COVID-19 worsens inequalities in Asia | Opinion of the applicant

In the decades leading up to the pandemic, Asia was often celebrated as a shining example of policies resulting in economic growth. But to talk about economic growth and absolute poverty reduction was only telling half the story.

Asia was also deeply unequal. Since the 1990s, neoliberal economic policies, a failing global tax system, and runaway incomes and profits at the top have funneled income and wealth into the hands of an elite. While the wealth of billionaires in fast-growing economies such as China and India has accelerated at an unprecedented rate, the vast majority of those living in Asian countries have been left behind.

This gap between rich and poor has fueled unjust and persistent disparities in life chances and impacted the ability of countries in the region to achieve development goals.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this deeply unequal region, the impact was also far from uniform. The virus has not only claimed more than a million lives in Asia, but it has also combined with high levels of inequality to set back progress on equitable development by decades.

Between March and December 2020, the equivalent of 147 million full-time jobs were lost in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that around 140 million people in Asia were pushed into poverty and in 2021 another 8 million became poor.

Vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities and migrant workers have been the most affected. Across Asia, informal and migrant workers suffered an estimated 21.6% drop in earnings in the first month of the pandemic. Even though women represent more than 70% of health workers, more than 60% of them face barriers in accessing health care.

But, as Oxfam’s latest Asia report highlights, while the vast majority of Asians were the worst off, a small minority have been sheltered from the impact of the pandemic and even thrived. The number of billionaires in the region increased from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 in November 2021, and billionaires in the region were able to increase their wealth by 74%.

Some of Asia’s wealthiest have even directly benefited from the crisis. In March 2021, there were 20 new Asian billionaires whose fortunes came from equipment, pharmaceuticals and services needed for the pandemic response. This means that in November 2021, the richest 1% in Asia owned more wealth than the poorest 90%.

As billionaires pocketed additional income and wealth, the chances of the poor to catch up shrank even further. In 2020, Unesco estimated that 10.45 million children in Asia would permanently drop out of school or university due to the pandemic, and more recent lockdowns and school closures have only worsened things.

This has exacerbated the already high educational divide. School closures and the shift to online learning have favored wealthier students, and girls are also less likely to have access to the internet or cellphones, meaning the pandemic has them even more disadvantaged in accessing education. This will have a considerable impact on equal opportunities.

Governments across Asia have implemented progressive policies in response to the crisis and demonstrated the importance of social protection and strong public health systems to protect the lives and rights of the majority of their citizens.

However, these measures were far from perfect, being often temporary and failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable or excluding them. These measures must be strengthened and made permanent to better equip countries for future crises, help reduce health and economic inequalities, and ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

Oxfam’s report shows that a 2-5% wealth tax on Asia-Pacific multi-millionaires and billionaires could raise an additional $776.5 billion each year. This would be enough to increase public health spending in the region by 60% and could prevent unnecessary and premature deaths in the future or improve education opportunities to close the gap.

There is a need to avoid longstanding neoliberal policies of privatization and austerity and build on the stimulus measures already taken to ensure universal social protection and quality public health services.

Governments must ensure that the region’s recovery embraces priorities for tackling inequality through policies designed to level the playing field and redistribute wealth and power, build a feminist future where social and economic policies guarantee equal rights, freedoms and opportunities for women and girls, especially those from oppressed and marginalized groups.

We must also ensure a green recovery that protects the planet we all live in and a more responsible private sector with an inclusive business model that respects human rights and promotes equality.

This means increased taxation for wealthy individuals and corporations, and regional and global cooperation to enforce it, increased investment in public services and vaccines for all, social protection for care work, decent jobs, decent wages and strong labor rights for all, and national and regional plans to reduce economic and social inequalities.

Crises shape history, and the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique chance for Asia to build back better and choose a progressive regime that puts the needs of the many ahead of the profit and wealth of the few. The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network


Amitabh Behar is the Managing Director of Oxfam India. These opinions expressed are personal.


The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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