Sat Jun 10, 2023
June 10, 2023

Feasting on coffins: billionaires surge during the pandemic

In one year, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed almost 3 million people in the world, around 350,000 of them in Brazil, which today carries the shameful mark of being responsible for one-third of the daily deaths caused by the coronavirus. Meanwhile, if it were not enough for us to live in permanent mourning, the socio-economic crisis has advanced by leaps and bounds, leaving in its wake an increasing number of unemployed, hungry people or people living in absolute poverty.
By: Wilson Honório da Silva – PSTU
During all this period, we have heard the same litany around the world: there is no money for mass vaccination; there is no way to build more hospitals, increase ICU beds, buy medical supplies and ventilators; it is impossible to promote a total lockdown, guaranteeing decent income for all. After all, they say, it is necessary to “preserve the health of the economy” so that the world does not collapse.
However, there is only one side of this story that is true. Behind so much suffering, there are a handful of people laughing out loud and celebrating astronomical profits. Behind the rulers and parliamentarians who have contributed to this endless tragedy, there are those who really dictate the rules of a game where only they can win. Behind the deaths and losses of millions, there is a handful of bankers, businessmen and landowners who have profited more than ever.
A handful of billionaires who, here and around the world, have doubled or tripled their fortunes during the pandemic; amassing literally trillions of dollars. That money would be more than enough not only to combat the coronavirus but also to eradicate hunger and unemployment from the world. Untold fortunes accumulated with abominable genocidal greed, which becomes even more evident when we know that one of the sectors that profited most during the pandemic was the one linked to private health.
Two thousand billionaires are worth US$ 13.1 trillion
According to April 6th Forbes magazine, the infamous list of the world top billionaires broke a record this year: 2,755 people are worth assets of more than US$ 1 billion. So, 660 people were added to the list of billionaires in 2020 (i.e. during the pandemic).
But this is neither all nor the worst of it. Together, they accumulate no less than US$ 13.1 trillion, or ten times greater than the Brazilian GDP which, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), was US$ 1.32 trillion in 2020. What’s more: in the previous list, these billionaires had US$ 8 trillion; that is, during the pandemic, the fortunes of the super-rich almost doubled, increasing US$ 5.1 trillion.
Topping the list (for the fourth consecutive time) is Jeff Bezos, owner of online retailer Amazon and of The Washington Post, with a fortune estimated at US$177 billion. Second is the South African, US-based Elon Musk, president of Tesla Motors, an automotive and energy storage company, who jumped from a “modest” 31st place by adding no less than US$ 126.4 billion to his fortune, accumulating US$ 151 billion.
The third and exemplary fact that the bourgeoisie doesn’t give a damn about the suffering of the world population, caring only for their own petty interests and futility, is Bernard Arnault, president of the LVMH luxury goods company, owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Sephora and, more recently, of Tiffany’s jewellery, who doubled his fortune, reaching US$ 150 billion, mostly through financial speculation and stock appreciation.
The top 5 are completed by two owners of dot-com companies: Microsoft founder Bill Gates (US$ 124 billion) and Mark Zuckerberg, leader of Facebook (US$ 94 billion).
Among the women, who are 328 among the 2,755 super-rich, the most wealthy are the American Miriam Adelson, who inherited a casino complex from her husband in Nevada, with a fortune of US$ 38.2 billion; the French Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, heiress of the cosmetics empire L’Óreal (US$ 24.7 billion), and Alice Walton (US$ 61.8 billion), one of the heirs of the retailer Walmart.
An unquestionable proof that there is nothing “communist” about China, but rather a capitalist dictatorship in the service of the super-exploitation of the working class, the Asian country (including Hong Kong) provided most of the new billionaires in 2020 (210), accounting for 724 members of the list; followed by the United States, with 626 billionaires.
But, the greedy Brazilian bourgeoisie, in one of the most unequal countries in the world, could not be left behind. Brazil ranked 7th in the list of countries that added billionaires to their population in 2020, counting 20 new super-rich. They were 45 in the previous list and now the 65 saw their fortunes jump 71 per cent during the pandemic, from US$ 127.1 billion to US$ 219.1 billion.
And as our bourgeoisie, since always, has nothing “nationalist”, part of this fortune is abroad, where many of them reside, starting with those at the top: Jorge Paulo Lemann and Carlos Alberto Sicupira (from Imbev) reside in Switzerland, and Antonio Luiz Seabra, cofounder of Natura, lives in the UK.
A parasitic bourgeoisie
To understand what we mean by “feasting on coffins,” it is enough to say that the profile of these billionaires reflects central characteristics of current capitalism and its ruling class: financial speculation, unproductive character and profit accumulated ruthlessly from the suffering imposed on millions. After all, it is not a coincidence that most of the super-rich are bankers or, exactly in the year of the pandemic, owners of hospitals or pharmaceutical industries.
Out of the top five fortunes in Brazil, three are executives of the multinational beverage company Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB Inbev), formed in 2004 by the merger of the Belgian company Interbrew and the Brazilian Ambev: Jorge Paulo Lemann (first in the Brazilian list, 114th in the world, with a fortune of US$ 16.9 billion), Marcel Herrmann Telles (US$ 11.5 billion) and Carlos Alberto Sicupira (US$ 8.7 billion).
Although some have fallen in the ranking, due to the closing of bars, the members of this group (owners of 3G Capital) have guaranteed their profitability supported by their multiple businesses, which include investments in companies (such as Lojas Americanas, Telemar, Gafisa) and food chains, such as Burger King and Heinz.
Other large fortunes are in the hands of billionaires acting in sectors equally benefited by the situations created during the pandemic, in the financial market or in companies far from the productive sector.
Eduardo Saverin (second in the Brazilian list and 140th worldwide), for example, is one of the founders of Facebook and creator of B Capital, which works with digital media and investment in startups, accumulating a net worth of US$ 14.74 billion. Vick Safra, the widow of the banker Joseph Safra, a banker herself who also lives in Switzerland, has assets of US$ 7.47 billion.
Also worth mentioning is Luiza Trajano, owner of Magazine Luiza, who has now lost the position of the richest Brazilian woman to the owner of Amil, a health insurance company (see below). Owner of a patrimony of US$ 5.5 billion, Ms Trajano has been mentioned as a possible vice-president candidate in a future PT (Workers’ Party) slate headed by Lula, in 2022.
In addition to them, among the Brazilians there are names like Rubens Menin Teixeira, of the MRV construction company; members of the Feffer family, the controlling shareholder of the pulp giant Suzano; David Vélez, president of Nubank, a digital bank specialised in financial services and credit card operation, and Anne Marie Werninghaus, the shareholder of the electric motor manufacturer WEG.
Profits bathed in blood in Brazil
On February 5, 2021, Forbes Brazil published an article whose title summarises how, in addition to being parasitic, the Brazilian bourgeoisie is also a butcher: “Brazilian billionaires in the health area are those who most made money during the pandemic.
It was by exploiting the misfortune of others that the businessmen of the private health sector saw their fortunes increase by US$ 14 billion. A lamentable counterpoint to the hundreds of thousands of dead, to the millions of sick people, to the collapse of the hospital network, to all those who died waiting for an opening in the ICU or for lack of supplies and also to the superhuman effort of health professionals, working under terrible conditions and receiving demeaning salaries.
Jorge Moll Filho, the owner of D’Or São Luiz chain of private hospitals and Labs group, is at the top of this list of vultures (nothing against the birds). His fortune grew 550%, from US$ 2 billion to US$ 13 billion in the last year, after an initial public offering (IPO) on the stock markets and became a top 3 in the Forbes ranking of Brazilian billionaires.
This same path was taken by Dulce Pugliese de Godoy Bueno to become the richest Brazilian woman (from US$ 3.5 billion to US$ 6.13 billion) and her stepson, Pedro de Godoy Bueno, 30, to be the youngest Brazilian billionaire, almost tripling his fortune in 2020 (from US$ 1.1 billion to US$ 3.1 billion). The family owns the health insurance company Amil, the Ímpar Network of hospitals and the Dasa network, which controls 34 diagnostic laboratories (such as Delboni Auriemo, Lavoisier, Alta, Salomão Zoppi, Sérgio Franco and Bronstein), with 700 service units, which lined their pockets during the pandemic.
And Candido Pinheiro Koren de Lima, president of the Hapvida Group and the largest operator of health insurance companies in the Brazilian North and Northeast, had his assets appreciated by 175%, jumping from US$ 1.6 billion in April 2020 to US$ 4.4 billion in January 2021.
The mismatch of these numbers is not only glaring in relation to the health crisis. As highlighted in the Forbes Brasil article, the “increase in net worth of billionaires in the health area was astronomically superior” when compared to the other super-rich: “The average fortune of the top 53 Brazilians in the world wealth ranking grew from US$ 2.28 billion to US$ 3.53 billion, an increase of 54.82 per cent in less than a year. The net assets of the billionaires in the health area, on the other hand, shows that the average value went from US$ 1.64 billion in 2020 to US$ 3.85 in 2021, a growth of 134.76 per cent – 80 per cent more than the general average.
One new billionaire every 17 hours. 13,000 killed of Covid and 2,600 starving a day.
Forbes’ report also revealed that during the pandemic, there was a record number of people appearing for the first time in the global ranking, crossing the line of what could be called “extreme wealth.” There were 493 new billionaires, which is equivalent to one new super-rich every 17 hours.
Meanwhile, according to the Worldometer portal, which specialises in daily updated global statistics, on 9 April alone, around 2,600 people starved to death and 13,268 lives were taken by the coronavirus. A situation that, particularly in relation to poverty and hunger, can only get worse in the wake of the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic and the deepening crisis of capitalism.
On 9 July 2020, The Guardian reported that, according to Oxfam, “millions of people are being pushed towards hunger by the coronavirus pandemic, which could end up killing more people through lack of food than from the illness itself.” Something that has not been fully proven only because of the genocidal disregard of world governments, which led to the pandemic getting out of control. This does not mean that hunger is not increasing and killing millions of people around the world.
According to a survey done in December 2020, by the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security (Rede Penssan), 19 million Brazilians starved last year and that 116.8 million suffered some kind of food insecurity (that is, they did not have enough to eat properly), corresponding to 55.2 per cent of Brazilian households.
This period coincided with the end of the monthly emergency aid of US$ 108 (doubling for mothers who are heads of household) and its halving after months of wavering, even though the initial amount was nowhere near enough to combat the problem since 28 per cent of the households that received the aid experienced “serious” food insecurity and another 37.6 per cent, “light”.
According to a survey carried out by the Poder 360 website (01/04/2021), 7 per cent of Brazilians said they starved and 29 per cent ate less than usual during the pandemic, equivalent to 14.9 million people.
A tragic reality that, however, is not exclusive to Brazil. According to a report by the United Nations World Food Programme (21 April), “the number of people facing acute food insecurity (IPC/CH 3 or worse) stands to rise to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million from the 135 million in 2019, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19.”
Some of the countries worst hit by this calamity were Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Haiti. But this is far from being restricted to countries on the periphery of capitalism. According to The Washington Post (06/01/2021), a national Census conducted in the U.S. last November revealed that around 26 million Americans (out of a population of 329 million) did not have enough to eat.
There too, where the equally genocidal policies of Bolsonaro’s best friend Donald Trump have caused the country to rack up 550,000 Covid deaths, hunger is spreading. According to the bulletin The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021, published by Feeding America, “42 million people (1 in 8), including 13 million children (1 in 6), may experience food insecurity in 2021.
The so-called “world’s largest democracy” experiences the same reality that is seen in the equally illusory and false Brazilian “racial democracy”: “Significant racial disparities in food insecurity which existed before COVID-19 remain in the wake of the pandemic.” Feeding America projects that, over the course of the year, “21% of Black individuals (1 in 5) may experience food insecurity in 2021, compared to 11% of white individuals (1 in 9).
And, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, today there are already around 34 million inhabitants of the planet who are literally on the verge of starving to death if no action is taken immediately, which would require an annual investment of 5.5 billion dollars.
Numbers that may seem absurd and “other-worldly” to most of us. But they become simply odious, considering that all this money is exchanged in the hands of the two thousand and so billionaires mentioned above and their US$ 13.1 trillion. An even more unacceptable figure when compared to the loss of income of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.
Those “above” get richer, those “below” lose jobs and income
According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the world unemployment before the pandemic reached 187.7 million people, in itself a scandalous figure. But it worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, reaching 190.3 million unemployed in 2020. A rate that, in 2021, should grow by 5.5 per cent, jumping to 193.7 million unemployed. Adding to this, there are 165 million underemployed (people who work fewer hours than desired) and 119 million who have simply stopped looking for jobs.
In 2020, the largest job losses were recorded in the Americas (10.3%), particularly Latin America, where, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the pandemic is causing an unprecedented increase in poverty levels.
Its report Social Panorama of Latin America 2020, released in March 2021, states that Latin America recorded a total of 209 million people living in poverty at the end of 2020, 22 million more than the previous year. Of this total, 78 million people (15.8% of the total population) were estimated to be living in extreme poverty, 8 million more than in 2019. Poverty and extreme poverty are expected to reach levels not seen for 12 and 20 years, respectively.
In Brazil, according to the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), around 18 million people were thrown below the poverty line during the pandemic. In August 2020, it was 9.5 million (4.5% of the population). In February 2021, there were 27.2 million people starving (12.8% of the population). And it’s worth remembering that the concept of poverty in these surveys actually defines it as those who survive on up to US$ 2.00 per day.
The FGV states that, in the first quarter of the pandemic alone, the individual income of Brazilian workers fell by 20.1 per cent in average. And, as with all other data relating to socio-economic inequality in Brazil (including Covid’s death toll and famine figures), the most hit were the coloured people, the illiterate and the youth.
To end greed, we must take power
As we have seen, the 2,755 super-rich have amassed their US$ 13.1 trillion not only in the midst of the greatest health crisis in history but also when capitalism is going through its greatest crisis since the 1930s. Proof that we are by no means in the same boat. Ours is crowded with pain and suffering, just like the tumbeiros1 of the slavery era. Theirs is a luxury yacht, sailing happily on an ocean of money.
And the overwhelming proof that they don’t give a damn is that to further increase their fortunes, the bourgeoisie widens the gap between the poor and a decent plate of food. In the same period in which they doubled, tripled or even quintupled their fortunes, there was also an astronomical increase in prices, mainly of food and beverages (some of the sectors that profited most in 2020), a food inflation rate of 15 per cent last year, almost three times the official inflation, which reached 5.2 per cent, according to the National Wide Consumer Price Index (IPCA).
Increases that affected mainly staple foods, such as rice, with an inflation rate of almost 70 per cent in the last 12 months, black beans (50%), potatoes (47%), onions (69%), lemons (79%).
In the face of all this, there are no half measures. There is no reform possible. There is no way to reconcile the interests of a handful of 1% inhuman beings with the extreme needs of 99% of humanity. The abyss dug by the bourgeoisie cannot be mended. It is necessary to fill it completely. It is necessary that the workers, the poor and oppressed people take back into their own hands the wealth that they themselves produce. For this reason, the PSTU defends the need for the expropriation of the big national and foreign groups – industry, commerce, large estates and services – the expropriation of the banks and the centralization of the entire financial system in a single national bank.
In addition, it is necessary to suspend the payment of the public debt, put an end to financial speculation and privatisations, renationalising the privatised state-owned companies, ending the subsidies and fiscal renunciations that benefit the super-rich even more.
However, this would only mean laying the foundations to end the enormous socio-economic inequality in which we live. The construction of a new world will only be possible when the workers take control of the economy and, in this way, can define the destiny of humanity, pulling it out of the prevailing barbarism. Something that will only be possible with a socialist working-class government, based on popular mobilisation and democratically elected workers councils.

1 Tumbeiro: Portuguese word designating the ships that transported black slaves from Africa to Brazil. The word derives from “tumba”, or tomb, because of the great number of deaths that occurred during the trip.

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