Rising food prices. Skyrocketing fuel bills. Wages that don’t keep pace. Inflation plunders people’s wallets, sparking a wave of protests and labor strikes around the world.
This week alone has seen protests from the political opposition in Pakistan, nurses in Zimbabwe, unionized workers in Belgium, railway workers in Britain, indigenous people in Ecuador, hundreds of American pilots and some European airlines. Sri Lanka’s prime minister on Wednesday declared an economic collapse after weeks of political unrest.
Economists say Russia’s war in Ukraine has amplified inflation by further driving up the cost of energy and the prices of fertilizers, grains and cooking oils as farmers struggle to grow and export crops in one of the main agricultural regions of the world.
As prices rise, inflation threatens to exacerbate inequality and widen the gap between billions of people struggling to cover their expenses and those able to keep spending.
“We’re not all in the same boat,” said Matt Grainger, head of inequality policy at poverty organization Oxfam. “How many of the richest even know what a loaf of bread costs? They don’t really do that, they just absorb the prices.”
Oxfam is calling on the Group of 7 major industrialized countries, which are holding their annual summit this weekend in Germany, to provide debt relief to developing economies and tax corporations on their excess profits.
“This is not just a stand-alone crisis. This comes from an appalling pandemic that has fueled rising inequality around the world,” Grainger said. “I think we will see more and more protests.”
The protests have drawn the attention of governments, which have responded to soaring consumer prices with support measures such as increased subsidies for utility bills and lower fuel taxes. Often this offers little relief because energy markets are volatile. Central banks attempt to reduce inflation by raising interest rates.
Meanwhile, striking workers have pressured employers into talks on raising wages to keep up with rising prices.
Eddie Dempsey, a senior official with Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, which brought Britain’s rail services to a virtual standstill with strikes this week, said there would be more demands for pay rises in other sectors.
“It is time for Britain to have a pay rise. Wages have been falling for 30 years and corporate profits have skyrocketed,” Dempsey said.
Last week, thousands of truckers in South Korea ended an eight-day strike that led to shipping delays as they demanded guaranteed minimum wages amid soaring fuel prices. Months earlier, some 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away, truckers in Spain went on strike to protest fuel prices.
The Peruvian government imposed a brief curfew after protests over fuel and food prices turned violent in April. Truckers and other transport workers had also gone on strike and blocked key highways.
Protests over the cost of living toppled Sri Lanka’s prime minister last month. Middle-class families say they are being forced to skip meals due to the island nation’s economic crisis, prompting them to consider leaving the country altogether.
The situation is particularly dire for refugees and the poor in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar and Haiti, where fighting has forced people to flee their homes and rely on humanitarian organizations, they themselves struggling to raise funds.
“How much for my kidney?” is the most asked question at one of Kenya’s largest hospitals. Kenyatta National Hospital reminded people on Facebook this week that selling human organs is illegal.
For the middle class in Europe, it has become more expensive to get to work and put food on the table.
“Raise our wages. Now!” chanted thousands of unionized workers in Brussels this week.
“I came here to defend the purchasing power of citizens because protesting is the only way to change things,” said protester Geneviève Cordier. head above water.
In some countries, a combination of government corruption and mismanagement underpins economic turmoil, especially in politically stalled countries like Lebanon and Iraq.
The protests reflect a growing sense of financial insecurity. Here’s how it happened in Africa:
— Health workers in Zimbabwe went on strike this week after rejecting the government’s offer of a 100% pay rise. Nurses say supply is nowhere near a staggering 130% inflation.
— Kenyans protested in the streets and online as food prices jumped 12% in the past year.
— One of Tunisia’s strongest unions staged a national public sector strike last week. The North African country is facing a deepening economic crisis.
— Hundreds of activists protested the rising cost of living in Burkina Faso this month. The United Nations World Food Program says the price of maize and millet has climbed more than 60% since last year, reaching as much as 122% in some provinces.
“Regarding this cost of living which keeps rising, we have realized that the authorities have betrayed the people,” said Issaka Porgo, president of the civil society coalition behind the protest in this West African country.
Protesters condemn the military junta, which overthrew the democratically elected president in January, for giving itself a pay rise as people grapple with rising prices.
According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation will average around 6% in advanced economies and almost 9% in emerging and developing economies this year. Global economic growth is expected to slow by 40% to 3.6% this year and next. The IMF calls on governments to focus their support programs on those who need it most to avoid triggering a recession.
The slowdown comes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grip industries around the world, from manufacturing to tourism. Climate change and drought are hitting agricultural production in some countries, leading to export bans that further drive up food prices.
Rising food prices are particularly painful in low-income countries, where 42% of household income is spent on food, said Peter Ceretti, analyst at risky food security consultancy Eurasia Group.
“We’ll see more protests, probably wider and more angry, but I don’t expect destabilizing protests or regime change,” he said, as producers adapt and governments approve subsidies.