Permanent progressive policies to tackle Asia's coronavirus and inequality crisis

January 17, 2022 | 11:18
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The pandemic has aggravated already existing inequality for 148 million Asians, pushing them further into poverty while billionaires grew their wealth by $1.46 trillion.
Permanent progressive policies to tackle Asia's coronavirus and inequality crisis
More than 148 million Asians were further pushed into poverty and the inequality becomes so serious

Across Asia, the pandemic devastated lives and livelihoods, taking away 147 million jobs and pushing 148 million Asians into poverty. But while most Asians are worse off, the region’s billionaires grew their wealth by $1.46 trillion, leading to a staggering rise in inequality, as revealed by the new Oxfam report Rising to the Challenge.

According to the report, Asia’s richest one per cent now own more wealth than the poorest 90 per cent, and the impact of COVID-19 combined with existing inequality has set back equitable development in the region by decades. Existing economic policies are rigged in the favour of the wealthy, allowing them to accumulate incredible amounts of wealth while narrowing the chances of the poorest to catch up.

Vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic, and religious minorities and migrant workers were worst affected as their income shrunk and their access to essential services was reduced. School closures have worsened the education divide with an estimated 10.45 million children dropping out of school and university forever, with far-reaching consequences for their life chances.

In countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, 46-64 per cent of households were unable to receive medical attention due to lack of funds. Women make up over 70 per cent of healthcare workers in Asia but over 60 per cent struggled to receive adequate healthcare during the pandemic Women also experienced an increase in their care-work responsibilities, suffered greater levels of domestic and gender-based violence, while rates of teenage pregnancies and unsafe abortions rose.

Meanwhile, Asia’s richest were shielded from the impact of the pandemic and many even thrived. The number of billionaires in the region grew from 803 in March 2020 to 1087 in November 2021 and billionaires were able to grow their wealth by 74 per cent. Some wealthy Asians even profiteered directly from the pandemic and by March there were 20 new Asian billionaires whose fortunes came from equipment, pharmaceuticals, and services needed for the pandemic response.

Oxfam’s report makes recommendations to address Asia’s growing inequality through progressive policy actions by governments that prevent millions of poor Asians from falling through the cracks. According to the report, a wealth tax of 2-5 per cent on Asia Pacific's multi-millionaires and billionaires, could raise an additional $776.5 billion every year. That would be enough to increase public spending on health in the region by 60 per cent and could prevent unnecessary and premature deaths in the future or enhance education opportunities to bridge the gap opportunity.

“The pandemic has shown the need for better social protection and stronger public health systems. Governments across the region must scale up existing programmes and introduce policies designed to reduce health and economic inequalities. This means increased taxation of rich individuals and corporations, greater investment in public services and vaccines for all, social protection and decent work, living wages, and robust labour rights. It also means investing in and valuing care work to tackle gender inequality," the report stated.

“We are at a turning point in history where we have an opportunity to rebuild a better economic and social system that does not allow a few to accumulate wealth at the expense of millions. Future policies must ensure rights, freedoms, and opportunities for women, girls, and vulnerable people,” said Mustafa Talpur, lead for regional advocacy and campaigns at Oxfam in Asia.

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