Civil society comes together to demand change from leaders at the World Economic Forum.

When chatting with a good friend last week, who has been volunteering with people temporarily living in an arena, my heart sank confronted with how deeply impacted some people have been by the COVID-19 crisis. I knew this, but hearing her testimony touched me. “A lot of the people I work with are travellers that simply can’t return home.  But some are new poor…”  she paused, “new homeless people” she explained. My thoughts turned to all of those families who can usually make ends meet, but don’t have a cushion for rainy days. 

I then turned on the radio, Radio Canada to be exact, and the reporter was explaining how a number of companies grew their wealth during the COVID-19 crisis. Let that sink in for a moment. As my friend is giving a helping hand to people who have lost almost everything, the Facebook, Netflix, Amazon empires are growing…and CEOs (too often not their employees) are getting wealthier. We have been seeing a burst in solid literature on the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the last few years, from organizations like Oxfam.[1] It’s fair to say that the crisis we face is now exacerbating the ironies and inequalities, at the heart of our global economic system. 

Let’s look at some numbers. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies [2], the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by nearly 10% over just three weeks, as the COVID-19 crisis spread. In fact, Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, are so far the biggest winners. They have seen their combined wealth increase a whopping $63 billion since March 18.[3]

On our side of the border, as half of Canadians are hardly getting by, a report released in 2018 revealed that 87 families own over $259 billion – that represents over half the country’s wealth [4]. That’s right, they own half of all the wealth in Canada. 

Can we afford to continue “business as usual-style”, when the very rich people are getting richerand the rest of us are on the brink of being crushed by a possible, do I dare say unprecedented, global economic crisis? 

At first, it’s an instinctive reaction. This is not fair, the rich should pay for the economic recovery. Then as Head of Digital at Greenpeace, I think of all the positive changes our government can make for our future, through designing a truly green recovery. We could move our economy towards investing in renewable energy instead of dirty oil, implement workers rights, healthcare, Indigenous rights, etc, etc… As an “ex-Oxfamer”, I turn to the taxation system: legal tax avoidance, corporate favoritism…the rules of the game encourage infinite economic growth and are designed in the favour of the few. 

Now let’s talk about plausible action: how can we actually make a truly fair recovery happen? 

As I am asking myself this question, I open my personal gmail inbox (and think about their wealth as I click), to find an email from Leadnow, tackling this very question. A recent action they launched spells it out: “without proper and fair taxation, these fortunes continue to skyrocket as our wages stagnate, our jobs disappear, and our public services crumble.”[5] With the recent drastic slowdown of our global economy, this might be exactly where we are heading. 

But with the tragic sanitary crisis we face, we may have a once in a lifetime — perhaps in an era — opportunity, to turn our economic system around. I’m not thinking about short term aid for vulnerable populations, I’m thinking systemic change. 

A recent poll revealed that Canadians overwhelmingly support a wealth tax on multimillionaires, to help pay for the pandemic recovery and reduce growing inequality.[6] When looking at the numbers and at the world around us, can we afford not to take immediate and urgent action to combat income inequality?

What do you think? As our government rebuilds our policies and economy to cope with an unprecedented crisis, we can rebuild better. Should we make our taxation system fairer, instead of keeping it rigged to continue making the rich, richer?