Four ways that inequality kills

Dana Abed Events, Inequality, Research

Oxfam’s Dana Abed on the four great global injustices behind our Davos report headline that inequality contributes to one death every four seconds

Graphic of numbers of deaths

As we enter our third year of a pandemic that has cost the lives of more than 19 million people across the globe, we confront unprecedented inequality. While 99% of us saw our income fall during the pandemic, the richest 10 billionaires saw their wealth double. But what our new report, Inequality Kills, shows is that such inequality is not just monetary, it is deadly: that global inequality is creating what we call “economic violence” that is killing millions around the world.

Our report published on the first day of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda, estimates that inequality kills at least one person every four seconds. That’s an overwhelming price to pay for unfair policies and corporate greed. Below are four ways economic violence leads to the avoidable deaths of millions every year, as set out in the report.

1. Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) is rooted in patriarchy and unjust policies that put all women and girls, transgender and non-binary people in every corner of the globe at risk of poverty, physical and emotional harm, economic disempowerment, and death.

For the report, our estimates focus on just two aspects of gender-based violence: murders by partners and female genital mutilation (FGM). These two causes lead to 67,000 women being killed annually, 30,000 by their current or former intimate partners, and 37,000 due to female genital mutilation (you can find full references and methods we used to calculate all our figures in the report and separate methodology section here).

However, this is just a tiny fraction of the total number of deaths due to GBV. It is estimated that 143 million women are missing worldwide due to a combination of excess female mortality and sex selective abortions (son preference): in 2020, there were an estimated 1.7 million excess female deaths and 1.5 million selective abortions.

Very few resources are directed to combat gender-based violence. While the periods of lockdowns during the early days of COVID-19 included heightened cases of violence against women and girls, a recent report from Oxfam showed only 0.0002% of global coronavirus response funding opportunities were allocated to GBV. Our communities deserve better: fair and just policies that support women’s and queer people’s economic empowerment and inclusion, protection and prevention from harm.

2. Access to health

Inequality of income is a stronger indicator of whether you will die from COVID-19 than age, and more than 3 billion people are still deprived of access to Covid-19 vaccines. This is a result of pharmaceutical monopolies restricting vaccine supply and driving up prices, with a number of rich country governments enabling this extreme vaccine inequality by blocking developing countries efforts to waive intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

While the pandemic made this worse, lack of access to universal and quality health care is a scandal that is perpetuated by neoliberal economic policies and unjust social protection schemes that leave those from lower socioeconomic groups at risk. Oxfam’s conservative estimates show that, even before the pandemic, at least 15,000 people were dying every day because of lack of access to healthcare in poor countries. When our economies are structured to allow some people to maintain good health while others perish through lack of healthcare, it is a violation of human rights and an act of economic violence.

3. The climate catastrophe

The climate crisis is driven by the rich world, which is responsible for an estimated 92% of all excess historic emissions. A recent report from Oxfam shows that the wealthiest 1% of humanity are responsible for twice as many emissions as the poorest 50%, and that, by 2030, their carbon footprints are set to be 30 times greater per head than the level compatible with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.

Poor countries will have to pay the price for a crisis that they have no significant role in starting, if leaders and billionaires do not act. A disaster related to weather, climate, or water hazards has occurred every day on average over the past 50 years, with more than 91% of deaths caused by such disasters occurring in low- and middle-income countries. The World Health Organization sets out that at current conservative estimates, up to 633 people will die each day in low and middle-income countries by 2030, because of the climate crisis, with the potential for millions more to die in the future if no action is taken. (Note the 633 deaths figure is the upper bound of our estimates for 2030: in the final calculations, we conservatively included a zero figure for climate deaths in the total figure of 21,000 inequality-related deaths per day).

‘While one person dying due to inequality every four seconds may be a terrifying number, it is a conservative estimate’

To avoid this, rich governments and corporations must switch from net zero targets to real zero targets that cut carbon emissions significantly – and fairly – by 2030. They must invest in climate adaptation for low- and middle-income countries and phase out fossil fuels, while supporting this transition through technical and financial assistance.

4. Hunger and poverty

The pandemic has led to a sharp increase in poverty around the world.  There are now 163 million more people projected to live in poverty – that is living on less than $5.50 a day – on top of the 3.2 billion people in poverty before the pandemic began. In the report, we estimate that hunger still kills at least an estimated 5,773 people each day, a shocking number in a world of plenty, where nobody should die of hunger.

Yet food security for the millions still going hungry will remain elusive while income inequality and poverty persists. The World Bank projects the poorest two deciles were expected to lose a further 5% of their income in 2021, while the incomes of the top 20% of humanity bounced back, recovering nearly half of what they lost in 2020. This is largely because economic growth is recovering in rich nations where the majority of the top 20% live, but not in developing countries, where most of the bottom 20% live. We need the redistribution of wealth, and food security, at the top of the global agenda to alleviate the suffering of billions.

Taking the lowest estimate of all of these four factors, our new report suggests inequality contributes to at least 21,318 deaths per day globally, or one death every four seconds

And of course, the above four injustices don’t tell the whole story of how inequality manifests. While one person dying due to inequality every four seconds may be a terrifying number, it is a conservative estimate. It is likely many more suffer and will suffer in the future, with women and girls, members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and racialised groups paying the highest price.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we have a choice to make. Governments can choose to adopt fairer tax policies and reinvest wealth in combatting all forms of inequalities or let these avoidable deaths continue. We, collectively, must stand against monopolies and the greed of private corporations, and ensure that power, as well as wealth, is redistributed in a way that puts workers and minorities at the heart of decision making. And we must put in place proper protection from economic violence, with policies that ensure the devastating spike in inequality we have seen in recent times is never repeated, and that our systems work for the many, and not just the few.


Dana Abed

Dana Abed is the influencing lead for Oxfam in Lebanon

You can find the full report, Inequality Kills, as well as a comprehensive methodology document outlining how we did the analysis, here.

This is the first in a series of blogs for this month’s online Davos gathering that we will be publishing on Oxfam’s Views and Voices blog. Subscribe to keep up with the latest posts and also do follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn