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Covid deepened inequalities: wealth, education, gender

An Oxfam report, titled ‘The Inequality Virus’, has found that as the pandemic stalled the economy, forcing millions of poor Indians out of jobs, the richest billionaires in India increased their wealth by 35 per cent.

Written by Udit Misra | New Delhi |
Updated: January 25, 2021 8:03:22 am
Covid deepened inequalities: wealth, education, genderIndia’s large informal workforce was the worst hit as it made up 75 per cent of the 122 million jobs lost. (AP/File)

A new report by Oxfam has found that the Covid pandemic deeply exacerbated existing inequalities in India and around the world.

The report, titled ‘The Inequality Virus’, has found that as the pandemic stalled the economy, forcing millions of poor Indians out of jobs, the richest billionaires in India increased their wealth by 35 per cent.

“The wealth of Indian billionaires increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown and by 90 per cent since 2009 to $422.9 billion ranking India sixth in the world after US, China, Germany, Russia and France,” states the report.

According to Oxfam’s calculations, since March, as the government announced possibly the strictest lockdown anywhere in the world, India’s top 100 billionaires saw their fortunes increase by Rs 12.97 trillion — enough money to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indians a cheque for Rs 94,045 each. In stark contrast, 170,000 people lost their jobs every hour in the month of April 2020, the report points out.

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“In fact, the increase in wealth of the top 11 billionaires of India during the pandemic could sustain the NREGS scheme for 10 years or the health ministry for 10 years,” according to Oxfam’s calculations.

The report states that Covid has the potential to increase economic inequality in almost every country at once — the first time this has happened since records began over a century ago.

Oxfam details how the pandemic aggravated all manners of inequalities.

Sectorally, India’s large informal workforce was the worst hit as it made up 75 per cent of the 122 million jobs lost. Informal workers had relatively fewer opportunities to work from home and suffered more job loss compared to the formal sector. The 40-50 million seasonal migrant workers, typically engaged working in construction sites, factories etc. were particularly distressed, notes the report.

The pandemic also spiked health and education inequalities.

Over the past year as education shifted online, India saw the digital divide worsening inequalities. On the one hand, private providers such as BYJU’s (currently valued at $10.8 billion) and Unacademy (valued at $1.45 billion) experienced exponential growth yet, on the other, just 3 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent of Indian households had access to a computer and just 9 per cent had access to the internet.

In terms of healthcare, Oxfam found that since India does not report case data desegregated by socio-economic or social categories, it is difficult to gauge the distribution of the disease amongst various communities. But India currently has the world’s second-largest cumulative number of COVID-19 positive cases and globally, the poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities have higher rates of COVID-19 prevalence.

“The spread of disease was swift among poor communities, often living in crammed areas with poor sanitation and using shared common facilities such as toilets and water points,” it states.

In this regard, it found that only 6 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent households had access to non-shared sources of improved sanitation, compared to 93 per cent of the top 20 per cent households in India.

In terms of caste, just 37.2 per cent of SC households and 25.9 per cent of ST households had access to non-shared sanitation facilities, compared to 65.7 per cent for the general population.

The pandemic has also widened gender disparities.

The unemployment rate among women rose from already high 15 per cent before Covid to 18 per cent. “This increase in unemployment of women can result in a loss to India’s GDP of about 8 per cent or $218 billion,” states the report. Of the women who retained their jobs, as many 83% were subjected to a cut in income according to a survey by the Institute of Social Studies Trust.

Beyond income and job losses, poorer women also suffered healthwise because of the disruption in regular health services and Anganwadi centres. “It is predicted that the closure of family planning services will result in 2.95 million unintended pregnancies… 1.80 million abortions (including 1.04 million unsafe abortions) and 2,165 maternal deaths,” states the report.

The pandemic also fueled domestic violence against women. As of November 30, 2020, cases of domestic violence rose by almost 60% over the past 12 months.

“While the Coronavirus was being touted as a great equaliser in the beginning, it laid bare the stark inequalities inherent in the society soon after the lockdown was imposed,” said Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar.

Oxfam India’s findings are part of the Oxfam International report released on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s “Davos Dialogues”.

“The deep divide between the rich and poor is proving as deadly as the virus,” said Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International.

Oxfam has argued the urgent need for policymakers to tax the wealthy individuals and rich corporates and use that money to “invest in free quality public services and social protection to support everyone, from cradle to grave”.

However, with the Union Budget round the corner, not everyone is convinced of these policy recommendations.

N R Bhanumurthy, Vice-Chancellor of Dr B R Ambedkar School of Economics University in Bengaluru, said that this is not the year to prioritise inequality.

“Reducing inequalities is very important but it should be a medium-term target. Between growth and distribution, we must get the sequencing right. We need to grow first before we can distribute. Otherwise, we can get stuck in a low-income equilibrium,” he said.

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