Oxfam report: Coronavirus pandemic ‘bared brutal, unequal and unsustainable world’
Oxfam is one of many groups that have called for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour as a way to fight income inequality between the sexes. | Matt Rourke/AP

LONDON—The coronavirus pandemic “bared the brutal, unequal and unsustainable world,” with an enormous and ever-widening gap between the world’s 1,000 richest billionaires—including its top ten rich, all men—and the rest of us, a new report says.

And in its 24 pages of The Inequality Virus, London-based Oxfam International lays the responsibility for that condition squarely at the feet of unbridled, racist, corporate capitalism. Its solutions advocate reorienting government and the economy to helping everybody but the wealthiest and away from emphasizing profits, dividends, and gross domestic product.

That means, among other measures, workers’ rights, wealth taxes, maximum wages, other measures to cut income inequality, guaranteed annual minimum incomes, free public education, and guaranteed health care for all and paid family and medical leave.

“This inequality is the product of a flawed and exploitative economic system, which has its roots in neoliberal economics and the capture of politics by elites. It has exploited and exacerbated entrenched systems of inequality and oppression, namely patriarchy and structural racism, ingrained in white supremacy,” Oxfam declares, basing its conclusions on data from world organizations and interviews with both leading economists and world activists.

“These systems are the root causes of injustice and poverty. They generate huge profits accumulated in the hands of a white patriarchal elite by exploiting people living in poverty, women and racialized and historically marginalized and oppressed communities around the world.”

The report illustrates the wealth gap with enormous examples involving those 10 richest billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk. It reports they alone gained $540 billion in wealth between the day the pandemic was officially proclaimed in March and the end of last year.

That sum brought back all the wealth that small group lost when world economies crashed due to initial pandemic-caused closures, Oxfam reported. It’s also enough to pay for vaccinating the world’s seven billion people against the pandemic, the report calculates, based on World Health Organization data.

And even after paying for all those shots, the ten richest billionaires would have enough left over out of their gains from pandemic-ridden months to lift the entire globe out of poverty for a year, Oxfam says.

“Worldwide, billionaires’ wealth increased by a staggering $3.9 trillion” from March 18 to the end of 2020, Oxfam’s summary revealed. The world’s 1,000 richest billionaires, “most of them white men,” have accumulated $11.95 trillion, equivalent to the sum the 20 richest nations have spent fighting the pandemic, the international organization reported.

Bezos and Musk gained their wealth back, and more, while the rest of the world has stagnated, at best. Poverty percentages, disproportionately hitting people of color, women, and the southern half of the world, have increased in every nation, it noted.

“It simply makes no common, moral or economic sense to allow billionaires to profit from the crisis in the face of such suffering. Their increasing wealth should be used instead to confront this crisis, to save millions of lives, and billions of livelihoods,” Oxfam’s summary declares.

But the ever-wider gap between the rich and the rest of us is no accident, Oxfam says. It’s the product of years-long trends. The difference is the pandemic “bared the brutal, unequal and unsustainable world the virus found us in.” It’s also likely to continue, economists told Oxfam: Of 295 economists from 79 nations, 87% said the pandemic is worsening and will worsen economic inequality, in their countries and worldwide.

Introductory essays to the report were equally biting. The sharpest words came from Brazilian social worker and human rights activist Lúcia Maria Xavier De Castro: “These inequalities and injustices are obviously not new, they are based on the patriarchal racism that is the foundation of world capitalism, which for decades exploited, expropriated, and claimed lives.”

Oxfam issued its report in late January, in time for the annual Davos meeting of world corporate chieftains, national leaders, and international officials. This time, Davos was “virtual” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And this time even some of those leaders realized the world can—once it beats the virus—not return to the old exploitative unequal “normal,” a point Oxfam noted. The Davos leaders, however, did not suggest any concrete moves towards reducing the gap between the rich and the rest of us, much less steps to permanently create a more egalitarian society. Oxfam did say:

  • Governments must set time targets to reduce inequality and not just to go back to the unequal world before the virus hit. Their programs should redistribute income and wealth based on gender and racial equality. And governments should dump gross domestic product growth as the measure of economic health.
  • Junk austerity plans and “ensure peoples’ wealth, gender or race does not dictate their health or education. Instead, they must invest in free universal healthcare, education, care, and other public services” which would reduce inequality.
  • Worker rights, greater job security, living wages, sick pay, jobless benefits, and paid parental leave are a must. “Businesses should be redesigned to prioritize society” not shareholders. There should be guaranteed minimum incomes and a maximum wage limit. “Billionaires are a sign of economic failure, and extreme wealth should be ended.”
  • Tax the rich more fairly, to produce a race to the top, not the bottom. That includes wealth taxes, financial transaction taxes, and an end to tax dodging—and use the additional money for the final priority:
  • Building a new, green economy to replace the one that exploited the poor, people of color, and women. That includes ending subsidies to fossil fuels, abolition of fossil fuel corporations, and an end to those firms’ rich shareholders benefiting from government bailouts. “The fight against inequality and the fight for climate justice are the same fight,” the summary concludes.


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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.