Twenty new “pandemic billionaires” have been created in Asia thanks to the international response to Covid-19, while 140 million people across the continent were plunged into poverty as jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to Oxfam.
A report by the aid organisation says that by March 2021, profits from the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and services needed for the Covid response had made 20 people new billionaires as lockdowns and economic stagnation destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of others.
From China, Hong Kong, India and Japan, the new billionaires include Li Jianquan, whose firm, Winner Medical, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, and Dai Lizhong, whose company, Sansure Biotech, makes Covid-19 tests and diagnostic kits.
The total number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by almost a third from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 by November last year, and their collective wealth increased by three-quarters (74%), the report said.
The report said the richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90% in the region.
Mustafa Talpur, campaigns lead at Oxfam Asia, said: “It is outrageous and highly unacceptable that poor people in Asia [were left at] the mercy of the pandemic facing severe health risks, joblessness, hunger and pushed into poverty – erasing the gains made in decades in the fight against poverty.
“While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest,” he added.
In 2020, an estimated 81m jobs disappeared and loss of working hours pushed a further 22–25 million people into working poverty, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $1.46tn (£1.06tn), enough to provide a salary of almost $10,000 (£7,300) to all those who lost a job.
Covid has claimed more than a million lives in just Asia, and countless more deaths will result from increased poverty and disruptions to health services. The report said women and girls were more likely to have lost jobs or income. Women are also more likely to work in frontline roles, putting them at further risk; in the Asia-Pacific region, women account for more than 70% of healthcare workers and 80% of nurses.
In south Asia, people from lower castes do the bulk of sanitation work, often without protective equipment, and face poverty and discrimination that prevent them from accessing health services. The pandemic has exacerbated this, said Oxfam.
The wealth gap is set to grow. Credit Suisse forecasts that, by 2025, there will be 42,000 more people worth more than $50m in Asia-Pacific and 99,000 billionaires. The number of millionaires by 2025 is projected to be 15.3 million, a 58% increase on 2020. Both the World Bank and IMF have said that coronavirus will cause a significant increase in global economic inequality.
Talpur said: “The political system is protecting the interests of the tiny rich elite. Governments have consistently failed to work for the majority during the pandemic. It was the juncture of global solidarity, but rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies turned away their faces.”