Covid-19 and social protection responses: time for a global safety net?

Published on 14 May 2020

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Jeremy Lind

Professorial Fellow

Keetie Roelen

IDS Honorary Associate

Rachel Sabates-Wheeler

Research Fellow

The Centre for Social Protection agrees with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that Covid-19 is “a wake-up call to strengthen social protection systems”. Countries with well-established social protection systems are better able to address the Covid-specific or Covid-intensified needs that have already been generated. Conversely, poor countries with low administrative capacity will struggle to mobilise an adequate response. This is a familiar paradox – countries with the greatest needs for social protection have the lowest capacity to address those needs – but it is thrown into sharp focus at extraordinary times like these.

The impacts of Covid-19 are interrelated. The public health responses (especially lockdowns) are necessary to contain the spread of the virus, but they are also creating an economic crisis due to reduced business activity and temporary or permanent unemployment, which in turn is creating widespread hardship. The economic crisis also shrinks government’s fiscal resources to address both the pandemic itself and its side-effects – deepening poverty and rising hunger. How can social protection systems meet this unprecedented challenge?

Scaling up or adapting existing safety nets

Social protection is particularly suited to addressing the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19. Many of these can be addressed relatively easily by following a ‘shock-responsive’ approach. Essentially this means scaling up, adapting or leveraging existing safety nets during a crisis in order to cope with the heightened need. Where a social protection system already exists at national level, scaling up means adding new beneficiaries (horizontal expansion) and/or paying more benefits (vertical expansion).

This is the strategy followed by South Africa, where President Ramaphosa announced on 21 April a R500bn package (more than £20bn, equivalent to 10% of GDP) for managing Covid-19, with relief of hunger and social distress at its core. This includes doubling the Child Support Grant, which reaches two-thirds of all children in South Africa, for the next six months and the introduction of a new social grant for unemployed adults who are not receiving any form of social protection.

E-wallets, digital payments and other innovative solutions

Some Covid-related vulnerabilities require innovative interventions, such as the rapid expansion of coverage of social cash transfers to food insecure population groups. Innovation here relates to how to do this in a speedy way. Shock-responsive social protection has generated lessons that can be adapted to minimise the hardship caused by the Covid-19 shock. E-wallets and digital payments have been successfully trialled for refugees, and can also be used to deliver cash in other contexts.

This, in conjunction with opening up certain sectors of the labour market in a managed way will allow people to maintain livelihoods at a sufficient level.  Using existing government administrative structures to deliver donor-financed contingency funds and humanitarian relief quickly – as was the case during the 2017 drought response in Ethiopia – is another crucial mechanism in low-income countries.

Three new interventions needed now

Covid-19 will have long-lasting impacts on economies, societies and human wellbeing. It follows that social protection must meet immediate needs as well as respond to the pandemic’s long-term consequences. The Centre for Social Protection is calling for intervention at various levels.

  1. Recognising that low-income countries will suffer huge consequences from the pandemic’s global economic fallout, leading to greater need but also lower capacity for expanding social protection, we call for a global safety net. The notion of a Global Fund for Social Protection was first proposed in 2012 by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food and on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, but Covid-19 has highlighted the urgency of turning this idea into reality. The establishment of such a safety net would allow countries to expand their social protection programmes, both vertically and horizontally, and introduce new measures to provide much-needed immediate support. This requires a level of international solidarity that has been conspicuously absent so far, as the UN Secretary-General has acknowledged.
  2. We have seen that certain groups are disproportionately affected – including informal workers, pastoralists, migrants and children – so we call for social protection interventions that prioritise these vulnerable groups and consider appropriate mechanisms for meeting their needs. In the case of children, this might mean delivery of food packages or a physically distanced provision of meals at community centres (in lieu of school meals) as well as cash transfers to allow for access to other support as needed. In the case of pastoralists, social protection responses should address the crisis in the livestock sector, by addressing liquidity constraints for small-scale traders as a way of boosting local livestock markets alongside vertical and horizontal expansion of social assistance to support purchasing power. This requires a level of national solidarity that is already evident in many countries, but it needs effective partnerships and coordination between state and non-state actors.
  3. In recognition of the fact that levels of vulnerability in low-income countries have risen across the board and will remain at heightened levels well after the health crisis dissipates, we call for a long-term vision that gives greater weight to the role of social protection in supporting vulnerable groups, both during crises and beyond. This may entail wider coverage, particularly for informal workers, such as in the form of a basic income grant. This requires international and national commitment and vision. It is not too early to start thinking and planning for this. On the contrary, it might already be too late to save hundreds of thousands of unprotected livelihoods that have already been lost.

This is a follow-up to the blog ‘Covid-19 and social protection needs: who are the most vulnerable?’ For more information on IDS’ research on social protection go to the Centre for Social Protection web page.


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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