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Rising to the Challenge: The case for permanent progressive policies to tackle Asia’s coronavirus and inequality crisis

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COVID-19 has unleashed a health and economic crisis that is exposing and exacerbating high levels of economic inequality in Asia. While rich elites are able to protect their health and wealth, the poorest people and minorities face a greater risk of illness, death and destitution.

As the Delta and Omicron variants push up case numbers and death rates across the region, and continue to hamper economic recovery, governments must rise to the challenge. They must reject a neoliberal agenda that lines the pockets of the few, and choose a progressive regime that taxes the wealthiest to invest in a better future for the many.

Coronavirus hit an unequal continent…

Prior to the pandemic, Asia was already suffering from extreme levels of economic inequality. Since the 1990s, neoliberal policy, a failing global tax system and unequal pay and reward, have channelled income and wealth into the hands of an elite few. Between 1987 and 2019, the number of billionaires in Asia skyrocketed from 40 to 768.

This gulf between rich and poor has fuelled unjust and persistent disparities in life chances in the region, including significant gaps in educational and health outcomes between children born into the richest and poorest families. For example, in 2017, the infant mortality rate of the poorest quintile was more than treble that of the wealthiest quintile in Laos and the Philippines. Poor women and minorities have also long faced discrimination and structural oppression that puts them at even greater risk. Hence an 'upper-caste' woman in India can expect to live almost 15 years longer than a ‘low-caste’ Dalit woman.

…and tipped the inequality dial even further

Coronavirus has widened the cracks in this unequal system, fuelling a pernicious cycle of poverty and economic inequality in Asia. The World Bank estimates that coronavirus and rising economic inequality pushed 140 million additional people into poverty in Asia in 2020, and 8 million more in 2021. New variants alongside higher inequality levels than expected mean these figures are likely to be underestimates.

Yet, while lockdowns and economic stagnation destroy the livelihoods of many poor and ‘just managing’ families, the region’s richest elites have recovered and even increased their fortunes. Between March and December 2020, Asia’s billionaires accrued enough additional wealth to cover a salary of almost $10,000 for each of the 147 million equivalent jobs lost in the region during that time. By November 2021, the number of billionaires in Asia Pacific had increased by almost a third on pre-pandemic levels, with their collective wealth growing by 74%.

Some of the region’s richest people have even benefited directly from the crisis. For example, one of Malaysia’s billionaire glove manufacturers doubled their wealth between February and June 2020. 11 By March 2021, there were 20 new Asian ‘pandemic’ billionaires, whose fortunes came from equipment, pharmaceuticals and services needed for the COVID-19 response.