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What COVID-19 tells us about social protection systems

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Social protection systems are essential safety nets for vulnerable citizens. Maham Farhat and Karin Seyfert discuss social protection challenges highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created multiple crises: first, increased morbidity and mortality due to exposure from the virus. Second, an economic shock stemming from forced lockdowns and closures which try to stem the tide of infections and prevent collapse of healthcare systems. These are unprecedented times and indeed, a lack of preparedness and investment in health, education and social protection systems is now amplifying the crises. For governments world over, COVID-19 has brought about immense challenges in ensuring a rapid public health response, maintaining core service delivery, and providing financial support to sustain economic activity through crisis to recovery.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds across the globe, we have seen both fiscal and monetary responses by governments to help alleviate the negative impact of this crisis. Social protection responses fall largely within fiscal response and a total of 84 countries have introduced or adapted social protection and jobs programmes in response to COVID-19. Whilst it is too early to ascertain the actual impact of these responses on citizen welfare, all existing evidence suggests that these measures should mitigate the negative impact of economic shocks.

Social protection systems – including social assistance, social insurance and labour market policies – act as essential safety nets for poor and vulnerable citizens. Recent research on shock responsive or adaptive social protection has emphasised the need for social protection systems to be able to build resilience (preparedness) of citizens to cope with shocks, as well as support shock response after experiencing a crisis. Within social protection systems various elements can be used to deliver a shock response – ranging from databases and registries, to delivery systems such as payment modalities. The Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board have called for the scale up of social protection in the current crisis.

Over the last few years, various development partners have supported exciting research on how social protection systems in sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, South Asia, East Asia and Latin America can adapt to shocks. The lessons emerging from this research, as well decades of our own support to line ministries in developing countries are clear – shock responsive social protection holds great promise, but needs significant capacity, political will, and coordination at all levels to deliver a positive impact. It is one of many tools in a policy maker’s toolkit to support citizens in times of crisis and is actively used in the current crisis.

At OPM, we have seen important, and urgent questions emerging from the COVID-19 response, particularly from policy makers in countries with low financial inclusion, patchy social registries and limited tax base

  • How do we identify informal or own account workers and target individuals engaged in the undocumented informal economy?
  • How do we deliver in-kind or cash payments without amplifying the risk of disease transmission during registration and collection?
  • How do we resource a comprehensive social protection response amidst competing socio-economic needs?  
  • How do we safely surge key staff to meet unprecedented demand for registration and enrolment?

Whilst there are some solutions presented by the existing global discourse on social protection, these questions have no clear or easy answers. What we do know is that governments must use all the capacity they currently have to deliver an immediate response, through whatever existing social protection systems they have in place. This response may not be comprehensive, nor adequate – however in the present circumstances speed and coverage are most important consideration than building a perfect system.

In the medium to long run, COVID-19 has given policy makers and development partners some clear action points

  • Social protection coverage must increase – the more universal coverage becomes, the better governments will be able to reach their citizens in times of future crises
  • Sectoral-coordination must be improved – pandemics such as COVID-19 highlight the importance of livestock market surveillance, agriculture supply chains and public health capacity. Social protection systems must support citizens through better linkages with these sectors and other support services.
  • Learning must continue – whilst there are many conceptual frameworks, best practice guidance and impressive documentation of on-going social protection responses globally, these efforts must convert into long term structural changes in social protection systems. Documenting the impact of COVID-19 on poverty and inequality, as well as the impact of social protection systems on mitigating these effects will be critical in advocating for long term structural changes.