Since the start of the pandemic, the rich have found ways to continue getting richer. Forbes‘s latest Billionaires List shows that the planet’s 10 wealthiest people—a group of entirely white Western men that includes Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett—have doubled their fortunes since COVID-19’s start, while the World Bank estimated that the pandemic forced 100 million more people into extreme poverty in 2020, “a historically unprecedented increase.”
A new report from Oxfam, one of the world’s largest charities, calls these trends “alarming.” Released today ahead of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda and simply titled Inequality Kills, it looks at how life during the pandemic has been far less rosy for the rest of the world, and blames wealthy nations’ tax policies as much as the increasingly wealthier world’s richest people:
By not vaccinating the world, governments have allowed the conditions for the COVID-19 virus to dangerously mutate. At the same time, they have also created the conditions for an entirely new variant of billionaire wealth. This variant, the billionaire variant, is profoundly dangerous for our world. New figures and analysis released in December 2021 by the World Inequality Lab reveal that since 1995, the top 1% have captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50% of humanity. Inequality is now as great as it was at the pinnacle of Western imperialism in the early 20th century. The Gilded Age of the late 19th century has been surpassed.
Looking at this record wealth accumulated by the world’s 10 richest men—which works out to roughly $1.3 billion per day for the pandemic’s first two years—Oxfam proposes a one-time tax be levied on them. Policy-wise this is a nonstarter, but it’s largely an intellectual exercise, so Oxfam can make a bigger point: The charity suggests a 99% windfall tax on the pandemic wealth gains of the world’s 10 richest men. It notes this single tax could cover the cost of vaccinating the entire world—as well as extend universal healthcare, fund climate measures, erect proper social safety nets, and address gender-based violence in more than 80 countries—all while leaving those 10 men $8 billion richer than they were pre-pandemic.
Oxfam’s report pulls together various data that has been published elsewhere since the start of the pandemic. Seeing it all in one place, right before Davos, an event often criticized as a week-long oasis for ultra-wealthy jet setters, is a bit sobering:
- Currently, a new billionaire is minted every 26 hours.
- Meanwhile, inequality contributes, at least partly, to the deaths of 21,000 people per day—one person every four seconds. (Oxfam calls this figure “conservative,” noting it’s based on known deaths due to factors, such as lack of access to healthcare, hunger, and climate change.)
- The richest people’s wealth has risen more during COVID than in the entire previous 14 years, the biggest surge in billionaire wealth since records began tracking it.
- The pandemic has pushed the estimated date for gender-pay parity back, from 99 years to 135 years. Studies have shown that in 2020 alone, women lost $800 billion in earnings, with 13 million fewer working today than in 2019. At present, just 252 men have more wealth than all of the women and girls living in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
- Finally, the 10 richest men in the world today own more than the poorest 3.1 billion people. If they each spent $1 million per day, it would take them 414 years to exhaust their combined wealth.