Jan 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration of a large hand holding down one side of a scale with a single finger, a group of people are on the other side of the scale, lifted in the air.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.

  • The virus has exposed how work, health and education systems create additional disadvantages for low-income families and minorities, while allowing the most wealthy to recover quickly.
  • A majority of nearly 300 economists from around the world surveyed by Oxfam said they expect the virus to exacerbate gender (56%), racial (66%), wealth (78%) and income (87%) inequalities in their countries.

By the numbers: The number of people living on less than $1.90 per day might have increased by more than 400 million last year. That's a larger number of people than the population of the U.S.

  • More than 3 billion people had no access to healthcare, and three quarters of workers had no access to sick pay. Meanwhile, the wealth of the top 1% continued to rise.

How it works: In the U.S., 22,000 Black and Latino Americans would still be alive today if their coronavirus mortality rates were the same as white people — a result of unequal access to health care, disproportionate rates of preexisting conditions and other compounding disadvantages in communities of color, as Axios has reported.

Yes, but: While inequality within countries got a lot worse in 2020, the world overall might have become less unequal. That's because rich countries, in general, were harder hit by the coronavirus than the poorest countries, which tend to have much younger populations.

What to watch: School closings affected some 1.7 billion children globally. But children in rich countries could continue their education online, and were shut out of school for much less time — about six weeks, on average, compared to four months for children in the poorest countries. Millions of girls pulled out of school in 2020 and will never return.

The bottom line: As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said: "While we are all floating on the same sea, it's clear that some are in superyachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris."

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