Covid-19 and social protection needs: who are the most vulnerable?

Published on 7 May 2020

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Jeremy Lind

Professorial Fellow

Keetie Roelen

IDS Honorary Associate

Rachel Sabates-Wheeler

Rural Futures Cluster Lead

The Centre for Social Protection (CSP) recognises that Covid-19 and responses to the pandemic have created new needs for social protection across the world. In this first of two blogs, the CSP identifies groups who are most at risk and in need of social assistance most urgently.

Covid-19 has created a multi-layered crisis in societies across the world. Apart from the devastating direct effects of the pandemic on those infected and their families, health systems, economies, education, social life and psychological wellbeing have all been compromised. Covid-19 exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities (‘Covid-intensified’) and creates new vulnerabilities (‘Covid-specific’). Groups who are vulnerable to the secondary economic impacts include: urban informal workers, rural agricultural households, migrants, International Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees, pastoralists and children.

Informal workers

People most at risk of being impoverished by Covid-19 are those who fall between the cracks of most social protection systems. Social assistance (or social welfare) is usually targeted at non-working poor and vulnerable groups – e.g. older persons, children, persons with disability. Social insurance (or social security) provides protection to formally employed workers against breaks in employment, such as maternity leave or retirement. But working adults who live from hand to mouth – casual, part-time or self-employed workers (e.g. domestic workers, market traders and waste pickers) who make no social insurance contributions – have no protection against being forced to sit at home with no work and no pay, and limited savings to buffer them through this period. Even low-paid formally employed workers will struggle to survive several months of being forcibly furloughed on ‘unpaid leave’.

Farmers and farm workers

The majority of people living in poverty and with little or no access to health care (let alone health insurance) and no income insurance live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their subsistence, as smallholder farmers or farm workers. In the context of widespread lockdowns, food supply chains are not able to work effectively, as labour is not free to move for harvesting, transporting or marketing agricultural produce. Even if family farming remains possible, restrictions on transport and travel mean that outlets for the sale of produce are shrinking. The implications of this are potentially disastrous for millions of people, especially in rural Africa and Asia. Widespread hunger is a looming possibility.  The choice between stopping work with a consequence of certain hunger, or carrying on and possibly contracting a lethal disease, is the harsh reality now facing poor people across the world.

Migrants, IDPs and refugees

Also at risk are low-income migrants, IDPs and refugees. These groups are susceptible to contracting Covid-19 as they are over-represented in high-density housing or confined to camps, in close quarters with poor service provision and no legal rights to social protection in the host country. Furthermore, they experience negative impacts on their earning potential from shrinking economies and the closing down of labour markets, and their families back home – who might have either sent or received regular remittances as a supplementary source of income – are also impacted.


Another vulnerable group in rural areas is pastoralists. Social protection coverage of pastoralists is patchy, reflecting legacies of state neglect of pastoral areas. Covid-intensified vulnerabilities will deepen for those who have lost their herds and find alternative incomes in carrying out various tasks-for-cash, such as collection and sale of water and fuelwood. Many already experience food insecurity seasonally and are vulnerable to even slight disruptions to markets. Some pastoralists who have moved into commercial livestock sales will face new Covid-specific vulnerabilities associated with the closure of livestock markets and curfews that restrict livestock movement. For example, the closure of export markets in the Arabian Peninsula will have immediate devastating impacts on the trade supplied by pastoralists in the Horn of Africa.


Across all contexts, children are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 response measures. School closures affect both children’s education and their access to food. Homeschooling or distance learning is a privilege, accessible to those with learning materials or digital devices at home. Needless to say, this is out of the question for the vast majority of children in poorer contexts. The provision of meals at school represents a vital part of daily food intake for millions of children across the world. The provision of such meals has widely come to a halt, leaving children at risk of going hungry. At home, heightened stress about making ends meet and uncertainty about the future is putting children at greater risk of psychosocial stress and abuse.

Some good news

There is some good news. Low-income countries appear to be generally less severely affected by the direct effects of Covid-19 – at least so far. As of 4 May 2020, there were fewer than 2,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in all of Africa, less than 1% of the total global deaths, which are close to 250,000. Lack of reliable data may underestimate the actual size of the pandemic in these countries. One reason for lower death rates could also be demographic: Covid-19 disproportionately affects older people, and Africa has a very young population. For this reason, some academics argue that imposing lockdowns might be inappropriate for Africa, “leading to marginal benefits in tackling the coronavirus but with the effect of increasing poverty”.

At the same time, while health consequences may be less severe, high dependence on engagement in global supply chains makes low-income countries extremely vulnerable to the economic fallout of the pandemic. In Bangladesh two million garment workers face losing their jobs as international clothing chains have cancelled or stopped putting in orders. In Kenya the flower industry – an export-focused sector that employs many informal workers – has all but collapsed.

In a follow-up blog we will examine actual and possible social protection responses to Covid-19.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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