The growing gap between the rich and the poor has become more evident in recent years, undermining the fight against poverty, damaging our economies, and tearing our societies apart. Hundreds of millions of people are living in extreme poverty while few elites stay at the very top. At the very top of the economic pyramid, we can see a small group of people with trillions of dollars of wealth in their hands. This group is predominantly men, whose fortune and power grow exponentially.
While governments and organizations are actively addressing this, inequality remains a huge wall for the marginalized communities who hope to gain opportunities to lift them out of poverty. There are more billionaires than ever before, and their fortunes have grown to record levels. Meanwhile, the world’s poorest have gotten even poorer. This a sad reality in many countries: extreme inequality is out of control.
Global Inequality in Numbers
The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report revealed that the world’s richest 1% own 44% of the world’s wealth. People who own $100,000 in assets make up less than 11% of the global population but own 82.8% of global wealth. Meanwhile, those with less than $10,000 in wealth make up 56.6% of the world’s population but hold less than 2% of global wealth. Reports also showed that the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as wealth as 6.9 billion people across the world.
Inequality.org, an online portal to data, analysis, and commentary on income and wealth inequality, reported that “ultra-high net worth individuals,” people who own more than $30 million, hold 7.2% of total global wealth, yet represent only a tiny fraction (0.002%) of the world population. This means they hold an astoundingly disproportionate share of global wealth. The International Monetary Fund also revealed that the world’s 10 richest billionaires own $801 billion in combined wealth, which is greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis.
This inequality gap is driven by the fact that while the richest continue to enjoy booming fortunes, they are also enjoying some of the lowest levels of tax in decades. Many governments tend to undertax them, providing less money for vital services like healthcare and education while increasing the amount of care work that falls on the shoulders of the poor. The World Inequality Report data revealed that that the share of national income going to the richest 1% since 1980 has increased rapidly in North America, China, India, and Russia and more moderately in Europe.
The most affected of all is the women sector. Women make up the greatest proportion of the world’s poorest households because they have less income and fewer assets than men. Aside from being put into poorly paid and precarious employments, they also support the state through billions of hours of unpaid or underpaid care work. This a huge but unrecognized contribution to our societies and economic prosperity.
Coronavirus Increases Inequality
With the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become a stark reminder of the divide that exists in many countries. The virus hits a lot different and more severe in societies with the most marginalized communities, deepening the consequences of inequality. A recent analysis of the impacts of this pandemic showed two major risk factors that are thought to make the coronavirus deadlier for those who catch it: old age and pre-existing health conditions and low socioeconomic status.
Inequality can also contribute to the transmission and mortality rates of COVID-19. According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, research on the influenza pandemic of 1918 found that poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality for everyone during an epidemic. Experts warn that this may widen the socioeconomic divides that are thought to be major drivers of right-wing populism and racial animosity.
“These things are so interconnected. Pre-existing social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster, and this is such a perfect example of that,” Nicole A. Errett, a public health expert who co-directs a center on extreme event resilience at the University of Washington, said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that if left unchecked, the existing inequalities across the world would widen, affecting the poor, the disabled, the homeless, minorities, women and elderly among others most at risk. According to Voa News, a US multimedia agency, Bachelet also expressed her concerns about the rise in hate speech, discrimination, and attacks against the Asian community as they are blamed for the spread of the virus.
“When an existential threat faces all of us, there is no place for nationalism or scapegoating—including migrants and minority communities. There have been growing, and unacceptable, physical and verbal attacks on people of East Asian origin, and members of other minorities, and the action should be taken to combat this,” Bachelet said.
Concerns for the poorest countries where health systems are weaker are also increasing. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, access to healthcare and the capacity of health systems will be a heightened concern during this pandemic for people living in poverty or experiencing income inequality. This is because this crisis put additional economic risks for low-income or less secure workers.
“Our biggest fear involves cases arising in poor, densely populated neighborhoods. In this type of situation, if health facilities don’t have the appropriate capacity to treat patients, then the death toll could be significant. And what makes this even more crucial is that the coronavirus could decrease our resources for treating other diseases such as malaria and for ensuring maternity and child healthcare,” Dr. Michel Yao, Emergency Operations Programme Manager at the WHO's Regional Office in Africa, said.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the pandemic is worsening inequality in the world, affecting women, the poor, the disabled and others who are already vulnerable. These people will even suffer the most from the extensive economic and social shocks created by this crisis.