As inequality killed millions, top billionaires doubled wealth during pandemic
The Oxfam report singled out Jeff Bezos, the space traveler, with particular rebuke for using the pandemic to double his wealth. | Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

LONDON—The world’s richest billionaires, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have doubled their wealth during the coronavirus pandemic, even as income inequality, climate change, and the coronavirus combine to kill one person worldwide every four seconds, a new analysis says.

“The wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began,” London-based Oxfam reported in Inequality Kills. And the virus, officially called Covid-19, has cut the incomes of 99% of the world’s 7.8 billion people, it adds.

“Overall, the world’s small elite of 2,755 billionaires has seen its fortunes grow more during Covid-19 than they have in the whole of the last 14 years—years that themselves were a bonanza for billionaire wealth,” Oxfam reports.

Such inequality “is tearing the world apart,” it warns.

Oxfam singled out Bezos, the world’s richest person, for particular criticism, and tied his rising wealth and his ego-driven spaceship ride to his ownership of Amazon. What the report did not say is Bezos and Amazon are also known for rampant labor law-breaking, low pay and no benefits against their hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S., and exploitation of workers elsewhere around the globe.

“In July 2021, the world’s richest man launched himself and his friends into space in his luxury rocket while millions were dying needlessly below him because they could not access vaccines or afford food,” Oxfam said. “Jeff Bezos’ own iconic Marie Antoinette ‘let them eat cake’ moment will forever be more accurately quoted: ‘I want to thank every Amazon employee and customer because you guys paid for all of this.’”

“The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated,” Oxfam said. The catch is rich countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom, are hoarding the vaccines, and hiding behind patent protections to do so the report notes.

In an explanation the late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka often applied to rising income inequality in the U.S., Oxfam said “economic violence is not by chance but by choice,” in other words created by governmental policies “made for the richest and most powerful people.”

Those are the very rich whom the report identifies as profiting from the pandemic.

“When powerful elites and corporations spend billions of dollars and hire tens of thousands of lobbyists to exercise undue influence to capture public policies in their favor, this undermines the basis of every individual vote in a democracy. Indeed, income inequality within countries is correlated with an erosion of trust and increased anxiety within those societies,” the report notes.

Oxfam says those same billionaires who are profiting from the pandemic and pulling political strings are also responsible for much of the pollution that leads to global warming—which, in itself, is killing people, too.

It calculates the 20 richest billionaires “are emitting as much as 8,000 times more carbon,” through the companies the billionaires control—such as Bezos’s Amazon and Musk’s Tesla–than the billion poorest people on the globe.

Income inequality also destroys livelihoods. Citing World Bank projections, Oxfam reports the coronavirus threw an additional 163 million people worldwide into poverty since the pandemic began, compared to how many would have remained poor. Oxfam and the bank define poverty as income of less than $5.50 per day.

“The World Bank projects that, without efforts to address inequality, poverty levels will not return to their pre-crisis levels even by 2030. In 2021, while the richest 20% are expected to have recovered close to half of their losses during 2020, the World Bank expects the poorest 20% will, on average, lose a further 5% of their income.”

People of color and women in developing nations are particularly victims of such income inequality, Oxfam reports. And in the U.S., one note adds, the coronavirus made one particularly bad situation, caused by income inequality, worse: Black life expectancy.

Some “3.4 million Black Americans would be alive today if their life expectancy was the same as White people’s,” Oxfam explains. “Before Covid-19, that alarming number was already 2.1 million.”

The National Center for Health Statistics, in its yearly analysis of life-and-death data in the U.S., reported last July that overall life expectancy in the U.S. declined in 2020 for the second year in a row, the first time that’s happened since the height of World War II. It, too, said the coronavirus, not income inequality, was the cause of the drop, and of the larger life expectancy decline for Blacks.

“Life expectancy for the non-Hispanic black population declined 2.9 years from 74.7 years in 2019 to 71.8 in 2020,” its lowest number in 20 years, the center said then. The coronavirus accounted for 59% of that drop. And while Blacks were calculated to live 4.1 years fewer than non-Hispanic whites in 2019, that gap widened to 5.8 years in 2020,” the center noted. The gap had been 7.1 years 30 years before.

Oxfam’s numbers drew particular attention from both the Patriotic Millionaires—a group of the rich who are battling their own class’s perks and profits–and from the Poor People’s Campaign. Its leaders, the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, have repeatedly drawn on a special Institute for Policy Studies analysis showing the U.S. has 140 million poor and low-wealth people. That figure was 43% of the population before Covid hit. The campaign calculates at least eight million more people have been added to those rolls since the modern-day plague invaded the U.S.

“In stark terms, the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began, from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, at a rate of $1.3 billion a day,” the two pastors and Oxfam America President Abby Maxman said in a joint statement. “Meanwhile, the incomes of 99% of humanity have fallen because of the pandemic and one person is dying every four seconds from lack of access to healthcare, gender-based violence, hunger, and climate change.”

The entire report is available in the press section of www.oxfamamerica.org.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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