The world’s 10 wealthiest people more than doubled their fortunes from US$700 billion to US$1.5 trillion during the coronavirus pandemic as poverty rates soared, according to a study released by charity Oxfam ahead of a high-profile World Economic Forum (WEF) event this week. Heads of state will join chief executives and other prominent figures this week to discuss the planet’s most pressing issues – from climate change to Covid-19 vaccine inequity – at the Davos Agenda 2022 conference. The online meeting will be a springboard for WEF’s annual summit, which normally sees the world’s rich and powerful converge on the Swiss mountain resort of Davos each winter, but has been moved to summer because of the pandemic. According to Oxfam’s “Inequality Kills” study, which was released on Monday, billionaires have seen a record surge in their wealth during the pandemic, with the 10 richest people in the world having boosted their fortunes by US$15,000 a second or US$1.3 billion a day. If these 10 men were to lose 99.999 per cent of their wealth tomorrow, they would still be richer than 99 per cent of all the people on this planet Gabriela Bucher “If these 10 men were to lose 99.999 per cent of their wealth tomorrow, they would still be richer than 99 per cent of all the people on this planet,” said Oxfam International’s executive director Gabriela Bucher. “They now have six times more wealth than the poorest 3.1 billion people.” According to Forbes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was the world’s richest person for the fourth year running in 2021, worth US$177 billion, followed by Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault and family, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Sergey Brin and Mukesh Ambani. A new billionaire has been created every 26 hours since the pandemic began, the Oxfam study said, while more than 160 million people are estimated to have been pushed into poverty during the health crisis. What is China’s common-prosperity strategy? “It has never been so important to start righting the violent wrongs of this obscene inequality by clawing back elites’ power and extreme wealth including through taxation – getting that money back into the real economy and to save lives,” Bucher said. “Billionaires have had a terrific pandemic. Central banks pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to save the economy, yet much of that has ended up lining the pockets of billionaires riding a stock market boom. “Vaccines were meant to end this pandemic, yet rich governments allowed pharma billionaires and monopolies to cut off the supply to billions of people. The result is that every kind of inequality imaginable risks rising. The predictability of it is sickening. The consequences of it kill. “The world’s response to the pandemic has unleashed this economic violence particularly acutely across racialised, marginalised and gendered lines. As Covid-19 spikes this turns to surges of gender-based violence, even as yet more unpaid care is heaped upon women and girls.” Inequality at such pace and scale is happening by choice, not chance Gabriela Bucher Inequality between nations is expected to rise for the first time in a generation, and is also growing within countries. Wealthy nations are rebounding faster with output in rich countries likely to return to pre-pandemic trends by 2023, though production will be down by 4 per cent on average in developing countries, according to the World Bank. In 2023, per capita incomes are likely to remain below 2019 levels in 40 developing countries, the international financial institution said. “Inequality at such pace and scale is happening by choice, not chance. Not only have our economic structures made all of us less safe against this pandemic, they are actively enabling those who are already extremely rich and powerful to exploit this crisis for their own profit,” Bucher said. Inequality is contributing to the death of at least 21,300 people each day – one person every four seconds, according to Oxfam’s report. An estimated 5.6 million people in poor countries die each year due to lack of access to health care, while hunger kills more than 2.1 million annually, the report said. The proportion of people with Covid-19 who die from the illness in developing countries has been estimated at roughly double that of rich countries. “The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed openly both the motive of greed, and the opportunity by political and economic means, by which extreme inequality has become an instrument of economic violence,” said Bucher. “After years now of researching and campaigning on the issue, this is the shocking but inevitable conclusion that Oxfam has had to reach today.” Just over 7 per cent of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine dose compared with more than 75 per cent in high-income countries. The pandemic has set back global progress towards gender equality, and it will take nearly 136 years for women to be on an equal footing financially with men – up from 99 years pre-pandemic. The report notes the significance of the world’s two largest economies – the United States and China – starting to consider policies that reduce inequality, including by passing higher tax rates on the rich and taking action against monopolies. “This provides us some measured hope for a new economic consensus to emerge,” said Bucher. There is no shortage of money. That lie died when governments released US$16 trillion to respond to the pandemic Gabriela Bucher The report urges governments to claw back the gains made by billionaires by taxing the huge earnings they have made since the start of the pandemic through permanent wealth and capital taxes. Authorities should also invest the trillions that could be raised via taxes toward progressive spending on universal health care and social protection, climate change adaptation, and gender-based violence prevention and programming. Rich governments should also immediately waive intellectual property rules over Covid-19 vaccine technologies to allow more countries to produce safe and effective vaccines to usher in the end of the pandemic, the report added. “There is no shortage of money. That lie died when governments released US$16 trillion to respond to the pandemic. There is only a shortage of courage and imagination needed to break free from the failed, deadly straitjacket of extreme neoliberalism,” Bucher said.