In Asia, billionaires profited from the pandemic while millions dropped out of school forever

Amitabh Behar Events, Inequality, Research

In our final blog for Davos week, Oxfam India chief executive Amitabh Behar looks at how the pandemic has widened an already vast wealth gap in Asia Pacific

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the Asia Pacific region, taking over a million lives and pushing 148 million people into poverty. But, as Oxfam in Asia’s report – published just before this week’s virtual Davos meeting – highlights, while the vast majority of Asians got worse off, Asia’s billionaires thrived, growing their wealth by $1.46 trillion during the worst recession of our time.

Even before the pandemic, the Asia Pacific region was deeply unequal. Economies such as China and India had been growing at an unprecedented rate and the number of billionaires in Asia had rocketed from 40 in 1987 to 768 by 2019. However, neoliberal economic policies, failing tax systems and runaway income and profits at the top concentrated wealth into the hands of an elite and most were left behind. This widening gulf between rich and poor has been fuelling massive disparities in life chances and making the achievement of development goals a distant dream.

COVID-19 hit vulnerable groups hard

When COVID-19 hit this unequal region, the impact was also far from equal. Our report details how lockdowns and economic stagnation took away 147 million full-time jobs in the region and pushed millions into poverty. Vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities and migrant workers were worst affected.

Across the Asia Pacific region, informal and migrant workers suffered an estimated 21.6% fall in their income in the first month of the pandemic. Women make up over 70 percent of healthcare workers in the region, yet over 60 percent of 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.

In Asia, the 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent

Meanwhile, Asia’s richest continued to thrive and managed to grow their wealth by 74 percent. The number of individuals who became billionaires rose from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 in November 2021. Some wealthy Asians also 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. All this combined to worsen inequality and by November 2021, Asia’s richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90%.

As billionaires pocketed additional income and wealth, chances for the poor to catch up shrank. In 2020, UNESCO estimated that 10.5 million children in Asia would drop out of school or university forever due to the pandemic. This exacerbated the already wide education divide and will have a far-reaching impact on equal opportunity.

‘In 2020, UNESCO estimated that 10.5 million children in Asia would drop out of school or university forever due to the pandemic’

As the Delta and Omicron variants push up case numbers and hamper economic recovery, governments must rise to the challenge. 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.

Taxation, public services and vaccines for all

Responses to the crisis showed that where there is political will, there is a way, with some governments bringing in progressive policies. However, these measures have often been temporary and failed to meet the needs of, or excluded, the most vulnerable people. Such measures must be scaled up and made permanent so they can better equip countries for future crises, help to reduce health and economic inequalities and ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

Governments must ensure the region’s recovery tackles inequalities through national and regional policies to level the playing field, redistribute wealth and power and build a feminist and green future. This means increased taxation of rich individuals and corporations – and the regional and global cooperation to enforce it. Asia also needs greater investment in public services, vaccines for all, social protection and care work, decent work, living wages, and robust labour rights for everyone.

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


Amitabh Behar

Amitabh Behar is chief executive of Oxfam India

Read the full Oxfam Asia report: Rising to the Challenge: The case for permanent progressive policies to tackle Asia’s coronavirus and inequality crisis, where you can find sources for the stats above. You can also read Oxfam’s report for Davos, Inequality Kills, here. Thanks to Mustafa Talpur and Shiza Malik for their help with this post.

This is the fifth and final post in a series for this month’s online Davos gathering that we are 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