Less billionaires and more nurses: five steps to rebuild a more equal world after Covid-19

Julissa Álvarez is a 44-year old hairdresser living in the Dominican Republic.

Julissa Álvarez is a 44-year old hairdresser living in the Dominican Republic. Because of Covid-19-induced lockdowns, she has lost her clients and livelihood, on which she relied to put food on the table for her partner and their six children. Photo: Valerie Caamaño/Oxfam

History will likely remember the Covid-19 pandemic as the first time since records began that inequality rose in almost every country at once. However, not everyone was affected in the same way.

The coronavirus crisis has hurt people living in poverty far harder than the rich. It has fed off and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race, fueling poverty and injustice. While many of the richest – individuals and corporations – are thriving, hundreds of millions have been pushed into destitution.

Coronavirus has taken close to two million lives worldwide, but the deep divide between the rich and the poor has proven as deadly as the virus. Through Oxfam's Covid-19 response you can help us close the gap and protect communities impacted by the pandemic.

Coronavirus hit an already profoundly unequal world

The coronavirus crisis has swept across a world that was already extremely unequal. A world where, for 40 years, the richest 1% have earned more than double the income of the bottom half of the global population.  A world where a tiny group of over 2,000 billionaires had more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes. A world where nearly half of humanity was forced to scrape by on less than $5.50 a day, just one paycheck away from penury.

Heba Shalan, a mother of five and nurse from the Jabalia Refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip.

Heba Shalan, a mother of five and nurse from the Jabalia Refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip, is putting her life on the line caring for patients with Covid-19 without adequate personal protective equipment and for very little pay. Photo: Marwas Sawaf/Oxfam

Such extreme inequality meant that billions of people were already living on the edge when the pandemic hit, without access to basic healthcare or social protection. They did not have any resources or support to weather the economic and social storm it created.

Since the virus hit, the rich have got richer, and the poor poorer

The coronavirus crisis has impacted the economies of every country on earth, and the jobs, wealth and incomes of every person. However, it’s a very different story depending on whether you're at the top of the economic ladder, or at the bottom.

All around the world, the super-rich have escaped the worst impacts of the pandemic. Our deeply unfair economic system has enabled them to amass huge wealth in the middle of the worst recession in 90 years while hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs and faced destitution and hunger.

It is estimated that the total number of people living in poverty could have increased by between 200 million and 500 million in 2020

The inequality virus in numbers

The ten richest men in the world have made half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began, more than enough to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for all and to ensure that no one is pushed into poverty by the crisis.

If women were represented at the same rate as men in the low-paid precarious professions that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, 112 million women would no longer be at high risk of losing their incomes or jobs.

The pandemic deprived children in the poorest countries of almost four months of schooling, compared with six weeks for children in high-income countries.

9 out of 10 people in poor countries are set to miss out on the Covid-19 vaccine this year - while wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over.

Inequality is costing lives. Nearly 22,000 Black and Hispanic people in the United States would still be alive if they experienced the same Covid-19 mortality rates as their White counterparts.

The recession is over for the richest

In the first months of the pandemic, a stock market collapse saw billionaires experience dramatic reductions in their wealth. Yet this setback was short-lived. Within just nine months, the 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their Covid-19 losses, while it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Women and racialized groups are paying the highest price

While largely white, male billionaires ride out the pandemic in luxury, women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups such as Black people, Afro-descendants and Indigenous Peoples are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis. Because they are excluded in large numbers from quality healthcare and social protection and tend to be in informal and more precarious work, they are more likely to be pushed into poverty, more likely to go hungry, more likely to contract the virus and more likely to die from it.

Millions more suffering from hunger

Coronavirus’ massive impact on jobs and livelihoods has led to an explosion in hunger. The UN estimated that the number of people experiencing crisis-level hunger would rise to 270 million by the end of 2020 because of the pandemic, an increase of 82% compared with 2019. This could mean between 6,000 and 12,000 people dying each day from hunger linked to the crisis by the end of 2020.

Experience shows that interruptions in schooling can mean that children from vulnerable families drop out and never return to the school bench. When the state of emergency in Mozambique was declared and all schools were closed because of Covid-19, alternative forms of teaching were found using radio broadcasting. Supported by Oxfam, this project involved 15 local stations, which provided school radio to more than 1 million children in the country. Photo: Jeremias Benjamin/NANA

There can be no return to where we were before

We are at a pivotal point in human history, and history will remember how we chose to act at this tipping point. We cannot return to the unfair, unequal, and unsustainable world that the virus found us in.

Governments around the world have a small and shrinking window of opportunity to create a just economy after Covid-19. One that is more equal, inclusive, that protects the planet, and ends poverty. One that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. Here are five key actions to build towards that better future:

Billionaires are a sign of economic failure - not economic success. A radical and sustained reduction in inequality is the indispensable foundation of our new world. Governments must build economies that work for poor black women, not just rich white men. They must move beyond a focus on Gross Domestic Product and start to value what really matters, such as the millions of hours of unpaid care work done by women, which enables the wealthiest to prosper.

The World Bank has calculated that if countries act now to reduce inequality, 860 million fewer people will be living in poverty by 2030 than if it were left to increase.

It is not just diseases, but social injustice that kills people. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the inability of our deeply unequal economy to work for all. Governments must reject the old recipe of brutal and unsustainable austerity and must ensure peoples’ wealth, gender or race does not dictate their health or education. Instead, they must invest in free quality public services, that have unparalleled power to reduce poverty and inequality.

Cancelling debts would release $3bn dollars a month for poor countries to invest instead in free healthcare for everyone.

Inequality should be prevented from happening in the first place. To do this, businesses should be redesigned to prioritize society, rather than ever greater payouts to rich shareholders. To end poverty, we need not just living wages, but also far greater job security, with labor rights, sick pay, and unemployment benefits if people lose their jobs.  Governments and corporations must also recognize, reduce and redistribute the underpaid and unpaid care work that is done predominantly by women.

In the UK, a study found that a maximum wage of £100,000 (approximately $133,500) would have the power to redistribute the cash equivalent of over 1 million jobs.

The coronavirus crisis must mark a turning point in the taxation of the richest individuals and big corporations. We must look back on this crisis as the moment when we finally started to tax the rich fairly once more, increased wealth and financial transaction taxes, and ended tax dodging. Progressive taxation of the richest members of society is the cornerstone of any equitable recovery from the crisis, as it will enable investment in a green, equitable future.

A tax on the excess profits earned by corporations during the coronavirus pandemic could generate $104bn, enough to provide unemployment protection for all workers, and financial support for all children and elderly people in the poorest countries.

Climate breakdown is the biggest threat ever to human existence. It is already destroying the livelihoods and taking the lives of the poorest, economically excluded and historically oppressed communities. Government responses to Covid-19 represent the last chance to drive carbon emissions down at the unprecedented pace that is required. We need to build a green economy that prevents further degradation of our planet and preserves it for our children. We need an end to all subsidies for fossil fuels and invest in low carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs.

In the US investing $1 million in renewables creates nearly 3 times as many jobs as investing the same amount in fossil fuels. 

You can make the difference

As the pandemic continues, we are working around the clock with our local partners in more than 60 countries to deliver much needed assistance to curb the spread of the virus and help protect communities from its economic impact. We have reached so far over 11.3 million people but with your support, we could do more.