The great divide … a low-income neighborhood adjacent to the business district in Panama City. Image: Reuters/Carlos Jasso
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• The pandemic is threatening the biggest rise in inequality since records began.
• The poor, women and those from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are disadvantaged in many spheres of life.
• The world must embark on an economic project for equality and sustainability.
Throughout history, pandemics have forced us to see what and who really matters most.
Think of the care workers and nurses who have kept us alive over the last year. The farmers who’ve fed us. The scientists who will save us. Or the clean air that means our children can breathe easily for the first time.
But even as our sense of community is renewed, it feels like forces beyond our control are tearing us apart.
Around the world, demagogues have found space to unleash their most dangerous impulses. Is there a greater symbol of the danger our world faces than the sight of white supremacists terrorizing the chambers of democracy just weeks ago in the United States?
The great divide is everywhere, including deep within our economies. Today, Oxfam publishes new research that goes to the heart of the challenges before us. It reveals:
• We could face the greatest rise in inequality since records began, with the pandemic increasing economic inequality in almost every country at once.
• It could take more than a decade for billions of the world’s poorest people to recover from the economic hit of the pandemic – while the 1,000 richest people recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months.
• Just 10 people – the world’s richest billionaires, all men – have seen their combined wealth skyrocket by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began. That’s more than enough to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone and to prevent the pandemic from pushing anyone into poverty.
Our economies and societies are infected with an inequality virus that is just as deadly as COVID-19.
Ours is a world in which a tiny minority at the top are living almost living on a different planet, while billions of people in the real world are struggling to survive.
If you’re poor, a woman, or from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, you’re more likely to have lost your income, or be pushed into poverty. Around the world, the virus is disproportionately killing poor people, and those from marginalized racial and ethnic groups.
Consider women who are much more likely to work in low-pay sectors such as tourism and retail that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. If men and women were equally represented in these sectors, over 100 million women would not be at risk of losing their jobs. Ask any woman. That will come as no surprise.
Or consider the 20 million secondary school-age girls who may never return to the classroom – compounding inequalities and heartbreaking for those girls, but painful for all of us in the girls’ rights movement after the progress in recent years.
Consider Afro-descendants in Brazil. They are 40% more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.
Or that nearly 22,000 Black and Hispanic people in the United States would still be alive today if they experienced the same COVID-19 mortality rates as their white counterparts.
Just think of how so many families will never hold their loved ones again – because we failed to tackle the elitism, white supremacy, racism and patriarchy that is rooted in our economies.
And yet the most scandalous point is that this all comes as no surprise to you, does it?
That is why the economic project for equality and sustainability – ending the extreme gap between rich and poor, together with ending gender and racial inequality – must be our way out of this crisis.
Oxfam urges every government on the planet to explicitly commit to ending extreme inequality.
That is what I will call on leaders attending the Davos Agenda to do. I echo the calls of people across the globe, from young climate strikers, #BlackLivesMatter protesters, and the activists of the Fight Inequality Alliance.
Leaders can learn from countries like New Zealand, which is centring its budget on the well-being of its people, and Sierra Leone and South Korea, which are taking ambitious, inequality-busting action.
We urge leaders to back a People’s Vaccine so everyone can get immunized, not just the richest countries and people. Leaders must face down pharmaceutical companies and insist vaccine technology and know-how is shared, so we can make enough doses for the world.
We urge them to guarantee universal, quality public services and ensure that everyone, no matter the colour of your skin or the size of your pay packet, gets quality healthcare – something many countries have been able to achieve. Costa Rica has shown it can be achieved within a decade. It means ensuring universal education – so no girl is forced out of school for lack of money – and universal social protection so no one is forced into poverty when they lose their job.
Real action, too, means investing in low-carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs, and truly valuing the billions of hours done daily by women, especially ones from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, in underpaid and unpaid care work as real work.
It means being unafraid to tax the rich so we can invest in a green, fairer future for our children and grandchildren. See how Argentina recently adopted a tax on extreme wealth that could generate billions to beat the virus.
It means rising to avert climate breakdown – which harms the poorest and historically marginalized communities most. And safeguarding our democracies from the unbridled power of extreme wealth.
It’s the job of governments to legislate to reduce inequality, but business must also play its part. We need fairer business models, and for big business – at a minimum – to do no harm.
Some are taking the right steps, as the consumer products giant Unilever has just done in committing to a living wage and income for everyone who directly provides the company with goods and services. This is a breakthrough commitment, and every company at Davos should follow.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?
2021 is like no other year. We must seize the opportunity, before it’s too late, to ensure our economies work for all of us, not just a privileged few.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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