A new report from Oxfam shows that the world’s richest men have doubled their fortunes since 2020, exacerbating inequality globally. While billionaires rapidly expanded their wealth over the past few years, billions of people have faced economic hardship and lost income.
Wealth of world’s richest men doubles as pandemic pushes millions into poverty
As political and business leaders gather this week for the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam has released its annual report on global inequality. The report paints a stark picture of the divergence in fortunes between the super rich and poor since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oxfam analysis shows that the wealth of the 10 richest men, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bernard Arnault, has more than doubled from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion since 2020. Over the same period, over 160 million more people have been pushed into poverty and suffer from rising food prices, energy costs, and uneven recovery from the pandemic recession.
“The pandemic has created 40 new pharma billionaires and a new generation of vaccine oligopolists,” Gabriela Bucher, Oxfam International’s executive director, told NPR. “What we need to do is obvious, in many ways. We need to tax the super-rich and profitable corporations fairly and redistributive wealth.”
According to the report titled “Profiting from Pain,” the gains made by these few billionaire men exceeds how much it would cost to prevent future pandemics as well as provide universal healthcare and social protection for people in poorer countries. Oxfam is calling for increased taxes on corporations and the mega wealthy to address inequality and recover from the pandemic.
Top five billionaires more than double net worth to $1.4 trillion
An analysis by Oxfam finds that the top five billionaires in the world, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bernard Arnault, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet have more than doubled their collective net worth since 2020 even as the pandemic plunged over 160 million more people into poverty.
The total wealth held by these five men jumped from $894 billion at the start of the COVID pandemic to over $1.4 trillion in 2024, equating to a $558 billion increase in just three years. To put this in perspective, Oxfam estimates it would cost $431 billion or 1% of these men’s fortunes to produce enough vaccines to vaccinate the globe to end the pandemic. Their wealth accumulation alone could have paid for that more than once over.
|Wealth in 2020 (USD billions)
|Current Wealth (2024) USD billions)
|Bernard Arnault and family
Globally, over 5 billion people saw their incomes shrink during the pandemic even while stock markets surged, minting these new mega-billionaires. Oxfam Chief Economist Nabil Ahmed argues this exposes the delusion of trickle-down economics as the rich get exponentially richer.
“Billionaires are gaining fortunes on a scale far outstripping any precedent in history, at the expense not only of the poorest, but of squeezed middle classes too,” said Ahmed. “We need to reset the rigged system by targeting extreme wealth through taxation — getting that money back into the real economy and targeting it towards achieving equality, including gender equality, and providing universal public services like health and education.”
First trillionaire predicted within decade as inequality widens
Oxfam modeling indicates that the world’s first trillionaire could emerge within the next 10 years if inequality continues unchecked. Already, the report found that the richest one percent captured nearly two-thirds of new global wealth created after 2020, far surpassing the bottom 90 percent who captured just two percent of that growth.
“A billionaire is created every 30 hours and inequality contributes as much to death globally as smoking,” the anti-poverty group said in a briefing note ahead of this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting of business and political elites in the plush Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.
The pandemic has accelerated inequality between the global rich and poor. Analysis by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund indicate that while advanced economies are nearly back to pre-COVID income levels, over 95 million more people will be living on less than $1.90 per day by the end of 2024, compared to 2019 estimates.
Oxfam has called on governments to implement measures like raising minimum wages and labor protections and guaranteeing access to public services to begin reversing inequality. The group also advocates taxing the super rich more aggressively through measures like wealth taxes. If applied to the world’s multi-billionaires, Oxfam estimates over $1.7 trillion could be raised per year, more than enough to lift 2.3 billion people out of poverty.
Davos attendees urged to address inequality crisis
Government leaders and corporate executives arriving in Davos, Switzerland this week for the 2024 World Economic Forum face calls to tackle the yawning inequality between the global mega rich and poor.
Oxfam staged demonstrations featuring activists dressed as billions pleading with governments to tax the super wealthy more.
“Today we are demonstrating the farcical idea of billionaires asking governments to address poverty and inequality,” said Oxfam International climate justice lead Nafkote Dabi. “Governments must stop listening to those who seek to protect the wealth and power of billionaires and corporations, and instead ensure companies and the richest pay their fair share of tax, increase wages andact decisively on the climate and nature crisis.”
Several forums and events at Davos this year will focus on inequality and ethics in the wake of the pandemic. Still many attendees represent corporations and billionaire tycoons who have benefited enormously from the uneven recovery.
Oxfam analysis finds that companies in industries like tech, pharmaceuticals, energy, and fashion are posting record profits even while keeping millions of workers in poverty. For instance, Amazon nearly doubled its profits during the pandemic to $33 billion while allegedly engaging in anti-union tactics that squeezed frontline workers.
Calls for billionaires to give back amid unequal sharing of pandemic burden
The stunning expansion in billionaire wealth revealed by Oxfam’s annual inequality report has renewed scrutiny on the ethics of how the costs of recovering from COVID have been distributed.
Boston University economist Lenore Palladino argues the accumulation of such extreme wealth is only possible when workers, small businesses and governments bear so much of the burden.
“Billionaires are able to continue accumulating money that would otherwise be circulating in the economy precisely because inequality has exploded,” Palladino told Vox. “Their extreme wealth siphons money away from workers.” She said, “the key to preparing for another crisis is taxing the extreme rich.”
After facing criticism during the pandemic over issues like worker conditions and tax avoidance, several high profile billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have pledged to dedicate the bulk of their wealth to philanthropy. Still most billionaires have given away only a fraction of their vast resources.
For instance, Elon Musk has gained over $300 billion since 2020 but has donated less than one percent of that additional wealth. Calls are growing for systematic policy change rather than reliance on billionaire charity. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres directly challenged billionaires gathered in Davos to pay their fair share or face popular backlashes.
“People are hurting. They are angry. And they are right to be angry. Inequality is rising across the board. But solution lies in inclusive, network-based policies. We must reform tax systems and dramatically reduce the profits of fossil fuel companies,” urged Guterres.
Many experts argue the moral obligation is not just on individuals but governments who facilitated the accumulation of such extreme wealth through preferential tax policies and austerity measures that stripped public health and social safety nets just before the once-in-century pandemic hit.
Outlook: Growing calls for focused policies to narrow inequality
The record billionaire boon revealed in Oxfam’s latest report comes amid growing public concern over inequality within countries and across the globe. Various Davos attendees have issued warnings about the risks posed by extreme polarization of wealth and income.
Oxfam and other groups are urging policy makers not to just rely on charity but enact systemic reforms like tax and labor policies aimed at raising baseline incomes and building resilience to future shocks. Some governments have taken tentative steps toward addressing inequality like minimum corporate taxes and one-time pandemic aid checks. But the scale of lost ground the past few years shows the challenge ahead.
Many economists argue narrowing inequality boosts aggregate economic growth, health outcomes, political stability and environmental sustainability. But after over 50 years of policies that have concentrated wealth and power, reversing the tide faces resistance from vested interests. With inequality reaching historic extremes though, pressure is growing on governments to intervene on behalf of their citizens who shouldered the most burden yet gained the least amid recent crises.
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