From The Coronavirus To Absolute Poverty: Why Will Inequality Be The Defining Issue Of The Next Decade?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is increasingly threatening to become a global pandemic, meaning it is spreading as an epidemic in various different locations independently, reaching a world-wide level of coverage. It seems that it will continue to cause significant disruption in the coming months outside of its place of origin, Wuhan, China, as it is now stressing the health services on multiple continents. With more than 87,000 infected, including just under 3000 deaths, it is a virus worthy of a global response as outlined by the World Health Organization. It is even placing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in jeopardy – this would be the first time they have been postponed since World War II in 1940.  Given the interconnected global society within which we live, and the increased vulnerability this connection creates, a unified effort to stem the spread of such a virus is deemed necessary. Despite this growing anxiety surrounding the impact of the COVID-19 it is still a minor problem when placed in a broader geopolitical context. This widely feared virus represents a very tangible threat, one that is symbolized by the increased use of respirator face-masks in the media and on the streets. However, it pales in comparison with another far more prolific disease infecting modern society – the so-called disease of affluence combined with rising rates of inequality within countries. The rise of obesity, heart-diseases and strokes that have been synonymous with increases in material wealth in the modern and developed world and the large gap between the rich and the rest within a nation. Whilst many global issues have the potential to cause future conflict, I believe the inequality that modern capitalist societies actively perpetuates must be at the top of the list.  Without a concerted and unified international response, the growing disparity in income within countries has the potential to further destabilized an increasingly turbulent world.


To understand the deep and systemic issue of inequality we must define it and understand the relative lens it places on the world. Wilkinson and Pickett in their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why more Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better cite that rather than focusing on economic development and rising incomes in society in fact, “what matters is where we stand in relation to others in our society”. They identify a concept known as the ‘happiness curve’ which explores the diminishing returns of a growth-based economy and society. Wilkinson and Pickett write that “as a country gets richer, further increases in average living standards do less and less for health” in that society. Eventually, as is seen in the USA and UK today, raising the gross national product of a country’s economy doesn’t stem but in fact actually increases societal issues. Therefore, whilst globally in 2020 health and life expectancy continue to rise and mortality/disease rates decrease, life expectancy has actually decreased in the UK according to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries. Patrick Collinson, writing for The Guardian, pinpointed that expectations are that “men aged 65 will die at 86.9 years, down from its previous estimate of 87.4 years, while women who reach 65 are likely to die at 89.2 years, down from 89.7 years.”


This shift to inequality is also emphasized by the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals as set out by the United Nations (replacing the previous millennium development goals). They highlight the need to ‘reduce inequality within and among countries’ as goal number 10. They identify that ‘the bottom 40% of the population experienced a growth rate that was higher than the national average’ – therefore cutting absolute poverty levels. Nonetheless, ‘the bottom 40% received less than 25% of the overall income or consumption’ – as here most of the wealth created by this system was captured by the aforementioned wealthiest 1%. Whilst the immense disparity between the economies of sub-Saharan Africa and the countries in the so-called Global North such as America or the UK is obvious, what is also clear is that all these political systems are drawing deep divides within these societies.


There is an inherent danger to an unequal society as Oxfam’s annual ‘Inequality Report’ suggests. They report that ‘the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people’. As extreme poverty is in decline with numbers reducing from 2 billion in the 1970s to 800 million in 2013 many would assume that the world is a generally far better off than it has ever been. Indeed, the best time for a child to be born and to live a happier and healthier life with more opportunities would still be today. However, whilst those at the bottom have risen up, the level of disparity between rich and poor within countries has actually increased and is predicted to continue to rise. International organizations such as the World Bank have recognized this shift from poverty to inequality recently changing their policies to focus on the distribution of resources. In fact, the American Economic Association cited that ‘compared to the poorest 50%, the richest 1% have captured more than twice as much of the world’s income growth between 1980 and 2016’ (for more information see their Chart of the Week on ‘The Elephant Curve’).


Pickety in his book ‘Capital in the Twenty first Century’ outlines the dangers with the current system within which those with power, money and influence see that the odds are rigged in their favour. His book suggests that the returns from market investment far outweigh the money one can make from wage earnings within the contemporary economic system. This has a solidifying effect of making the rich richer whilst those without access to capital (in the form of stocks and investments) continue to live in this limited zone and experience economic stagnation and decline. Inequality has negative effects for economic, social and political systems which has led to rises in anxiety and depression whilst also threatening the protection of the environment and ecosystems we rely on. This growth based economic model has arguably created and perpetuated the emergence of big social and economic divides in the 21st century. Notably, without a significant change to this system, this split between the top and the bottom will only continue to grow. Pickety suggests that aggressive taxation is the way forward, tackling tax dodging corporations and dealing with inheritance which permits the transition of wealth from generation to generation.  As a correspondent for the Organization for World Peace, I advocate for increasing the pressure on our political systems to understand the core drivers which support and reproduce these unequal relations. Primarily, this means bringing into the foreground the issue of inequality, to acknowledge that often the altruistic tendencies of the ultra-rich, the Bill Gates of this world, is a sign of a deeper problem. That the systems allows some to accrue far more than they could ever hope to spend. Secondly, by using reformed tax systems we can aim to build a society that allows for collective solutions to deal with the growing disease of affluence. Symbolically, this means removing the economy from the centre of the political sphere and instead replacing it with a people focused system. Only by emphasising the prolific spread of inequality in contemporary society can we begin to formulate a global plan to converge the diverging world to provide greater equity for future generations.


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