Saturday May 21, 2022

Asia’s unequal face

January 19, 2022

Extreme concentration of income, wealth and political power in the hands of a tiny male minority is tearing our societies apart, depriving opportunities for the majority, warming up the planet, pushing people into poverty and ultimately causing desperation and death.

Unless a fundamental shift is made to the global economic system, consumption pattern, distribution of power and privilege the unstoppable disparities may lead to further unrest, violence, death, destruction, and havoc with the planet. Inequality is killing the people and the planet.

Covid-19 has super charged the already high level of inequality worldwide and sharpened the callous disparities among countries and within countries. The pandemic has vividly exposed two extremes and cleared all the doubts -- if any -- that a dream of a fairer world for equal opportunities and hopes for the majority are waning by the immoral acts of a small number of rich elites just wanting to grab more.

A recent report by Oxfam International reveals that the ten richest men have more than doubled their fortunes during the pandemic, while most of the people are poorer. Billionaires’ wealth has reached $5 trillion, the biggest surge since records began. It should be a source of deep shame for governments that the world’s ten richest men have more than doubled their fortunes, while the incomes of 99 percent of people are worse-off due to Covid-19 and over 160 million more people have been forced into poverty. It is estimated that if these ten richest men distribute 99 percent of their wealth today, they would still be richer than 99 percent of all the people on this planet.

The Oxfam paper estimates that inequality contributes to the deaths of at least one person every four seconds. Inequality of income is a stronger indicator of whether you will die from Covid-19 than age. Millions of people have died whose lives could have been saved if they had access to vaccines. Around 60 percent of women in the Asia Pacific region faced additional barriers to seeing a doctor due to the pandemic, even though in Asia Pacific, women comprise more than 70 percent of healthcare workers and 80 percent of nurses. It is estimated that disruptions to health services in South Asia caused 228,000 additional child deaths and around 11,000 additional maternal deaths in 2020.

The number of Asian billionaires and their wealth has surged during the pandemic. The number of billionaires increased from 803 in March 2020 to 1087 in November 2021, an addition of 284 new billionaires. While the poorest people in the region were losing their loved ones and jobs at a greater rate than anyone else, a new billionaire was emerging every two days. These elites collectively made $1.46 trillion. While these tiny rich elites are exploding their fortunes, 147 million Asians lost full-time jobs in 2020. If the additional money that these billionaires made could be equally distributed, each person who lost their job would get $10,000.

Some of Asia’s richest people have even benefited directly from the crisis. By March 2021, there were 20 new Asian ‘pandemic’ billionaires, whose fortunes came from equipment, pharmaceuticals and services needed for the Covid-19 response. In November 2021, the richest one percent owned more wealth than the poorest 90 percent in the Asia Pacific region.

It is estimated that 148 million Asians were pushed into poverty on account of job losses, reduced working hours, falling income, health expenses and increased caring responsibilities especially for women. The pandemic has affected future opportunities for young learners. In 2020, Unesco estimated that the crisis would see 10.45 million young people in Asia drop out of school or university forever. This has caused substantial learning losses. Without urgent investment in free quality education for all, the poorest families and marginalised groups could see their prosperity and opportunities undermined forever.

Back home in Pakistan, the UNDP estimated in 2020 that the income of the richest 10 percent of Pakistan’s population is over 30 percent more than that of the total income of the poorest 40 percent of the population. According to the same report, one percent of Pakistan’s population owns over 20 percent of its farmland, this leads to the accumulation of farmland in very few hands. In addition to income and land, there are huge wealth disparities as well. About half a million richest households own almost 16 percent of residential property.

Recent estimates of poverty incidence by Dr Hafeez Pasha reveal that Covid-19 has pushed 21 million people into poverty during 2019-20 -- including 10 million urban residents who become poor due to loss of jobs, income and rising food prices. He estimates that 32.5 percent of the population in Pakistan is living below the poverty line in 2020-21.

This level of inequality, wealth and resource concentration is shameful and shocking. While the majority of people are suffering from deprivation, disease, hunger, and death, the minority of the rich elite -- most of them men – have been super charging their fortunes. It is not inevitable; it is a political choice and governments have the power to end extreme inequality.

Governments can introduce and expand progressive policies such as taxing the rich, investing in public services including care-related services, creating more decent jobs with living wages, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women and girls, and protecting the planet from the effects of climate change through investing in green technologies and renewable energy. Governments also have a power to regulate and work with the private sector to adapt practices that are more inclusive, fairer and empower workers.

The writer is an Islamabad-based environmental and human rights activist.