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2020 was the year of inequality: can we turn it around in 2021?

by Ben Philips | Author
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 08:00 GMT

Volunteers from Forgotten Harvest food bank sort and separate different goods before a mobile pantry distribution ahead of Christmas, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Warren, Michigan, U.S., December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This year has been of a story of mourning, but it has been a story of organising too. The story of 2021 has not yet been written: we can write it; we can right it

Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality

2020 was cruellest to those who already had the least.

At first it was said that “the virus doesn’t discriminate”, but as COVID-19 spread it became clear that having a low income, being an essential worker or being a member of a marginalised racial minority are “co-morbidities” – factors which make people more likely to die.

Then the pandemic created a hunger crisis, leaving hundreds of millions of already struggling people without the earnings to feed their families.

It created an educational crisis, too. United Nations children’s agency UNICEF found that a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – had had “no such thing as remote learning” when COVID-19 shuttered their schools.

Soon after discovering viable vaccines exist, we learned that rich countries had pre-booked almost all the initial supply and that outdated rules on “intellectual property” could prevent the mass simultaneous production of vaccines for all in 2021.

2020 has been most generous to those who already had the most.

Whilst at first it was imagined that no one could possibly gain in such a disaster, it’s now been shown to have made the rich richer: the U.S.’s 651 billionaires have gained over $1 trillion, with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos alone gaining over $70 billion.  

So what does this mean for 2021? There are two rival stories.

The pessimistic story says that inequality is now in an out-of-control spiral: that governments will be unable to fund core services or look after the unemployed; that online retail monopolies will be the only thriving businesses; that an underclass of the uninsured, unvaccinated, offline and out-of-work will be kept from the gates of the working-from-home by a new cohort of private guards.

Worst of all, it says that as vicious inequality hardens, we’ll even learn to blame those who have been pushed behind.

The optimistic story says that it is in crises that inequality has been turned around – from the launch of the New Deal in the USA in the Great Depression, to the creation of welfare states in Europe after World War II, to the introduction of universal healthcare in Thailand in response to the AIDS crisis.

But history shows that neither of those two stories gets it quite right, if they assume any automaticity. One way to think of crises is like heat. Like the fire of a blacksmith or glassblower, crises make malleable formerly rigid social and political structures. Which direction they bend depends entirely on the direction in which they are pressed harder.

The pandemic profiteers will not cede easily. They’ll back those claiming that, as there’s “no money”, everyone with shrinking stomachs needs to tighten their belts. They’ll say that if pharmaceutical companies are required to share their formulas so enough doses can be produced, they will be ruined and never make medicine again.

They’ll say too that if the richest are required to pay tax on their wealth, they will lose all incentive to lift the rest of us. Even more brutally, we’ll be told by ultra-nationalists that those with little should fear those with even less; and though they’ll claim to be grassroots expressions of ordinary folk, they will be very well resourced by helpful plutocrats.

The good news is that we are witnessing something else, too. From essential workers organising for health and safety and better pay, to the growing international movements for Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter, and the People’s Vaccine, we are seeing a coming together of what the Poor People’s Campaign’s Reverend William Barber calls “fusion coalitions”, building the collective power necessary to win.

Wealth taxes have been passed in Argentina, and proposals are being debated in countries from South Africa to Germany; the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is debating a waiver on patents for Covid-19 vaccines; the World Health Organisation (WHO) has explicitly called on countries to remove all healthcare fees.

None of these will come by relying on those in authority, they can only be won through pressure from below. As young activists expressed it to me, “there’s no justice, just us”, but just us – organised – is powerful.  2020 has been of a story of mourning, but it has been a story of organising too. The story of 2021 has not yet been written: we can write it; we can right it.