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Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
The latest Oxfam report highlights how man-made inequality killed more people than COVID-19 did during the pandemic and suggests a redistribution of wealth to reduce the sharp inequalities.

When COVID-19 emerged as a global scourge in 2020, it was thought that the virus would affect everyone in the same way, irrespective of class, caste, creed or race. This notion was, however, quickly dispelled when it became clear that the experience and impact of the epidemic within and across countries was not uniform. This was because of the manner in which resources, including vaccines, were distributed in the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic phase. “Inequality Kills”, the non-governmental organisation Oxfam’s report in January 2022, discusses how man-made inequality claimed more lives than the virus did.

‘The system is rigged’

The report calls a spade a spade. It lays bare details that were hitherto unknown, details that involve a critique of four decades of neoliberal economic policies. It talks about the economic violence that was unleashed on people as a result of specific economic policies, a kind of non-randomised violence that became worse as the pandemic progressed. Economic violence in action happened when governments’ policy choices starved their public health systems of funding, pushing people to seek recourse in the private sector for health care. More than the coronavirus, it was the other virus, that of man-made inequality, that was responsible for the loss of lives and livelihoods. Such violence, says the report, is not an aberration. “The system is rigged,” it says.

The “economic violence” is not random; it is integral to the way present-day economies and societies work. Before the pandemic, 5.6 million people in low- and middle-income countries either lacked access to health care or had access to low quality health care. According to the report, in 2017, close to 2,70,000 people were pushed into poverty as a result of out-of-pocket expenses for health care. Several cross-country studies, says the report, find an empirical connection between inequality and COVID-induced mortality.

As people struggled to make ends meet because of lockdowns and other government-imposed measures, the world’s ten richest men doubled their fortunes. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of times for some and the worst of times for many. According to the report, a new billionaire was created every 26 hours since the onset of the pandemic, while 160 million were pushed into poverty. It confirms what is already known: inequality is not created in a day. The pandemic only amplified what was already there but was not talked about.

The report draws attention to what has not been stated sufficiently in the last two years—that the pandemic created new billionaires, including pharma billionaires, fostered vaccine inequity and exacerbated extant inequalities, which have been made worse by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The pandemic, the report says, was “made more deadlier” and more prolonged because of inequality. Income inequalities, it says, were a strong indicator of whether one would die of COVID–19 rather than age.

Even though there is not enough global data on the demographic characteristics of COVID fatalities, studies have shown that in the early waves of the pandemic, blacks and Hispanics died more than whites and Asians in the United States. Working class populations as a whole were affected more adversely by the pandemic and the extreme measures that governments undertook. This added to the inequities of health care and longevity experienced by racial and ethnic groups even in the pre-pandemic phase.

The report also says that the people of Bangladeshi origin in the United Kingdom were five times more likely to die of COVID than the white British population. “The poorest and the racialised have borne the brunt of pandemic deaths,” says the report. According to it, the present-day divides are linked to “historical legacies of racism, colonialism including slavery”. Undoubtedly so, but it is also the unbridled pursuit of profit in capitalist economies supported by governments that has perpetuated such discriminatory legacies.

Austerity measures

In addition to these are the structural adjustment policies imposed by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The report says that 73 countries have faced the impact of IMF-pushed austerity measures. Countries that had to face austerity measures were among those with a high number of fatalities. Many of them had to cut down on health expenditures in the two decades preceding the pandemic because of debt crises, austerity measures and structural adjustment. In short, the report says, austerity kills.

A 10 per cent increase in private health expenditure has been linked to a 4.9 per cent increase in mortality from COVID. In the European Union, says the report, where many states have universal health care systems, privatisation debilitated the country’s response to the pandemic. Another side to privatisation of health care services is that many women had taken to unpaid care work to support their communities.

“Economic violence” had another darker side to it. Violence against women, children and other vulnerable groups increased as livelihoods became precarious. This was the “ignored pandemic”, or a pandemic within a pandemic, says the report, which is fuelled by economic inequality but compounded by economic violence. Gender-based violence was estimated to have gone up by around 20 per cent during the lockdown. Reports of murder of women recorded high levels during the pandemic. In the United Kingdom, three times as many women were murdered in the same month as in the average for that month over the previous decade. Murders of transgender and non-conforming people went up by 6 per cent, with transwomen constituting 98 per cent of the victims. Femicides in Israel went up by 9 per cent. The global response to such violence was inadequate. In many countries, it was not even recognised as important.

The pandemic spawned pharma billionaires, more so as companies, citing the patent regime as an excuse, refused to share technologies and know-how with low- and middle-income countries. Countries in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, are among those with the lowest vaccination rates for no fault of their own. On the other hand, rich countries boasted of high vaccination rates, including booster doses, for their populations. They were able to return to normalcy, says the report, even as vaccine billionaires and pharmaceutical companies got to decide who would live and who would not.

As much as 80 per cent of the safe and effective vaccines went to the G20 nations, while less than 1 per cent reached the low-income countries. This was because pharmaceutical companies had artificially restricted the supply and driven up prices.

The report says that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna charged 24 times the estimated cost of production for their vaccines. At another level, rich governments blocked the efforts of low-income countries at the World Trade Organisation to obtain a waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 treatment and vaccines. As a result, despite having the capability to manufacture vaccines, several low-income countries were unable to do so because of the monopoly of pharmaceutical manufacturers. In contrast, a small country like Cuba not only met its domestic demand but exported its home-grown vaccines to Vietnam, Venezuela and Iran. Many other countries too used the Cuban vaccines as part of their treatment protocols.

There was no shortage of resources; $16 trillion dollars was released globally to respond to the pandemic. Public money, says the report, went into inflating stock markets and filling the coffers of pharmaceuticals. According to the report, BioNTech, a pharma major, developed vaccines with the help of German public investment, but only less than 1 per cent of people in low-income countries had access to them. The report refers to the prevalence of “scientific racism”, where it is presupposed that low- and middle-income nations are incapable of manufacturing vaccines and ensuring safety and other standards. This undermined the sharing of science and technologies with these countries that had an abundance of manufacturers. Nearly 100 companies in Asia, Latin America and Africa were identified as having the capacity to manufacture COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. But the know-how to manufacture these vaccines was not shared with them.

“Never again should people in a country have to face a pandemic without being able to see a doctor,” says the report. Costa Rica, a middle-income country, spends one-twelfth per capita of what the United States spends on health care. Unlike the U.S., Costa Rica guarantees quality health care to all and has a higher life expectancy than in the U.S.

The ‘billionaire variant’

According to the report, the fortunes of a global elite of 2,755 billionaires grew more during the pandemic than in the past 14 years. The wealth of the 10 richest men in the world doubled and they earned more than the bottom 3.1 billion people in the world. While the virus was mutating into newer variants, the report says, governments created the conditions for the emergence of a new variant of billionaire wealth, that is, the “billionaire variant”. Inequality, says the report, was as great as it was at the pinnacle of Western imperialism in the early 20th century. The rate of accumulation and current wealth was unprecedented in human history.

When Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, went on a trip to space, he thanked his workers and customers for their labour that paid for his joyride. He is supposed to have famously said: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and customer because you guys paid for all of this.” The report says that the increase in his fortunes alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated. In 2020 and 2021, Amazon workers in Europe struck work demanding better wages, overtime and working conditions. The accumulation of wealth by billionaires could only have happened by cornering profits and cutting down wages.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, received government subsidies. In 2018, he paid no federal tax. Between 2014-2018, he paid a ‘true tax rate’ of 3.27 per cent and was critical of a proposed ‘billionaire tax’. An analysis by the New York-based non-profit organisation ProPublica of U.S. billionaires in June 2021 found that the richest 25 Americans paid a “true tax rate” that amounted to nothing. The middle classes, it turned out, were paying much more.

Before the pandemic, some 3.2 billion people were living below the World Bank’s poverty line of $5.50 a day. The pandemic pushed 163 million more people below the poverty line, says the report.

But the solutions are not insurmountable. If countries could in the aftermath of the Second World War undertake welfare measures, impose taxes on the rich and protect workers’ rights, it could be done once again. A different economic model centred around economic equality is required. Governments need to take up progressive spending and taxation to redistribute wealth.

Oxfam offers three suggestions to the present crisis. For instance, it suggests progressive fiscal instruments such as imposing one-off solidarity taxes “to claw back the exponential rise in billionaire wealth during COVID”, and wealth and capital taxes to reduce inequalities.

A one-off 99 per cent emergency tax on the wealth gains of the world’s ten richest men during the pandemic would itself raise $812 billion. These resources are more than enough to provide vaccines for the entire world, says the report.

The second solution lies in redirecting the wealth that is generated by such taxation towards universal health care. Nobody, the report says, should have to pay a user fee for health care, and governments ought to provide and not have its citizens purchase health care. The third solution is a waiver of intellectual property rules to break the monopoly of pharmaceutical corporations.

The Indian situation

The Oxfam India report on inequality presented equally stark figures. It stated that while 84 per cent of households suffered a decline in their incomes from March 2020 to November 2021, the number of billionaires grew from 102 to 142. While indirect taxes as a share of total government revenue increased, the proportion of corporate taxes declined in the past four years. Wealth tax was abolished in the country in 2016. It is open knowledge that India’s education and health are both grossly underfunded.

On the pattern of the global report, the Oxfam India report also suggested taxing the wealthy and a redistribution of wealth to reduce the sharp inequalities. It estimated that a 1 per cent tax on 98 billionaires in India could take care of the total expenditure of school education and literacy or fund the Ayushman Bharat (health insurance scheme) for seven years.

For obvious reasons, the report, global as well as the India report, did not get much traction in the mainstream media though online news portals and some international news channels discussed some of its main findings. The findings evoked mixed reactions. A columnist writing for a prominent news portal in India suggested rather gratuitously to Oxfam to stop looking at inequality in India and to do what it was best at—distribute blankets to the needy and do charity rather than give homilies to governments on economic policies and concepts such as redistribution of wealth or wealth tax. Despite such dismissive refrains, there is no denying anymore that the virus has exposed the fault lines in the dominant economic systems being pursued the world over. And “Inequality Kills” is a cry for a drastic change of course.