The Covid-19 pandemic has supercharged the already high levels of inequality in Asia, said a new report by Oxfam in Asia on Thursday (13 January).
The report, titled, "Rising to the Challenge," found that while the richest and most privileged can protect their health and increase their wealth further, the pandemic is putting the lives and livelihoods of the region's poorest and most vulnerable people at risk.
Women, poor and low-skilled workers, migrants, and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest.
The report urged governments to use this moment to implement permanent progressive policies that put the needs of the many before the profit and extreme wealth of the few.
Prior to the pandemic, Asia was already suffering from extreme levels of economic inequality. Since the 1990s, neoliberal policy, a failing global tax system and unequal pay and reward, have channeled income and wealth into the hands of an elite few, the Oxfam report added.
According to the report, between 1987 and 2019, the number of billionaires in Asia skyrocketed from 40 to 768. This gulf between rich and poor has fuelled unjust and persistent disparities in life chances in the region, including significant gaps in educational and health outcomes between children born into the richest and poorest families.
The coronavirus has widened the cracks in this unequal system, fuelling a pernicious cycle of poverty and economic inequality in Asia. The World Bank estimates that coronavirus and rising economic inequality pushed 140 million additional people into poverty in Asia in 2020, and 8 million more in 2021.
New variants alongside higher inequality levels than expected mean these figures are likely to be underestimated. Yet, while lockdowns and economic stagnation destroy the livelihoods of many poor and "just managing" families, the region's richest elites have recovered and even increased their fortunes.
Some of the region's richest people have even benefited directly from the crisis. For example, one of Malaysia's billionaire glove manufacturers doubled its wealth between February and June 2020.
Asia was extremely unequal before the pandemic hit, and the region's continuing Covid-19 crisis is driving an even deeper wedge between the haves and have nots – and putting lives and livelihoods on the line. 2022 could be the year that Asia chooses to break forever with a neoliberal agenda that has undermined its tax revenues and hollowed out public spending on crucial sectors.
"It could be the turning point that sees the region adopt a truly progressive agenda that puts the needs of the many before the profit and extreme wealth of the few," The report read.
To close the gap of inequality, the report recommended increasing domestic revenue through the taxation of rich individuals and corporations, investing in public services, and protecting wages and workers.