Inequality kills 7.7 million every year: Oxfam
The global poverty confederation's annual inequality report draws a link between economic inequality and excess mortality.
On Monday, Oxfam International, the global anti-poverty organisation, released what has become its annual global inequality stock take. It is timed to coincide with the coming together of the wealthy and the wise for the World Economic Forum’s annual invitation-only meeting.
The report titled ‘Inequality kills’ makes for grim reading once again. Here are some key takeaways:
1. Economic inequality as a cause of mortality
The headline finding of the report is that inequality causes loss of life. Inequality leads not only to poor health, nutrition and social outcomes, but it also kills people. It unleashes institutional violence against the underprivileged. Extreme inequality, the report argues, is a form of “economic violence”.
According to Oxfam, inequality “contributes” to the deaths of “at least” 21,300 people every day. That is 7.7 million people every year–almost equal to the population of Switzerland. The report contends that this estimate is “highly conservative.”
The report provides a method note which explains that they have used the lower bound of the estimated number of deaths caused by four inequality related causes–inadequate access to health care, gender-related violence, hunger and climate change.
Oxfam took these figures from studies and databases that have analysed the impact of these causes on human mortality. The report’s reliance on individual studies to arrive at estimates may attract some criticism, as Oxfam’s methodology sometimes has in the past.
But, what is beyond doubt is that inequality is a leading cause of much suffering around the world and even deaths. The number may even be higher than the 7.7 million estimated by Oxfam, but we just don't know because of lack of data and just how difficult a task it is to estimate something like this.
That inequality kills people has perhaps become clearer to us during the pandemic. Initially, there was a hopeful sense that coronavirus will be the great leveler–that it will impact rich and poor alike. That hope, we quickly discovered, was quite misplaced.
It became clear early in the first wave itself that the virus’s worst impacts were to be borne by the deprived–who don't have access to adequate health care, who have pre-existing medical conditions, who live in slums and can’t socially distance, who don't have access to running water and can't wash hands repeatedly, and so on.
From then on, the unequal impacts of the virus or the lockdowns it necessitated have been very apparent. The report, citing a study from the United Kingdom, points out that in some countries, the poor are four times more likely to die because of COVID-19.
Despite the remarkable speed at which vaccines have been developed and manufactured, their distribution has been inequitable. We are now in a situation where people in the developed world have been jabbed with a booster, while most in the developing world still await their first doses.
2. Billionaires have had a ball
Of course! The Oxfam report estimates that since the pandemic began, we’ve been blessed with a new billionaire every twenty-six hours. The wealth of the top ten richest men has doubled, with some faring even better. Elon Musk saw his wealth increase over a thousand percent from 26 billion USD in March 2020 to 294 billion USD now.
There is inequality even within the billionaire category. As per the Forbes billionaire list of 2021, there were 2,755 billionaires in the world. Only 304, or 11 percent, of them were women. Only 13 billionaires were black.
On the other hand, as many as 16 billionaires were called either Geoffrey or Jeff.
One of the Jeffs–Bezos–saw his wealth increase by 81 billion USD. That alone, according to Oxfam, would be enough to pay for the vaccination (including one booster) of each and everyone in the world.
Bezos, might not be too thrilled with this idea. After all, when he returned from his four-minute space joyride that cost billions, he graciously thanked all Amazon customers and employees for paying for his trip. Some of those employees earn USD 15 an hour and are forced to skip breaks and pee in bottles.
Oxfam has described the comment as Bezos’ own “let them eat cake” moment.
3. Poverty has boomed
While the billionaires have had a joy ride, literally and figuratively, the poor are now poorer than they were when the pandemic began.
The Oxfam report cites World Bank data, which estimates that 163 million people were pushed into poverty in 2021 because of the pandemic. Bear in mind, the World Bank is an institution that has probably never been accused of overestimating poverty levels.
According to the World Bank estimates, 42 percent of the world’s population is surviving on less than USD 5.5 a day. That's up almost two percentage points since 2020.
The Bank also contends that income loss for the poor continued in 2021 with the poorest two deciles estimated to have lost a further 5 percent of their incomes. They estimated the richest two deciles to have regained about half of their 2020 income loss.
4. Gender disparities worsened
Due to the pandemic, women have spent even more time doing unpaid household work. Gender-based violence, which the report has described as the ‘ignored pandemic’, is estimated to have increased by 20 percent during periods of lockdown. In the UK, for instance, women have been murdered at record high rates.
Female genital mutilation continues to take lives. A 2021 study estimates, that over 37,000 women die every year as a result.
The report reiterates that gender-based violence is rooted in patriarchy, social norms and prejudiced state policies.
Greater income inequality may even increase the likelihood of sexual violence. A 2016 paper that analysed data from India concluded that the probability of sexual violence increased by 6 percent for a unit increase in the Gini index, a globally used measure of inequality.
Around the World
The United Nations has launched its largest-ever aid appeal to fend off humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. The country has been ravaged by conflict, hit by sanctions and is suffering its worst drought in decades. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, 98 percent of the population does not have access to adequate food.
If it’s drought mixed with conflict in Afghanistan, its floods and conflict in South Sudan. 70 percent of the country’s population faces food insecurity.
The Financial Times has a deep dive into allegations of corruption in South Africa against the management consulting firm Bain and Co. The firm has been accused of aiding former president Jacob Zuma in manipulating public resources for private gains.
After violent protests broke out in large parts of Kazakhstan earlier this month, an eerie calm has returned to the streets following a hostile crackdown. While the immediate cause for the protests was an overnight doubling in the price of liquefied gas, there are deeper inequalities fuelling the protests, as this piece explains.
If you can find the time, do listen to this fascinating podcast episode on why Santa Claus is a capitalist icon and may even, in reality, be Jeff Bezos.