Huge amounts of public money, poured into our economies, have inflated stock prices dramatically and in turn boosted the bank accounts of billionaires more than ever before. Huge amounts of public money, poured into vaccines, have in turn boosted the profits of pharmaceutical firms, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
Governments must turn this around and refuse to spiral deeper into a dangerous, deadly, and self-defeating downfall into levels of extreme inequality human history has never seen before.
There is no shortage of money. That lie died when governments released $16 trillion to respond to the pandemic. There is only a shortage of courage to tackle inequality, and the wealth and might of the rich and the powerful, and a shortage of the imagination needed to break free from the failed, narrow straitjacket of extreme neoliberalism.
Responding to the power of social movements and of ordinary people around the world, and learning from the ambition of progressive governments, both historically (such as in the wake of the Second World War), and in the wave of liberation from colonialism in many countries, governments must pioneer ambitious strategies fit for the 21st century.
They must actively promote far greater economic equality and pursue gender and racial equality, supported by explicit, timebound, and measurable milestones.
Governments have huge scope to radically change course. Only systemic solutions will do to combat economic violence at its roots and lay the foundations for a more equal world. That requires ambitiously changing the rules of the economy, to more fairly pre-distribute power and
income—ensuring that the market, the private sector, and globalization do not produce greater inequality in the first place—to tax rich people, and to invest in proven public measures.
- Claw back extreme wealth into the real economy to tackle inequality
All governments should immediately tax the gains made by the superrich during this pandemic period, in order to claw back these resources and deploy them instead in helping the world. For example, a 99% one-off windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men alone would generate $812bn. This must evolve into implementing permanent progressive taxes on capital and wealth to fundamentally and radically reduce wealth inequality. These efforts must be accompanied by other fiscal measures, including rich countries channeling significant portions of their collective $400bn worth of IMF Special Drawing Rights to vulnerable economies in a way that is debt and conditionality-free.
- Redirect that wealth to save lives and invest in our future
All governments must invest in evidence-based and powerful policies to save lives and invest in our future. The legacy of the pandemic must be quality, publicly-funded, and publicly-delivered universal healthcare—nobody should ever have to pay a user fee again—and universal social protection that offers income security for all. Governments must invest in ending gender-based violence through prevention and response programs, ending sexist laws, and financially backing women’s rights organizations.
Rich governments must fully finance climate adaptation, and back the loss and damage mechanisms necessary to surviving the climate crisis and creating a fossil-free world.
- Change rules and shift power in the economy and society
Governments must rewrite the rules within their economies that create such colossal divides, and act to pre-distribute income, change laws, and redistribute power in decision-making and power in the economy.
That includes ending sexist laws, including those which mean that nearly 3 billion women are legally prevented from having the same choice of jobs as men. It includes rescinding laws that undermine the rights of workers to unionize and to strike, and setting legal standards to protect them. It includes addressing monopolies and limiting market concentration. It must include tackling the barriers to representation for women, racialized groups, and working-class people. Women still make up only 25.5% of parliamentarians globally.
The single most urgent priority is to end the pandemic, and to do this governments must end the monopolies held over vaccines and technologies through the World Trade Organization (WTO). They must insist that these vaccine recipes, and any new vaccines developed in the face of new variants, are an open-source public good, available to be made by every qualified vaccine manufacturer in the world through the World Health Organization. Until this happens, the pandemic will be prolonged, millions will needlessly die, and inequality will continue to spiral.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As the third year of this pandemic begins, there is an overwhelming feeling of this insane treadmill in the world today. The leaders of rich nations above all have a choice.
They can choose a violent economy in which billionaire wealth booms, in which millions of people are killed, and billions of people are impoverished due to inequality; in which we burn the planet and our future human existence on the altar of the excesses of the rich; in which the rich and powerful double down on the privatization of vaccines with self-defeating greed, allowing the pandemic to mutate and come back to haunt us all.
Or we can choose an economy centered on equality, in which nobody lives in poverty, and neither does anyone live with unimaginable billionaire wealth; in which billionaires are something children read about in history books; in which inequality no longer kills; in which there is freedom from want; in which more than just survive, everyone has the chance to thrive—and to hope. That choice is the choice facing this generation, and it must be made now.