In the second week of April 2020, UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) claimed that about 400 million workers from India’s informal sector are likely to be pushed deeper into poverty due to COVID-19. There is no dispute that poverty in the country will worsen, though the extent may be debatable.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed the world economy into a tailspin, but billionaires, at least some of them across countries including India, have seen their wealth soar during the past few months, while these months have been financially painful for common people.
In the US, billionaires have become richer to the tune of $565 billion in three months since March, according to a report published by the Washington DC-based think tank, Institute for Policy Studies and Clearwater. No one has benefited as handsomely as Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who has seen his wealth skyrocket by $25 billion since January as homebound customers lean heavily on online shopping, grocery delivery and streaming. Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his net worth on July 20, the largest single-day jump for an individual since the Bloomberg Billionaires Index was created in 2012. His fortune swelled by $74 billion in 2020 to $189 billion, despite the US entering its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Among the other "pandemic profiteers" in USA are Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, which owns Skype and teams. Both Yuan and Ballmer are profiting off the boom in videoconferencing. The wealth of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has also been growing at its fastest pace and he became $ 9.1 billion richer this year. Social media has become the biggest preoccupation for homebound people.
The economies world over have changed drastically over the past few months, when traditional ways of working have shifted rapidly towards more digital use through online presence.
In India, Mukesh Ambani's net worth rose to $79.3 billion as on August 10, making him the world’s fourth-richest person. Ambani's wealth rose by $22 billion in this year. Ambani has slowly been shifting his focus to e-commerce, with tech giants seeking to buy a piece of India’s fast-growing digital business. While his conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd was slammed by a slump in demand for oil amid COVID-19, its share price has more than doubled from the low in March as its digital unit got billions in investments from companies including Facebook Inc. and Google.
Share prices of major Indian pharma companies are on fire amidst the raging virus. Pharma tycoons like Dilip Shanghvi of Sun Pharma, Reddy family of Dr Reddy's Laboratories, PV Ramprasad Reddy of Aurobindo Pharma, Murali K Divi of Divi's Laboratories, YK Hamied of Cipla etc. have doubled their net worth during the pandemic. The wealth of Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel and Gautam Adani of Adani Group has also grown considerably.
The obscene level of wealth inequality, which exists in our country, and the fact that during the pandemic that inequality has become much worse, have not received much attention. While millions of Indians are now facing economic desperation, the very rich are becoming much richer.
The extraordinary wealth gains that billionaires have made during the pandemic come at a time when COVID-19 pandemic may double the poverty in India. Even a 25% fall in their incomes due to the pandemic will make 354 million more Indians poor.
“It is unconscionable that the super-wealthy are getting even richer in the midst of this crisis,” said US Senator Bernie Sanders. “We are going to tax Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and the other billionaires' outrageous pandemic wealth accumulation so we can provide health care to all our people,” Sanders said in a tweet on August 8.
“At a time of enormous economic pain and suffering, we have a fundamental choice to make. We can continue to allow the very rich to get much richer while everyone else gets poorer and poorer. Or we can tax the winnings a handful of billionaires made during the pandemic to improve the health and well-being of tens of millions of Americans,” Sanders said.
India also needs to make a similar fundamental choice to seek a part of the obscene wealth in the hands of a few billionaires to meet the necessary goals of providing food, education and health care to all Indians.
(V Venkateswara Rao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer)