The coronavirus pandemic has directly cost some 500,000 lives. But the damage it has wreaked on the world economy will cost many more.
In America, the unemployment rate in April was 14.7%, up from just 4.4% in March. In real terms that’s at least 44 million people laid off. Between March 29 and April 4 alone, 6.6 million Americans registered as unemployed.
More than 27 million Americans stand to lose their employer-provided healthcare coverage as a result of the pandemic, at a time when they might need it most.
But it’s not affecting all Americans equally. The wealth of the very richest has soared during the pandemic.
America’s top five billionaires – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison – enjoyed a 26% surge in their wealth since the outbreak began. Between them they’ve gained over a hundred billion dollars.
Amazon’s business has been booming with most of America cooped up at home and according to figures from Forbes, boss Jeff Bezos is worth 38.6% more – an extra $43.7 billion – between March 18 and June 17.
Because they’re spending more time at home, Americans are also spending more time online.
It’s no coincidence that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg added some $32 billion to his fortune over the three-month lockdown period.
Twelve other US billionaires have doubled their fortunes since the start of the pandemic.
Trevor Milton owns the other eco-friendly company named after inventor Nikola Tesla.
Nikola Corporation specialises in hybrid trucks, including the Nikola Reckless military-grade all-electric tactical off-road vehicle.
Milton’s fortune is estimated to be five times what it was at the beginning of the year, at some 7.2 billion dollars.
A number of the other “poorer” billionaires, such as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, saw similar large increases in wealth.
Dorsey went from $2.6 billion in June to over $5.6 billion by the end of June.
Frank Clemente, the Executive Director of pressure group Americans for Tax Fairness, commented: “This orgy of wealth shows how fundamentally flawed our economic system is.”
He continued: “In three months about 600 billionaires increased their wealth by far more than the nation’s governors say their states need in fiscal assistance to keep delivering services to 330 million residents.
“Their wealth increased twice as much as the federal government paid out in one-time checks to more than 150 million Americans.
“If this pandemic reveals anything,” he added, “it’s how unequal our society has become and how drastically it must change.”
The growing gap between rich and poor is creating two Americas, one with a stake in the economy, and one without.
Michael Graetz, a professor at Columbia University, told ABC News: “Some stocks, the tech stocks in particular, have done extremely well during the pandemic and of course lots of shares of Facebook and Amazon and others are owned by billionaires so of course their wealth has gone up because their stock has gone up in value,” he said.
“The bottom half of the American public doesn’t own stocks,” Graetz added, “so they haven’t shared in those gains.”
The growing inequality is driving protest movements – most notably the Black Lives Matter campaign which has grown from a simple reaction to police brutality to a wider discussion of how a person’s race can a huge impact on their job opportunities.
And with over 40 million Americans on the unemployment line, that’s more important than ever.
Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler, says that inequalities like the ones America faces right now can only be fixed by what he calls the Four Horsemen of Levelling: the collapse of the state, war, revolution, or plague.
America already faces a runaway plague, with the already worrying figures spiking sharply: the number of new cases in the US has increased by 80% over the past two weeks
Deeper shocks may still be in store. “For more substantial levelling to occur,” says Walter Scheidel,” the established order needs to be shaken up.”
And a major shake-up could come as soon as this November.
If President Trump wins a second term, street protests are almost certain. And if he doesn’t, civil disturbances could be the least of the country’s problems.
“Given my experience working for Mr Trump,” says Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, “I fear that if he loses in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
One way or another, the coming few months look set to be a dangerous period in American history.