Jim Clarken: Covid-19 has reinforced existing inequalities across the world 

Half a billion people could be pushed into poverty because of the fallout from the pandemic unless urgent action is taken, suggests Oxfam's Jim Clarken.
Jim Clarken: Covid-19 has reinforced existing inequalities across the world 

Throughout history, pandemics have forced us to see what and who matter most.

Think of the care-workers and nurses who have tended to people over the last year. The farmers and factory workers who’ve ensured our food supplies. 

The family and loved ones we haven’t seen or hugged. The scientists who’ve worked tirelessly to find a vaccine. The clean air we breathe for survival.

Inequality is everywhere around the globe, including deep within our economies. 

After the financial crisis of 2008, governments made clear choices: cut taxes for the richest people and corporations; allow corporations to prioritise ever larger payouts to rich shareholders over workers; implement brutal austerity measures with cuts to public services like health; and continue to subsidise fossil fuels and climate destruction. 

These choices drove up inequality and have caused huge suffering.

Inequality virus

Ours is a world in which a tiny minority are almost living on a different planet, while billions of people in the real world struggle to survive day to day. 

An analysis undertaken by Oxfam in April last year indicates that half a billion people could be pushed into poverty because of economic fallout from the pandemic unless urgent action is taken.

Our economies and societies are infected with an inequality virus that is just as deadly as Covid-19, and threatens to take many more lives.

Around the world, the virus is disproportionately killing people trapped in poverty, and those from marginalised racial and ethnic groups. 

In addition, if you’re poor, a woman, or from marginalised racial and ethnic groups you’re more likely to have lost your income, or be pushed into poverty. 

People fear the virus will starve them before it makes them sick.

Consider women who are much more likely to work in low pay or informal sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Or the 20m secondary school-aged girls who may never return to the classroom, compounding inequalities that are devastating for those girls and a painful reality after the progress campaigners made in recent years.

Consider Afro-descendants in Brazil who are 40% more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people.

Or that nearly 22,000 black and Hispanic people in the United States would still be alive today if they experienced the same Covid-19 mortality rates as their white counterparts.

Consider that in Ireland, based on 2019 data the bottom 20% of the population have little or no assets, while top 20% own nearly half the wealth, because nearly half of our population have no ability to save money after they cover their basic living expenses.

Or that it has been our young people and low-paid workers (who are now considered essential workers) who have been hardest hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Inequality is a policy choice

World leaders can learn. Learn from countries like New Zealand, that is centering its budget on the wellbeing of its people, and Sierra Leone and South Korea, which are taking ambitious inequality-busting action.

They must work towards universal, quality public services to ensure that everyone gets quality healthcare, something many countries have been able to achieve; with Costa Rica showing it can be achieved within a decade. 

They must ensure universal education — so no girl is forced out of school for lack of money — and universal social protection so no one is forced into poverty when they lose their job.

 Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland
 Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland

Real action, too, means investing in low carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs, and truly recognising the billions of hours in underpaid and unpaid care work done daily by women, especially migrant women, as real work.

It means being unafraid to tax the rich so we can invest in a green, sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. See how Argentina recently adopted a tax on extreme wealth that could generate billions to beat the virus.

Real action means rising to avert climate breakdown — which harms the poorest and historically marginalised communities most — and safeguarding our democracies from the extreme power of extreme wealth.

It’s the job of governments to legislate to reduce inequality but business must also play its part. 

We need fairer business models, and for big business — at a minimum — to do no harm.

Lastly, we need a people’s vaccine. Leaders must face down pharmaceutical companies that have been heavily subsidised by public money and demand that Covid-19 vaccines are made a public good. 

There are manufacturers with plenty of capacity to make vaccines, but supplies are being artificially rationed as vaccine producers are refusing to share their technology and waive their intellectual property rights. 

We need every company on earth who can make safe and effective vaccines for Covid-19 to be making them right now. 

This is both an economic and a moral necessity if we are to overcome this pandemic and move towards a fairer world for all people.

2020 was a year like no other. History has taught us that the years that follow hold opportunity. 

We must seize that opportunity now, to ensure our economies work for all of us, not just the privileged few.

 Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland and an IHREC commission member 

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