The COVID-19 crisis has exposed devastating gaps in social protection coverage in developing countries, and recovery will only be sustained and future crises prevented if they can transform their ad hoc crisis response measures into comprehensive social protection systems, according to new analysis from the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Two briefing papers released by the ILO warn that the current gaps in social protection could compromise recovery plans, expose millions to poverty, and affect global readiness to cope with similar crises in future.
The papers take a detailed look at the role of social protection measures in addressing the COVID-19 outbreak in developing countries, including the provision of sickness benefits during the crisis.
The brief on Social protection responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in developing countries , describes social protection as, “an indispensable mechanism for delivering support to individuals during the crisis”. It examines the response measures some countries have introduced, including removing financial barriers to quality health care, enhancing income security, reaching out to workers in the informal economy, protecting incomes and jobs, and improving the delivery of social protection, employment and other interventions.
“While the virus does not discriminate between rich and poor, its effects are highly uneven”, the brief says, adding that the ability to access affordable, quality, healthcare has become “a matter of life and death”.
The brief also warns policymakers to avoid a singular focus on COVID-19 because this could reduce the availability of health systems to respond to “other conditions that kill people every day”. It cites the example of how, during the Ebola epidemic, a focus on this virus exacerbated mortality from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
According to data in the brief, 55 per cent of the world’s population – as many as four billion people – are not covered by social insurance or social assistance. Globally, only 20 per cent of unemployed people are covered by unemployment benefits, and in some regions the coverage is much lower.
The other Social Protection Spotlight brief covers Sickness benefits during sick leave and quarantine: Country responses and policy considerations in the context of COVID-19 .
It warns that the COVID-19 health crisis has exposed two main adverse effects of gaps in sickness benefit coverage. Firstly, such protection gaps can force people to go to work when they are sick or should self-quarantine, so increasing the risk of infecting others. Secondly, the related loss of income increases the risk of poverty for workers and their families, which could have a lasting impact.
The brief calls for urgent, short-term measures to close sickness benefit coverage and adequacy gaps, pointing out that this would bring a three-fold benefit: support for public health, poverty prevention, and promotion of the human rights to health and social security.
The proposed measures include extending sickness benefit coverage to all, with particular attention given to reaching women and men in non-standard and informal employment, the self-employed, migrants and vulnerable groups. Other recommendations include increasing benefit levels to ensure they provide income security, speeding up benefit delivery, and expanding the scope of benefits to include prevention, diagnosis and treatment measures, as well as time spent in quarantine or on the care of sick dependants.
“The COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call. It has shown that a lack of social protection affects not just the poor, it exposes the vulnerability of those who have been getting by relatively well, because medical charges and loss of income can easily destroy decades of family work and saving,” said Shahra Razavi, the Director of the ILO’s Social Protection Department.
“The examples from around the world clearly demonstrate once again that countries with robust and comprehensive social protection systems are in a much stronger position to respond to, and recover from, a crisis. Policymakers need to build on the momentum generated by growing public awareness of the importance of social protection and the urgency of investing in it as a society, to ensure preparedness for future crises.”