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Billionaire wealth soars as 255 million of world's jobs lost in pandemic

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The pandemic has worsened income inequality, with the world's richest people regaining their losses from COVID-19 shutdowns in nine months while the number of people living in poverty has doubled to more than 500 million, according to a new report from the anti-poverty group Oxfam. 

Almost 9% of total working hours were lost last year when compared with the levels of employment at the end of 2019, before the pandemic shuttered the economy, according to a separate report from the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency. That's the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs lost across the globe, or about four times greater than the impact from the Great Recession of 2009, the analysis found. 

The world's poorest could take a decade to regain their financial footing from the devastation wrought by the pandemic, according to the Oxfam study, which says the novel coronavirus has accelerated an ongoing trend toward widening income inequality. Oxfam's report was released to coincide with the World Economic Forum's Davos Agenda, set to take place online this year rather than its traditional gathering of global movers and shakers in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos.

America's richest people have seen their wealth soar during the pandemic by more than $1 trillion, thanks to a booming stock market and a K-shaped recovery that has benefited the rich, while poorer people have struggled with lost wages and jobs and future opportunities. It's a rich vs. poor phenomenon that is replicating across the globe. Oxfam describes the pandemic's impact as "the greatest rise in inequality since records began."

The International Labour Organization said the crisis has been the most severe on work since the Great Depression in the 1930s. "Its impact is far greater than that of the global financial crisis of 2009," said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. 

The employment fallout tracked by the ILO was almost equally split between reduced work hours and "unprecedented" job losses, he added.

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Oxfam called on the Biden administration and other governments around the world to address the inequalities caused by the pandemic. In the U.S, it said, a "multi-trillion-dollar economic recovery plan" is needed to help the tens of millions of Americans suffering from the economic impact of the pandemic. President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package, although it hasn't yet been taken up by Congress.

"Now is not the time to tinker around the edges. We need big and bold action for a more dignified future where everyone can thrive, not just survive," Paul O'Brien, vice president of Oxfam America, said in a statement.

Economists in 79 countries who were surveyed by Oxfam said they projected their countries would experience an "increase" to a "major increase" in income inequality due to the pandemic. The economists who were surveyed included Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, Jayati Ghosh of the at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley. 

Higher unemployment for women and people of color

The pandemic has especially exposed inequalities faced by women and people of color, who have suffered higher rates of unemployment during the pandemic. They are also more likely to work in industries with higher exposure to COVID-19 risks, such as service-based jobs in health care and restaurants. Women comprise 7 out of 10 workers in the global health and social care workforce, Oxfam noted.  

"Women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups are bearing the brunt of this crisis. They are more likely to be pushed into poverty, more likely to go hungry, and more likely to be excluded from healthcare," Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam International, said in the statement. 

The drop in work translates to a loss of $3.7 trillion in income globally — what ILO's Ryder called an "extraordinary figure" — with women and young people taking the biggest hits.

—With reporting by The Associated Press. 

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