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Nine new billionaires emerge during pandemic — illustrating the world’s widening inequality

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. (Photo: EPA / Gian Ehrenzeller)

‘Inequality is not our fate, it is human-made’ and rooted in a broken economic model where a few rich people plunder the planet for profit while others suffer, says UNAIDS executive director.

On Thursday UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima gave a virtual lecture hosted by Wits University titled The inequality pandemic: overturning the concentrations of wealth and power

Byanyima said that the world is besieged by poverty, extreme inequality, the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic and that all these were interconnected. 

She said extreme inequality is also a kind of pandemic, and unless it is stopped the inequality gap will continue to widen. It can only be beaten if it was fought worldwide.  

She said that global billionaires had collectively increased their wealth by $5.5-trillion, while 160 million people went hungry during the pandemic.  

“Millions are sinking into poverty while riches are being sucked up by a few,” said Byanyima. 

Of the 10 most unequal countries in the world, seven are in Africa, with South Africa the most unequal. She said extreme wealth was about the ability to buy elections, a compliant media, favourable laws and impunity from justice.  

There were various axes of inequality, such as capitalism, racism and gender. 

She said that in the US black gay men had a one in two risk of contracting HIV, which is higher than in Uganda and almost as high as in hotspot countries like South Africa. This is because of being black and their inability to access healthcare. 

Byanyima said the climate crisis had shown how some “can pay their way out and insulate themselves” while those who did not have resources could not escape. 

On the wealth created by vaccine development, Byanyima said $100-million was given to private companies to find vaccines for Covid-19, and while they succeeded and in record time, they privatised the profits because the rules allowed them to. 

At least nine new billionaires have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to big pharmaceutical companies’ profits, and their total wealth could vaccinate every single person in the world’s poorest countries. 

More than 70% of people in rich countries have been vaccinated against Covid-19 while the rate of vaccination in low-income countries is 2.2%. Rich countries have more than they need and are hoarding while poor countries go without, said Byanyima. “This is obscene.” 

Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is at its lowest and the inequality between the Global North and South was compounding this. 

According to Byanyima, “Rich countries are always quick to find solutions for themselves and leave others behind even when they have caused the problem.” 

She said that the painful lesson that Aids taught was that because of the unaffordability of ARVs, they were inaccessible to poor countries for 10 years, while 12 million died in Africa alone. She said that the new lifesaving injectable longer-lasting ARVs are still not available in poor countries because of pricing. 

“The cost of extreme inequality is high; it has a high human and economic cost,” said Byanyima, adding that extreme inequality was a policy choice. 

“Inequality is not our fate, it is human-made” and rooted in a broken economic model where a few rich people plundered the planet for profit while others suffered. Byanyima said we needed an economy that was not obsessed with growth but the wellbeing of people. 

Health, she said, should be publicly provided and free for people to access. 

“We can overcome extreme inequality, we can overcome the pandemic of extreme inequality,” she said, but those who profited most remained in the driving seat of decision-making. Solutions for inequalities never came from the centre but from the margins, Byanyima said. 

“We need to recover from the ‘pandemic of inequality’, we need bold new approaches to survive, we need people ready to defend their rights – you cannot be neutral on inequality,” she said. DM/MC 

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  • To state that the rich became rich by plundering the poor is incorrect, unjustifiable, and dangerous. The pandemic started in China, probably due to one of their labs, but SA labs found their vaccine doesn’t work properly.

    You don’t seem so poor yourself, Zukiswa Pikoli, so from which poor bastard that can’t afford clothes did you steal your money? Did you ask Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, who she is plundering for her money? Since she doesn’t want money in private hands, but rather that of politicians like herself, I wonder how honest her take on this is.

    Of the top ten wealthiest people in the world, seven is from technology. Did they stop the poor to start their technology firms? When you feel sick and go to the doctor, do you take a few impoverished sick and pay for them?
    The only attitude that will get South Africa and the poor out of this mess is blaming the poor for the rich, not the other way around. Tell the poor to start being responsible for themselves.
    Educated, hardworking people typically earn better than noneducated people.

    Listen to Micheal Jackson, and start with the man in the mirror. “I’m asking him to change his ways.” “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”

    Don’t blame the rich, but rather figure out how to become part of the rich. Stop being envious because that doesn’t solve anybody’s problem.

  • “She said that in the US black gay men had a one in two risk of contracting HIV, which is higher than in Uganda and almost as high as in hotspot countries like South Africa. This is because of being black and their inability to access healthcare.”

    HIV doesn’t fly to you, maybe look at your culture and adapt it to curb the sickness and not rely on others to pay for your decisions.

    Human rights should not include where other people have to work for you, because does that mean we should never pay doctors or are allowed to steal resources from other people if it is to pay doctors?

    “Byanyima said the climate crisis had shown how some “can pay their way out and insulate themselves” while those who did not have resources could not escape.”

    Climate isn’t yet a crisis, and we don’t really know if it will become one. We know we will walk on uncharted grounds, and there might lie dragons, but these might also be gold statues of dragons.

    “More than 70% of people in rich countries have been vaccinated against Covid-19 while the rate of vaccination in low-income countries is 2.2%. Rich countries have more than they need and are hoarding while poor countries go without, said Byanyima. “This is obscene.””

    At least for South Africa, this is more culture than monetary.
    I think many economic issues are also culture-based, no one’s fault per se, but should not be fixed by the ones with the better culture.

  • ““Inequality is not our fate, it is human-made” and rooted in a broken economic model where a few rich people plundered the planet for profit while others suffered. Byanyima said we needed an economy that was not obsessed with growth but the wellbeing of people.”

    Is this specific to money or everything? Like, am I not as fast as most people my age in running because some human-made idea of racing didn’t tell the others to run slower for my sake? When running away from a lion, will my speed not cause my demise?

    Absolutely fate over aeons caused certain people to join the race before the Roman Republic while others haven’t yet joined it two millennia later. The locations in the world where there were more struggles over limited resources needed to join the race sooner. The locations where cultures would not meet other cultures as often and there were more resources didn’t have to start their technology. The North didn’t wake up one day and was rich. The Asians didn’t wake up one day and could out-perform most of the world. This was cultivated over generations.

    That said, the Scots managed to cultivate a change in their culture in one generation which swung them from the worst educated to one of the most educated European cultures in a single generation. They however decided to do it themselves and not blame the English for their lack.

    • Christiaan, your argument is completely flawed and misses the point. There are a lot of honest, educated hard working people that have done and are doing their best to give a better life to their children but still can’t cope with the challenges of these capitalist systems that are geared up to take as much money as possible from the poor. Just have a quick glance at student debt in the US for a good example, are these not educated hard working people? But most won’t be able to generate any wealth during their lifetime. Our society, like so many others in Africa, have been built on inequality, from one system to another throughout history there have always been fortunes built from the exploitation of the majority, who are not given any alternative but to use products and services supplied by groups that control and build economic and political systems to benefit themselves at the expense of the poor. One quick look at the banking, healthcare and education system is enough to understand that they are built to exploit people and have become more overbearing and sophisticated with the passing of time and with every crisis. There are enough publications and articles written about how inequality has increased in the last 50 years that you can’t argue against, so please go do some hard work and educate yourself instead of making these out of place and vacuous comments.

  • This is the same old sickening argument brought about by envy, greed and laziness, in biblical times there were people who placed more store on accumulating wealth than on other pleasures and were also wealthy. Look how old Abraham arrived in the promised land with great herds and lots of staff. Creative minds, profit driven create industries and jobs and progress. Jobs create upward movement opportunity and the whole system works. One self created billionaire that I know has created just under 100,000 jobs in the last 30 years. Their company focus is on bettering lives creating jobs and profits and success then flow automatically. South Africa’s problem is that we are run by a government with a SOYAASU mindset (sit on your A and slide uphill). They should be creating Entrepreneurial opportunities which create jobs without BEE limitations and let the economy they create suck up the unemployed and create opportunities for advancement in all race groups. We would be the power of Africa.