Obscene Rich List Highlights Inequalities
The annual publication of the annual Sunday Times Rich List always makes for uncomfortable reading. In the age of austerity it became akin to an obscene paean to inequality in modern capitalist Britain.
In 2020 the list is especially distasteful, given the Coronavirus pandemic has indisputably laid bare the profound disparities in our society.
As Britain faces the deepest recession on record the last thing we need to read about is how many extra billions the richest have piled on.
Over the last week the world has awoken to some extraordinary and disquieting news. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, has been reported by various news outlets to be on a trajectory to becoming the world’s first trillionaire in a matter of years.
The juxtaposition between the extravagant life of Bezos and the workers generating Amazon’s profits could not be more pronounced or unsettling. In the era of Coranavirus many Amazon workers’ lives are defined by meagre pay, unsafe working conditions and limited employment rights. Many Americans reacted to the news by decrying a system which allows individuals to amass such extreme wealth in an era where millions of others have lost their jobs and are confronting abject poverty.
In a warped way it seems fitting that today in Britain we are receiving a personal reminder of the gross wealth disparities in our own society via the publication of the annual Sunday Times Rich List. Though no individual on the list has accumulated assets on the scale of Bezos, the combined wealth of the top ten on the Sunday Times list today amounts to over £131 billion. That's around the same as the entire budget for NHS England for the last year. For scale, a billion is one thousand million.
Although Coranivirus has been called the great equaliser, as the disease has progressed, we have all seen nothing could be further from the truth. The pandemic has highlighted the juncture between socio-economic inequalities and poor health outcomes. It became clear early on that many of those suffering most acutely were the most deprived in society. Those employed in jobs where they are unable to work from home or are on zero hours contracts. Those who already suffer from underlying health conditions triggered and exacerbated by the unrelenting stresses of poverty and racism.
On 10th May Boris Johnson gave a rambling speech to the nation on the government’s changing Coranivirus guidance. We were introduced to the new slogan ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus’ demonstrating the government is firmly framing the eradication of Coranivirus as reliant on individual’s decision-making, despite the fact many have no choice but to work in conditions where they are unable to socially distance.
In his speech Boris Johnson told those who could not work from home, they must still attend work. This demographic primarily consists of people in some of the lowest-paid job roles. The Office for National Statistics found men in professional occupations were four times less likely to die of Coranivirus than men in elementary occupations who were undertaking work such as collecting rubbish and construction.
Many of these workers have been advised to avoid taking public transport to work exacerbating existing safety concerns. A substantial amount of these workers, particularly those on construction sites, do not live near enough to their workplaces to be able to walk or cycle and may not have the means to be able to afford to drive. This leaves them being forced to take public transport where it is incredibly difficult to social distance, demonstrated by the tragic deaths of a number of TFL bus drivers.
The Rich List has been a national institution for many years, however, its publication this year, at a time when the stark inequalities in our society are more apparent than ever, is likely to be extremely contentious and poses the question of why so few monopolise so much of the country’s wealth, and how we might construct a more equitable economic system which works for everyone.