccinate the world. But right now, the UK and EU are holding back international efforts to use and expand manufacturing and distribution capacity in low and middle-income countries. It’s reckless and risks trapping us in an endless cycle of variants, boosters, restrictions and even lockdowns.”

In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed a waiver of intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments to allow low and middle-income countries to manufacture these life-saving tools. Despite most countries, including the United States, supporting a waiver, the UK, EU, and Switzerland have prevented progress.

Maaza Seyoum from the African Alliance said: “Leaders in the global north have so far chosen the obscene profits of pharmaceutical companies over the lives of people in Africa. But the Omicron variant shows that vaccine inequality is a threat to everyone, everywhere. Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz, and European leaders need to finally support an intellectual property waiver and let Africa and the global south unlock its capacity to manufacture and distribute vaccines. Otherwise, humanity will never beat the race against the next variant.”

Human Rights Watch and Médecins Sans Frontières identified over 100 manufacturers that could produce mRNA vaccines if intellectual property barriers were removed and pharmaceutical companies transferred the technology and knowhow needed.

Despite already making billions in profit, Pfizer and Moderna continue to refuse to share the new generation of vaccine technology with the WHO’s mRNA hub in South Africa. WHO scientists are now attempting to reverse engineer Moderna’s US-taxpayer-funded vaccine, a process that could take two years longer than if the company shared its vaccine recipe.

Every major vaccine provider has boycotted the WHO’s COVID-19 technology access pool (C-TAP), a technology transfer programme established in May 2020 to share the recipe and knowhow needed to manufacture coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments. 

In a video marking World Aids Day, Prince Harry called on governments to break vaccine monopolies, joining over 170 former world leaders and Nobel Laureates, the Pope and more than 13 million people in their support for the waiver.


Notes to editors

Data on delivery from Airfinity, analysed by People’s Vaccine Alliance.

In total the EU and UK and US have received over 2 billion vaccine doses, including boosters, as well as first and second doses.

Our World in Data was used to calculate how many doses were needed to vaccinate people in Africa.

Over the last 40 days, African countries are receiving on average enough doses to fully vaccinate 3 million a day (fully vaccinates is 1 dose of Johnson & Johnson and 2 doses for all other vaccines). At this rate, it will take 438 days for everyone currently unvaccinated in Africa to be fully vaccinated. 

While rich countries have cut bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure dose, poorer countries have depended on Covax, the multilateral mechanism for equitably distributing COVID-19 vaccines, which has repeatedly cut delivery forecasts, as well as a trickle of donations from wealthy countries which are often close to their expiry dates.

Numbers of doses donated by rich countries.

Pharmaceutical monopolies will net Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna $34 billion this year in pre-tax profits.