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World's richest become wealthier during Covid pandemic as inequality grows

Almost every country in the world is likely to see an increase in inequality because of the pandemic, according to a new report.
Elon Musk, like most of the world’s richest people, has become even wealthier since the coronavirus struck.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

LONDON — For Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Tesla's Elon Musk, the pandemic has been good for business.

The two billionaires, like many of the world’s richest people, have become even wealthier since the coronavirus struck, according to a report released Monday by international humanitarian group Oxfam.

Their experience contrasted sharply with those of the world’s less fortunate, who have hit on hard times and whose recovery from the pandemic could take over a decade, according to the report, titled “The Inequality Virus.”

According to Oxfam, the world’s 10 richest billionaires — which include Bezos, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and LVMH luxury group’s CEO Bernard Arnault — have collectively seen their wealth grow by $540 billion over this period. Oxfam based its analysis of the wealthiest people on the Forbes Billionaires List.

According to Oxfam, their increase in wealth would be more than enough to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for all, which the organization estimated at $141.2 billion.

Only three of the 50 richest billionaires in the world saw their fortunes shrink, the report added.

“I remember the financial crisis and I was surprised by how fast billionaire fortunes bounced back,” said Max Lawson, the head of inequality policy at Oxfam and one of the authors of the report. “Then it took four to five years. But that pales in significance to the coronavirus because they bounced back in just nine months. None of us expected that.”

The study was released on the opening day of the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of world, civic and business leaders, which is taking place online this week, rather than in Davos, Switzerland. The conference will look at how the pandemic has reshaped society and the policies necessary for the future.

It is likely that almost every country in the world will see an increase in inequality due to the pandemic, for the first time since records began, according to the report.

It also noted how the pandemic has unequally affected people’s health outcomes. For example, in the U.S., close to 22,000 Black and Hispanic people would still be alive as of December 2020 if Covid-19 mortality rates were the same as for white people.

Covid-19 is not unique in the way it has affected different populations, said Melissa Leach, the director of the U.K.-based research organization, the Institute of Development Studies.

“Epidemics are always mirrors to society, and what this has revealed is a highly unequal world,” she said.

“We are seeing rises in wealth amongst very few, rises in poverty, and gaps between the rich and poor. And what we’ve learned over many decades is that the gaps in themselves also matter because they have knock-on effects not just for the poor but for the way democracies function and the ways economic policies unfold,” she added.

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The report calls on governments to step in to remedy the growing gaps in inequality, and recommends taxes on the wealthy, increased public spending on health care, free universal access to quality health care, and permanent “social protection” for the poorest in society.

“Inequalities make it more difficult to deliver on things that any American would care about,” said Leach. “It’s more difficult to have a stable society, a healthy society, a secure society, a peaceful society, and to have a functioning democracy.”