Pandemic times: Gulf between rich and poor widens alarmingly

Mukesh Ambani’s wealth was rising by Rs. 90 crore per hour during the pandemic. On the other hand, 40% of Indians have feared to slipped into poverty even deeper.

We live in an unequal world striving towards decline in economic inequality. But COVID-19 has put serious break on our efforts to heal the gap between the rich and the poor. The Oxfam Annual Report for 2020 has termed COVID-19 as ‘Inequality Virus’ as it has only widened rich-poor gap and aggravated the inequality.  

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Just a week ago, the news pages were splashed with headlines announcing spectacular surge in fortunes of Gautam Adani of Gujarat. His wealth almost doubled to $32 billion during the pandemic and he climbed up to be the 48th richest persons globally. Yet he could still not beat Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries who remained on the top of the list of wealthiest Indians with networth of $83 billion as per Hurun Global Rich List. His wealth showed 24% growth during the nine months. Gautam’s brother Vinod’s wealth grew by 128% to $9.8 billion.

Not this alone. Forty Indians entered the billionaires’ club in the pandemic-stricken India in 2020 with the list expanding to include 177 people. This must be seen in the backdrop of predictions that Indian economy is set to contract by 7% due to the debilitating impact of the COVID-19 led lockdown, shutdowns and total immobility of general populace for a few months.

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By all yardsticks, Coronavirus is all likely to halt the march—slow though—towards poverty reduction. The Report reveals that it may have pushed between 200 million and 500 million into poverty and the number of people living in poverty might not return even to its pre-crisis level for over a decade. But for the rich, the Report says, it took just nine months for the fortunes of the top 1,000 billionaires to return to their pre-pandemic highs. In fact, the increase in the wealth of the 10 richest billionaires since the crisis began was more than enough to prevent anyone on the Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus and to finance a COVID-19 for them all.

It is not as if only the pandemic has allowed the richest to grow richer. For the last 40 years, the richest one per cent of the world have earned more than double the income of the bottom half of the global population have earned together. Though this one per cent consumes twice as much carbon as the bottom 50%, the deleterious impact of the climate change is shared by the rich and the poor in equal measure. Here are a few snapshots from the Report which speak about the challenge of inequality:

  1.  Worldwide, billionaires’ wealth increased by a staggering $3.9 trillion between March 18 and December 31, 2020. Their total wealth now stands at $11.95 trillion which is equivalent to what G-20 Governments have spent in response to the pandemic. The world’s 10 richest billionaires have collectively seen their wealth increase by $540 billion over this period.
  2. In September 2020, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, could have paid all 876,000 Amazon employees a sum of $105,000 bonus and still be as wealthy as he was before the pandemic.
  3. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and owner of Reliance Industries with huge stakes in nation’s petrol, retail and telecom network doubled his wealth between March and December, reaching $78.3 billion. He leapt on the ladder of world’s wealthiest from 21st richest man to being the 6th richest. During that period, the average growth in Ambani’s wealth in just over four days represented more than the combined annual wages of all of Reliance Industries’ 195,000 employees.

Even as the world’s richest few saw their reserves zooming and fortunes booming, loss of livelihoods, joblessness, destitution, hunger, displacement, eviction from rented homes and decline in nutrition has ensured that ranks of the starving, unwashed and roofless multitudes would only keep swelling in the years ahead. Here are a few snapshots of how poverty would ensnare more and more people:

  1. Last year, more than 180 countries temporarily closed their schools, leaving close to 1.7 billion children and youth out of school when closures were at their peak. Children in the poor countries were deprived of as much as four months of schooling, compared with six weeks for children in high income countries.
  2. One’s likelihood of dying from COVID-19 is significantly higher if he or she is poor. If he or she is black or indigenous community, it is likely to be higher still, for instance, in Brazil, afro-descendants were much more likely to die than White Brazilians. If their death rate had been the same as White people’s, then as of June 2020 over 9,200 afro-descendants would have still been alive.
  3. Explosion of hunger due to COVID-led loss of income is expected to have killed 6,000 people every day towards the end of 2020.
  4. An ILO report has said that, with almost 90% working in the informal economy in India, about 40 crore people were at the risk of falling deeper into poverty.

Between the two contrasting portrayals of people, i.e., those rolling in wealth and the ones wallowing in poverty, stand the words of Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General stand showing the humanity the path ahead of them. Choice would be theirs. He said: “COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: The lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat. While we are all floating on the same sea, it is clear that some are in super yachts, while others are clinging to the debris drifting over their putrid waters.”  

M A Siraj is Bengaluru based seasoned journalist who writes for a variety of newspapers including The Hindu, and news portals.

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