Inequality and the Pandemic

March 2022

In India, the pandemic has made billionaires even richer, while there is mass death, hunger, and poverty among the lower classes. This is the result of wrong policies. The time is ripe for a new social contract.

By Harsh Mander

Harsh Mander Inequality Covid Corona Pandemic Poor

The pandemic has dramatically laid bare, with ruthless moral clarity, the catastrophic public costs of inequality. Thousands, even millions of lives in India could have been saved if over many decades, much greater investments had been made in public health provisioning. The explosion of mass hunger and joblessness and the mass dislocation of millions of working poor people could have been averted, had labour protections, social security and wage levels of workers been secured, and had governments ensured more money in the hands of every poor person.

“Inequality Kills” is the apt title of a devastating report by Oxfam India, coinciding with the World Economic Forum in Davos. For India’s super-rich, the pandemic became a time to swell their wealth dizzyingly. The worst year of the pandemic for India was 2021. In this year alone, the net wealth of just one Indian billionaire, Gautam Adani, multiplied almost six times, from 8.9 billion dollars in 2020 to 50.5 billion in 2021. The net worth of Mukesh Ambani doubled to 85.5 billion dollars in 2021, rocketing him from India’s to Asia’s richest man. In the pandemic year 2021, the number of dollar billionaires in India expanded by 39 percent. India is home today to the largest number of dollar billionaires, after the US and China, with more billionaires than France, Sweden and Switzerland combined.

The number of poor people has more than doubled

In this same period, as many as 84 percent Indian households suffered a fall of income, for many into deep and stubborn poverty. 120 million jobs were lost, of which 92 million were in the informal sector. FAO in 2021 reported there were 200 million undernourished people in India, that India was home to a quarter of all undernourished people around the world. Pew estimated that the number of poor people in India doubled from 55 million in 2020 to 120 million in 2021. These cold statistics sometimes hide the enormity of human suffering that they actually point to. Oxfam reports that daily wage workers topped the numbers of people who committed suicide in 2020, followed by self-employed and unemployed individuals.

Evaluations in the media, among policy experts, and in the popular discourse, do not adequately recognize that the greater part of the grim economic devastation that surrounds us in India today - mass deaths, joblessness, hunger and a contracting economy - are not caused primarily by the Covid-19 virus. They are the inexorable consequence of market-led public policies that have fostered such unequal life chances. This has only got exposed more histrionically in these times of global calamity.

Imagine a vastly different India – although for younger Indians it might be harder to do so, because this is the only India that they have seen. Imagine, for instance, a country which has secured free and quality public health-care for every citizen, a guarantee of food for all, workers’ rights to social security and wage payments to all during lockdowns, and decent ventilated housing and clean water for all. All of this, and the deaths and unemployment that engulfed millions could have been eschewed. If millions of working people had more money in their hands, the greatest contraction of the economy since Independence could have been forestalled. If decent social housing and clean water supply had been secured by governments for all residents, it would have enabled the millions today forced into overcrowded airless slum shanties to protect themselves by keeping distance in well-ventilated tenements and washing their hands regularly.  Millennials might then argue: all of this is unattainable; what, then, is the point of painting scenarios of unreachable utopias? 

A vision for a more equitable India

But just as the sombre humanitarian crisis today could have been prevented, the alternative is eminently feasible, if only people and governments just commit themselves to the goals of their constitution. India spends only 3.54 percent of its budgetary resources on health-care, much less - as noted by Oxfam - than other middle-income countries like Brazil (9.51), South Africa (8.25) and China (5.35). Income inequalities reduce life chances in India even more for those disadvantaged by caste, gender, and religious identity. A Dalit woman, for instance, has 15 years lower life expectancy than an upper-caste woman. Confronted by a broken and starved public health system, even the poor have to rely on private health providers, and 60 percent of health spending in India is out-of-pocket, among the highest in the world, and a major cause of falling into poverty. In the pandemic the exclusions were even more spectacular; Oxfam found middle-class families spending 400.000 rupees a day in private hospitals during the second wave, what a casual worker would earn in 1000 days.

The starting point of our reimagination of a new India is for the state to assume responsibility to provision good-quality health care, education, food, pension, clean water and housing, free or in affordable ways for all citizens. Leading economist Prabhat Patnaik, in his contribution to the newest India Exclusion Report brought out by the Centre for Equity Studies, say that to resource all of this, would demand a public resolve to expand taxation of the super-rich. Sufficient to fund all of this, he calculates, is two taxes levied only on the top 1 per cent of the population – a wealth tax of 2 per cent and an inheritance tax of 33 per cent. Our government is doing the opposite; it withdrew wealth tax in 2015 and reduced the already low levels of corporate tax. The result is regressive taxation burdening the poor, and abysmally low public spending, spawning in the human catastrophe witnessed during the pandemic.

It is imperative that the people of India, and indeed the world, recognize that a more humane and egalitarian planet is possible. But to attain this we need a radical reimagination of the social contact, of people with their governments, and people with each other. Those who care for a kinder world must not miss this moment, when the pandemic revealed to us the horror of our moral collapse; of economic and social arrangements that privilege some lives, but treats millions of the rest as expendable. The struggle of our times must be for a new social contract based on solidarity and inclusion.

Harsh Mander grau rund


Harsh Mander is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy and Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies in India. He is the author of "Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre" (2021).

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