Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Prolonged Covid pandemic worsens Asia’s staggering inequalities



Prolonged Covid pandemic worsens Asia’s staggering inequalities

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Children of a low-income neighbourhood attend a class at an open-air school at Porajhar village on the outskirts of Siliguri, India, in July last year. AFP

Prolonged Covid pandemic worsens Asia’s staggering inequalities

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

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

This gulf between rich and poor fuelled 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 not only claimed more than a million lives in Asia, 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 between 140 million people in Asia were pushed into poverty and in 2021 another eight million became poor.

Vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities and migrant workers were worst affected. Across Asia, informal and migrant workers suffered an estimated 21.6 per cent fall in their income in the first month of the pandemic. Even as women make up over 70 per cent of healthcare workers, over 60 per cent women faced barriers in accessing healthcare.

In South Asia, health service disruptions caused an estimated 11,000 additional maternal deaths in 2020. Adolescent pregnancy, unsafe abortions, and violence against women have also risen during the crisis.

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

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

As billionaires pocketed additional income and wealth, the chances for poor to catch up have been further narrowed. In 2020, UNESCO estimated that 10.45 million children in Asia would drop out of school or university forever due to the pandemic, and more recent lockdowns and school closures have only made matters worse.

This has exacerbated already high-level of education divide. School closures and a move to online learning has favoured wealthier students, and girls are also less likely to have access to the internet or mobile phones which means the pandemic has put them at an even greater disadvantage in accessing education. This will have far reaching impact on equal opportunity.

As the Delta and Omicron variants push up case numbers and continue to hamper economic recovery, governments must rise to the challenge. The crisis has also shown that budget allocation is a question of priorities and where there is political will, there is a way. In Indonesia, for example, an allocation of 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product could pay for a package of universal social safety nets that would contribute to reducing the poverty rate from 22 to 15 per cent.

Across Asia, governments implemented some progressive policies in response to the crisis, and demonstrated the importance of social protection and strong public health systems in protecting the lives and rights of the majority of their citizens.

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

Oxfam’s report shows that a wealth tax of two to five 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 can prevent unnecessary and pre-mature deaths in the future or enhance education opportunities to bridge the gap.

There is a need to eschew longstanding neoliberal policies of privatisation and austerity and build on recovery measures already being taken to ensure universal social protection and quality public health services.

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

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

This means increased taxation of rich individuals and corporations, and regional and global cooperation to enforce it, greater investment in public services and vaccines for all, and for social protection and care work, decent work, living wages, and robust labor rights for everyone and national and regional plans to reduce economic and social inequalities.

Crises shape history, and coronavirus offers a once in a generation chance for Asia to build back better, and choose a progressive regime that put the needs of the many before the profit and wealth of the few.

Amitabh Behar is Oxfam India’s chief executive officer.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • Cambodia's poverty cut in half from 2009 to 2019: World Bank report

    A report published by the World Bank on November 28 states that Cambodia’s national poverty rate fell by almost half between 2009 and 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic recently reversed some of the poverty reduction progress. Cambodia’s poverty rate dropped from 33.8 to 17.8 per cent over the 10