When a crisis like COVID-19 hits, we are all impacted, but it is the poorest and most marginalised communities around the world who suffer most. Nur Jahan (name changed) and her daughter Ismat are living in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh – one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The cramped, sprawling living environment put people at greater risk of infection. (Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam)
2020 has been a painful year for everyone. Millions of people have lost their loved ones, and millions more have lost their source of income. In every country, the poorest in society have been hit hardest but it is a very different story at the top. Oxfam’s latest report, The Inequality Virus, points out how COVID-19 has exacerbated already worsening inequality around the world.
Key findings from the report:
- The recession is over for the richest. The world’s ten richest men have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began more than enough to pay for a COVID 19 vaccine for everyone and to ensure no one is pushed into poverty by the pandemic.
- The total number of people living in poverty is estimated to have increased by at least 200 million in 2020. In East Asia and the Pacific region, 64 million people have been forced into poverty by COVID-19.
- The pandemic has ushered in the worst job crisis in over 90 yearswith hundreds of millions of people now underemployed or unemployed.
- Women are hardest hit, yet again.Women make up roughly 70 per cent of the global health and social care workforce − essential but often poorly paid jobs that put them at greater risk from COVID-19.
- Inequality is costing lives.Afro descendants in Brazil are 40 per cent more likely to die of COVID-19 than White people. Infection and mortality rates are higher in poorer areas of countries such as France, India, and Spain, while England’s poorest regions experience mortality rates double that of the richest areas.
Extreme Inequality is Not Inevitable
An increase in inequality is almost certain. According to the World Bank, 501 million more people will still be living on less than US$5.50 a day in 2030 if governments allow inequality to increase by just two percentage points annually, and the total number of people living in poverty would be higher than it was before the virus hit.
Oxfam believes all governments must act now to end inequality and put this at the core of their economic recovery plans. Steps to a fairer future include cancelling the debt of developing countries, and formulating fairer tax policies to build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few.
How Can We Create a Better World?
- Build a world that is profoundly more equal.Governments must set concrete, time-bound targets to reduce inequality, and not simply back to pre-crisis levels. The COVID-19 crisis must also mark a turning point where the race to the bottom ended and the race to the top began. Steps should include initiatives like increased wealth taxes, financial transaction taxes and an end to tax dodging.
- Create human economies that care for people.Governments must recognise the value of care and welfare systems and invest in free quality public services and social protection to support everyone, from cradle to grave. This is vital now and will be in the future – and is essential to an economy that puts people and the planet at its centre.
- End exploitation and ensuring income security. Governments that put people and the planet first will ensure dignified work for all. They must protect and empower all workers by mandating dignified working conditions and fair wages for all.
- Ensure climate safety. The climate crisis continued to grow even as the world has been grappling with COVID-19. The world now stands on the brink of exceeding the 1.5ºC goal contained in the Paris Agreement, and of triggering a range of climate tipping points. The pandemic has shown us that massive action by governments is possible in the face of a crisis; we must see the same level of action to prevent climate breakdown.
Inequality in Hong Kong is a spiralling crisis. COVID-19 is exacerbating it.
Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient in 2016 reached 0.539 – the highest in 45 years.
According to the 2020 Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report, some 23.6 per cent of the Hong Kong population, or about 1.653 million people live below the poverty line.
With the continued effects of COVID-19, the unemployment rate has reached 6.6 per cent – the highest in 16 years – and 246,000 people are out of work.
To address these issues, Oxfam has the following recommendations for the Hong Kong government:
- Offer the poor and unemployed a short term, monthly unemployment allowance of no less than HK$5,000 for at least six months through the Community Care Fund.
- Raise the minimum wage to at least HK$41.4 to ensure that workers can support one other person and earn more than what they would receive through social assistance. The government must also review the minimum wage every year so that it increases with inflation and ensures workers can achieve a basic standard of living.
- Spend additional recurrent expenditure on initiatives such as increasing the quota for occasional child care services, Care-and-Attention places and Nursing Home places for the elderly, and public health care.
- In the long run, review the current tax system and implement ability-to-pay taxation in order to better redistribute resources, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and create a more equitable society.