Poorest bear economic brunt of pandemic while billionaires’ fortunes boom: Oxfam

Campaigns and Advocacy, Emergencies, Media Releases article written on the 25 Jan 2021

Australia’s 31 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by nearly $85 billion since the global COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Oxfam has revealed on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda meetings.

Analysis shows that the staggering increase would be enough to give the 2.5 million poorest Australians a one-off payment of just over $33,300 each.

Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain said that in the context of the country’s first recession in almost 30 years, this extreme inequality was particularly shocking.

“As hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs and entering an incredibly unstable employment market, this small group of elite Australians saw their incomes recover very quickly, before beginning their upwards trajectory once more,” Ms Morgain said.

Ms Morgain said the Federal Government’s cut this month to the JobSeeker payment, a critical lifeline for millions of Australians thrown into unemployment, was devastating.

“While the Government should be congratulated for acting quickly to implement wage subsidies and other social protection measures last year, the inappropriate and unfair reversal of the increase to JobSeeker payments is a cruel blow to the poorest Australians and, according to unions, has left 1.4 million people living on as little as $51 a day,” Ms Morgain said.

A global survey of 295 economists from 79 countries, commissioned by Oxfam, revealed that 87% of respondents expect an ‘increase’ or a ‘major increase’ in income inequality in their country as a result of the pandemic.

The four Australian economists who took part in the survey agreed the coronavirus crisis would lead to an increase or major increase in income inequality. They said it would be the sharpest increase in inequality in at least 50 years, and that the widening gap would impact women and ethnic minorities most. All four experts believed Government didn’t have an adequate plan in place to address the issue.

Ms Morgain said that inequality in Australia was highlighted when comparing the incomes of Australia’s 10 highest paid CEOs with healthcare workers, and registered nurses in particular.

“We found that it would take a nurse 259 years to earn what a top Australian CEO earns, while a CEO could earn the annual salary of a nurse in 1.3 days,” Ms Morgain said.

“The critical nature of the work of all of our healthcare workers who continue to tackle this crisis, as well as how that work has been undervalued in the past, has rarely been more apparent in the Australian community as it is now.

“This global emergency has truly laid bare the entrenched injustices of our current economic system, which only serves to deepen inequality, particularly in times of crisis.”

Today, Oxfam launched its global report, The Inequality Virus, which highlights how the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated inequality and deepened poverty around the world.

The report shows how the rigged economic system is enabling a super-rich elite to amass wealth in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, while billions of people are struggling to make ends meet. It found:

  • The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, while it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest people to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
  • The world’s 10 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.
  • At the same time, the pandemic has ushered in the worst job crisis in over 90 years, with hundreds of millions of people now underemployed or out of work.

“We stand to witness the greatest rise in inequality since records began. The deep divide between the rich and poor is proving as deadly as the virus,” Ms Morgain said.

“Globally, women and marginalised racial and ethnic groups are bearing the brunt of this crisis. They are more likely to be pushed into poverty, more likely to go hungry and more likely to be excluded from healthcare.”

Ms Morgain said it was up to governments around the world to ensure communities emerge from the crisis with a better chance of surviving the next one.

“Extreme inequality is not inevitable, but a policy choice. The Australian Government must seize this opportunity to build a more equal, more inclusive, and greener economy that ends poverty and protects the planet,” she said.

“The fight against inequality and poverty must be at the heart of economic recovery efforts. Our Government must invest in public services and low carbon sectors to create millions of new jobs and ensure everyone has access to a sustainable social welfare safety net, and they must ensure the richest individuals and corporations contribute their fair share of tax to pay for it. 

“These measures will help us build a better and more hopeful future that is fairer for all Australians.”

For more information or interviews, contact Lily Partland on 0418 118 687 / lilyp@oxfam.org.au