Yesterday, the non-government organization Oxfam published a report claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in a “staggering rise in inequality” in Asia, inflating the wealth of the region’s billionaires by $1.46 trillion while pushing tens of millions into poverty.
In addition to claiming the lives of more than 1 million Asians, the report argues, COVID-19 has “set back progress on equitable development by decades.”
“COVID-19 has unleashed a health and economic crisis that is exposing and exacerbating high levels of economic inequality in Asia,” the report states. “While rich elites are able to protect their health and wealth, the poorest people and minorities face a greater risk of illness, death, and destitution.”
According to Oxfam, the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing economic and social trends in many Asian countries. It notes that between 1987 and 2019, a period of barreling economic growth in much of the region, the number of billionaires in Asia grew from 40 to 768. This trend has continued – even sharpened – since the onset of COVID-19, with the number of Asian billionaires growing from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 in November of last year.
Twenty of these newly-minted billionaires profited directly from COVID-19, “from equipment, pharmaceuticals, and services needed for the pandemic response.” Oxfam’s report advances the staggering claim, sourced from a recent Credit Suisse report, that Asia’s richest 1 percent now control more wealth than the region’s poorest 90 percent.
While the wealthy were able to shield themselves from the full impact of the coronavirus, secluding themselves in gated communities or traveling abroad to avoid the worst of the lockdowns, such options were not available to those filling out the wide base of the region’s wealth pyramid.
The Oxfam report claims that 147 million Asians have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, and that a similar number have slipped into poverty. Among the worst affected have been women, ethnic and religious minorities, and migrant workers. Moreover, the closure of schools as a COVID-19 mitigation measure has worsened the region’s education divide; Oxfam estimates that 10.45 million children will drop out of school and university and never return, the lost generation of the COVID-19 era.
The poorest Asians also lack ready access to proper healthcare services, including to treat COVID-19 if they catch it. The report cites a statistic showing that as of August 2020, 46 percent of people in the Philippines reported missing out on medical attention due to a lack of money. By May 2021, this had increased to 59 percent.
Oxfam’s findings provide important structural context for the much-observed phenomenon of democratic retreat in Asia. That this retreat is well advanced is clear from the latest global survey by the CIVICUS Monitor, which monitors respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, grouping them into one of five categories: “open,” “narrowed,” “obstructed,” “repressed,” or “closed.” In this year’s report, released last month, Taiwan was the only one of 26 Asian countries or territories that could be considered “open.” Eleven were rated as “repressed,” seven as “obstructed,” four as “narrowed,” and four – China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea – as “closed.” As the report notes, the trends in Asia mirror those of the world as a whole: just 3.1 percent of the world’s population currently lives in countries rated as “open.”
Many mainstream commentators have put the global democratic retreat down to the actions of nefarious authoritarian actors – “bad guys,” as a recent Atlantic cover story described them – and prescribe a new ideological crusade to shore up the global faith in democracy. But this identification of proximate causes fails to account for the structural transformations that have drained the legitimacy and prestige of democratic political systems and opened up a space for such leaders.
In his 2018 book “How Democracy Ends,” the British political scientist David Runciman argues that the appeal of modern democracy is “essentially twofold. First, it offers dignity. The individual inhabitants of democratic states have their views taken seriously by politicians.” Second, he argues, democracy “delivers long-term benefits. Over time, living in a secure democratic state promises citizens a chance of sharing in the material advantages of stability, prosperity, and peace. Each of these would be a significant attraction on its own. Taken together they are a formidable combination.”
Both in Asia and the West, neoliberal economics has effectively kicked out the second of these two legs from beneath existing democratic systems. It is no longer obvious that democratic politics, or leaders professing liberal values, are able deliver more for their citizens than some of the authoritarian alternatives, which, according to Runciman, compensate for the lack of “personal dignity” with a “collective dignity” that often takes the form of national self-assertion: “make China great again!”
Increasingly, many democracies look like brittle neoliberal constructions in which citizens’ formal political rights offer little meaningful power to alter the material circumstances of their lives. Without taking this into account, it is hard fully to explain the rise of leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, or Donald Trump in the United States. For all their canny manipulation of social media (and in Trump’s case, allegations of Russian election tampering), their success cannot be seen in isolation from the years of liberal elite failure that made it reasonable for an ordinary Filipino, slipping through a threadbare social safety net and facing the daily reality of the country’s rampant drug problem, to consider someone like Duterte a viable solution.
Since taking office last year, the Biden administration has pledged to put democratic values and human rights back at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Other Western nations have made similar pledges. But these efforts have mostly been unmoored from any structural analysis of why liberal values are in retreat to begin with. They ascribe to a version of the “devil theory” of history, assuming that all of democracy’s ills can be ascribed to the actions of individual authoritarian leaders, “bad guys” like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who are on a mission to undermine democratic values.
To be sure, Chinese and Russian influence has hardly been good for democracy; Beijing and Moscow’s support for autocratic leaders, including in Asia, has offered them an alternative to patronage from Western nations that are more likely to demand democratic and good governance reforms. But this phenomenon would hardly have as much impact absent the enabling structural conditions. Attempts to reverse the global democratic retreat without addressing the deeper forces that have driven it, including neoliberal economic policies that have produced extreme concentrations of wealth, are more likely to heighten international tensions between China, Russia, and the West than to reinvigorate democratic values. They threaten to reduce the label “democracy” to an identity marker employed in a global great power struggle, the likely impact of which, as with Cold War 1.0, will be deleterious for democracy, both at home and abroad.
Oxfam’s recommendations are straightforward: a new wave of state intervention aimed at redistributing income to the benefit of the poorest Asians. “We are at a turning point in history where we have an opportunity to rebuild a better economic and social system that does not allow a few to accumulate wealth at the expense of millions,” Oxfam Interim Asia Regional Director Dieneke van der Wijk said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. Failing these sort of actions, the future of democracy and liberalism is unlikely to be bright.