Elon Musk and the rest of the world’s 10 richest doubled their wealth during the pandemic, but 99% of humanity is worse off

January 17, 2022, 10:41 AM UTC

The world’s richest 10 men have collectively seen their wealth more than double from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion during the pandemic, according to the latest inequality report from Oxfam, which notes that “if the top 10 billionaires sat on top of their combined wealth piled up in U.S. dollar bills, they would reach almost halfway to the moon.”

It is by now traditional for the U.K.-based charity to issue an inequality report at the time of the World Economic Forum’s Davos gathering—which began Monday, virtually, thanks to COVID. This year’s report contrasts the very richest billionaires’ vast gains with the economic losses suffered by 99% of humanity.

Some billionaires have had a particularly good pandemic, even by the standards of their peers. The wealth of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk increased by around 1,000%, to a current value of around $270 billion. Google co-founder Larry Page and Sergey Brin both enjoyed 125% boosts to their fortunes.

Overall, the world’s 2,755 billionaires got richer during the nearly-two-year pandemic than they did in the last 14 (largely prosperous) years, Oxfam said.

“When Covid first hit I, and a lot of other naifs, thought that maybe, just maybe, the way our structures had been so starkly revealed as unjust and downright cruel would wake us up and give us new energy to think differently about the way resources are distributed,” wrote Abigail Disney—a documentarian scion of the Disney family who has long advocated for wealth taxes—in the report’s foreword. “In fact, the opposite has happened.”

The study highlights the economic disadvantages of women and children in the global south, saying their collective wealth is less than that individually enjoyed by the richest 252 men. “The top 1% have captured nearly 20 times more of global wealth than the bottom 50% of humanity,” the report states, adding that “if the 10 richest men lost 99.999% of their combined wealth, each of them would still be richer than 99% of the world.”

It’s important to note Oxfam’s methodology here, because part of it has come in for criticism over the years: the comparison between the top 1% and the “bottom 50% of humanity” is based on Credit Suisse data that takes debt into account, meaning a well-heeled young individual with a pile of student debt is counted as being relatively poor. Oxfam has previously defended this way of looking at the situation, saying it makes very little difference to the point it is making about inequality.

Apart from that, the super-rich statistics come from the Forbes Billionaires List—in this case cited as at the end of last November, and compared with the same people’s wealth in March 2020 while taking inflation into account—and the data about the bottom 99% being worse off comes from the World Bank.

Oxfam urged governments to address inequality in their economic strategies as they respond to the pandemic, with measures such as: one-off solidarity taxes; progressive taxes on capital and wealth; universal health care and income security; funding for addressing the climate crisis; investment in women’s rights; and waiving intellectual property rules to help poor countries vaccinate their people.

“As an approach fit for the 21st century, governments must center their economic strategies around greater equality. This means far greater economic equality—alongside goals to pursue gender and racial equality—and it must be supported by explicit, timebound, and measurable milestones,” the report said.

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.