Covid-19 and SDG 10: Creating inclusive societies
"When a number of flute players are equal in their art, there is no reason why those of them who are better born should have better flutes given to them; for they will not play any better on the flute, and the superior instrument should be reserved for him who is the superior artist". This was the recommendation of Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book titled Politics. Yet all around us we find that unequal outcomes occur in society because individuals are provided with unequal opportunities.
Those who are born privileged are empowered with endless opportunities, while those who languish in poverty from birth are enslaved by endless deprivations. Due to the unjust structure of our socio-economic system, which creates and perpetuates injustice, extreme economic inequality is rising all over the world. One of the tragic consequences of such extreme economic inequality is that it affects their ability to deal with shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which started off as a public health emergency, has rapidly escalated all over the world and evolved into the most devastating human crisis of recent times. Covid-19 has substantially disrupted the implementation of most Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets; deviating the progress of some and completely derailing the prospects of others. All groups of people, all sectors of the economy and all aspects of society have been affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the poorest and most vulnerable have been the hardest hit. As a result, those who were already "left behind" have been "pushed farther behind" by Covid-19. Hence, the differentiated damage caused by Covid-19 to different individuals will most likely lead to further increases in extreme economic inequality once the pandemonium of the pandemic fades away.
Worldwide, government efforts to tackle the spread of the virus have involved a wide range of prohibitive measures such as increased surveillance, physical distancing, contact tracing, business shutdowns, public transport suspensions, border closures, travel bans, general holidays, lockdowns, curfews, and fines and imprisonment for the violators of these restrictions. Consequently, Covid-19 has seriously compromised fundamental civil liberties and given rise to totalitarian approaches of governance akin to a dystopia.
Extreme economic inequality and growing authoritarianism are two of the greatest obstacles to achieving the SDGs, and both of these problems have become more severe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, the increase in the concentration of economic power and political power due to the pandemic will make it more difficult to realise the pledge of the SDGs to "leave no one behind".
The need for an equitable distribution of income, as well as other egalitarian concerns, as the foundation of a peaceful and prosperous society, are embodied in SDG 10, which calls upon countries to "reduce inequality within and among countries". Bangladesh's performance on indicators under SDG 10 in recent years is becoming a cause for concern. The share of national income held by the poorest 40 percent of the population in Bangladesh has declined from 29.23 percent in 1992 to 13.01 percent in 2016. Thus, the gulf between the rich and poor has been widening, as manifested in the rise in the value of the Gini coefficient of income inequality from 0.39 in 1991-92 to 0.48 in 2015-16. In 2010, the richest 5 percent households were 31.55 times richer than the poorest 5 percent households, but this difference magnified astronomically in 2016 when the richest 5 percent were 121.26 times richer than the poorest 5 percent.
There are also wide differences in income inequality in different regions of Bangladesh. For instance, in 2016, the Gini coefficient of income inequality was only 0.35 in Gazipur district, but as high as 0.83 in Khulna district. District-wise disaggregation shows that in 2016, the Gini coefficient of income inequality was 0.50 or higher in 10 districts, namely Khulna, Pirojpur, Kushtia, Naogaon, Brahmanbaria, Khagrachari, Bogra, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, and Rangpur.
Covid-19 has also exacerbated the existing inequities in access to healthcare in Bangladesh. As of June 30, 2020, six out of the top 10 poorest districts of Bangladesh did not have any Covid-19 testing centres. Covid-19 may worsen the repercussions of the digital divide, especially in terms of access to learning opportunities. In 2019, only 0.4 percent of households from the poorest wealth index quintile in Bangladesh had a computer, compared to 21 percent of households from the richest wealth index quintile. Hence, as the pandemic forces education to shift online, students from the poorest households are more likely to be deprived of learning opportunities, compared to students from the richest households.
The pandemic has already created winners and losers. The world's 32 most profitable corporations are expected to make USD 109 billion more profits in 2020 than they did on average between 2016 and 2019. The wealth of the 25 wealthiest billionaires in the world increased by USD 225 billion between mid-March and late-May. It has been estimated that such enormous sums of money would be more than sufficient to provide free Covid-19 testing and free Covid-19 vaccines for everyone on earth. Between January 1, 2020 and April 15, 2020, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's wealth increased by USD 25 billion, which would be equivalent to 7.36 percent of the GDP of Bangladesh in fiscal year 2020 or almost double the total amount of emergency Covid-19 liquidity support and fiscal stimulus announced by the Bangladeshi government as of November 2020. On March 22, 2020, US clothing retailing giant Kohl cancelled orders worth USD 50 million from Bangladeshi garment factories, but then paid out USD 109 million in dividends to its shareholders on April 1, 2020.
In our recently published book titled, Quest for Inclusive Growth in Bangladesh: An Employment-focused Strategy, researchers from the Centre for Policy Dialogue suggested that the implementation of SDG 10 in Bangladesh could be expedited through a country-specific inclusive growth strategy. Such a strategy would need to be driven by pro-poor growth and industry-led structural transformation that would accomplish full employment, while enhancing human capabilities, providing social protection, enabling participating, and ensuring rights and decent work.
Syed Yusuf Saadat is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Policy Dialogue.