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Oxfam report focuses on the wealth gap, which widened during the pandemic

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The pandemic has made the rich much richer, while the wealth and income of 99% of the rest of the world dropped. That's according to the latest inequality report from Oxfam, a charity organization focused on fighting inequality and poverty. With us now is Abby Maxman, the president and CEO of Oxfam America. Abby, huge wealth gaps have certainly existed before the pandemic, but how were the wealthiest among us able to get richer during the pandemic?

ABBY MAXMAN: COVID-19 has created an inequality explosion. It has been a boon for billionaires. Now, collectively, the 10 richest men have doubled their fortunes during the pandemic at a rate of $15,000 per second, which is the same as an annual minimum wage income. And inequality doesn't create just unhealthier and unhappier societies; it's violent, and it kills. And our new research shows how it is contributing to the death of one person every four seconds from preventable things like hunger.

MARTINEZ: OK, go - yeah, how's it doing that? Because you report that this is harming the other 99% of the population.

MAXMAN: Absolutely. It's contributing to that from preventable things like growth in hunger, lack of access to health care and a lack of access to vaccines. And what we also know is inequality is a political choice. Governments can do something about it, and there's a clear solution. In addition to things like boosting wages, we can have a fair tax system that has wealthy - the wealthy and corporations paying their fair share.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned vaccines. How does this inequality impact vaccine distribution, testing, economic aid, things related to the pandemic?

MAXMAN: Well, we've seen - we know that resourcing all of these things that we need are fundamental to bringing an end to the vicious cycle of the pandemic. But we also know that corporations have a responsibility in terms of giving access to the recipe for the vaccines that can make them accessible for all globally and help stop the cycle we're in. So waiving intellectual property rights and having governments do - and require that could be key to helping bring things under control.

MARTINEZ: And that hasn't happened anywhere, right?

MAXMAN: No, not yet. And we really need it to happen. It's not just about getting vaccines through charity; it is about sharing the recipe so that vaccine production can be boosted and access to vaccines can happen everywhere globally.

MARTINEZ: Now, besides that, also besides getting wealthy individuals to pay their fair share of taxes, what in your view can governments and maybe the international community do to maybe reduce that inequality and start lifting people - more people out of poverty?

MAXMAN: There's such an opportunity right now because billionaire wealth is not a sign of economic strength; it is a sign of an economic policy failure. And we've seen a pernicious shift of power towards the ultra-wealthy that can change. And so there's a number of things that can happen here and globally (ph) - boost wages, a fairer, just, dignified living wage. Living - minimum wage has not raised in this country in almost a decade. We can remove barriers to allow workers to organize and protect the freedom to vote. That is critical. And above all and underpinning it all is a fair tax system that has wealthy paying their fair share. For just the - by taxing the 700 most wealthy individuals in this country through a billionaire's income tax would raise $50 billion a year to fund the key things we need, a green economy, needed investments for well-paying jobs in child care and all the working people who are on the front lines every day, from day care to elder care.

MARTINEZ: Abby, are there any countries that are doing some of the things that Oxfam is recommending?

MAXMAN: Absolutely. We know what's possible. Costa Rica has pulled off quality health care in a decade, and it's a middle-income country that spends less of what the U.S. spends proportionately on health care but guarantees health for all. Togo in West Africa provided monthly benefits for all informal workers left unemployed by the pandemic and increased health care spending, helping their people through the pandemic. And places like Argentina implemented a one-off wealth tax on the wealthiest people, which raised billions of dollars to address the cost of the pandemic. So we could go on.

MARTINEZ: Abby Maxman is president and CEO of Oxfam America. Abby, thank you.

MAXMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.