A lot is being written just now about the impacts that the Coronavirus pandemic is having and will continue to have on our lives over the coming months. Once the pandemic has passed, however, the sheer scale and nature of this particular global crisis are likely to shift the way we look at social protection, forever. This blog explores three main reasons for this:
1. The sheer need for an urgent scale-up and strengthening of social protection, now!
The colossal economic impacts of this pandemic, which is affecting jobs and incomes in both high- and low- and middle-income countries (ILO, 2020; Evans et al, 2020), are leading to unprecedented growth in the number of people in urgent need of income and other forms of support (e.g. continuation of free school meals, access to essential healthcare) (Whittaker, 2020). While it is hard to predict what the full impacts will be, some early estimates suggest that the reductions in global economic growth may lead to a global rise in poverty of between 14 and 22 million people (Vos et all, 2020).
Many countries have already started to take measures to expand and adapt social protection schemes (Gentilini et al, 2020), providing support to individuals and households who had not traditionally depended on it. However, there is an urgent need for much more to be done to plan for, strengthen, and scale-up social protection as the pandemic spreads and evolves, moving into new countries, including those less able to finance the support that will be needed. In such countries, donors and civil society must step up as they will have a particularly crucial role to play to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable can continue to access basic needs in this unprecedented time.
While the economic impacts of Coronavirus will hit different groups differently, country to country, it is critical that the situations of the most vulnerable groups are considered. This could well include those groups that are not typically covered by social protection, such as informal workers, where they suffer a loss of income.
The needs of children and other “dependent” groups must clearly be given urgent consideration to mitigate immediate and longer-term harm. Even in high-income countries, such as the UK, figures showed that even before the outbreak of Covid-19, almost one in every three children were living in poverty (UK Department for Work and Pensions, 2019). Indeed, globally, children are disproportionately affected by poverty. The current crisis will see these figures rise rapidly. It demands an urgent scale-up of social protection on a scale never seen before.
2. A growing appreciation of the fundamental importance that social protection plays in our society
Media channels have been reporting stories of how many middle-class people in the UK are now experiencing for the first time how they are being asked to cope on a Universal Credit payment (a flagship social protection scheme) of just £94 a week, when essential bills can be two or more times that (Russon, M. 2020).
In higher-income countries, although almost all of us will benefit from some form of social protection or other in our lifetimes (whether in the form child benefit, access to healthcare, unemployment benefit or a state pension), the economic crisis brought about by the spread of COVID-19 is hammering home just what an important lifeline social protection provides.
The growing realization and lived experience of our own fragility and dependence on the state (even if just in times of crisis) will surely start to shift the way we view and appreciate the fundamental importance of social protection. So too should more people realise just how difficult or impossible it is for our most vulnerable families and individuals to make ends meet with the levels of support that have been made available through many social protection systems in recent years.
At a societal level, this crisis will bring into sharp focus the realisation that those countries that already had more advanced social protection systems were in a better position to rapidly scale up and scale-out support. This will surely push more countries to realise the crucial role of social protection when facing big economic and other shocks (OPM, 2018).
3. Dealing with the long-term economic fallout of the pandemic and its lasting changes to the already rapidly changing nature of jobs
Finally, the economic impacts of the pandemic are not only going to be substantial but will likely lead to lasting changes, as businesses go under and people lose their jobs. Although unemployment in many advanced economies had appeared under control before the crisis, far too many jobs were already low-paid, involving zero-hours contracts, and offered little to no forms of protection.
Once we add to this the existing global shift in the nature of brought about by technological disruption (e.g. the rise of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics), it is likely we will be hearing a whole lot more about the need for more comprehensive social protection (ILO, 2019).
At the very least this will involve looking closely at how to get countries closer to the Sustainable Development Goal Target 1.3 of building “nationally appropriate Social Protection Floors” (which governments around the world have signed up to) (ILO, 2019).
In many cases, we are also likely to be hearing a great deal more about the need to go well beyond that, towards something more akin to a Universal Basic Income. In its fullest form, this would mean an unconditional grant paid to every citizen as a right, to ensure a minimum standard of living. Various forms of basic income have already been tested globally and there is support for basic income among several Nobel laureates in Economics (World Bank, 2019).
Whatever happens, one thing is for certain: we should get ready for a seismic shift in the way we look at and think about the fundamental role that needs to be played by social protection in our societies.
 Social protection (also referred to as social welfare or social security) broadly refers to government programmes and policies that aim to protect people from key risks faced throughout their lifecycle, and ensure they have access to the necessary income and other basic goods and services to avoid deprivation and attain their basic rights.
List of References
BBC News (2020). Universal credit claimants 'struggling to cope'. Access here.
Evans, D. and Over, M. (2020). The Economic Impact of COVID-19 in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Center for Global Development. Access here.
Gentilini, U.; Almenfi, M.; Orton, I. (2020). Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures. Access here.
Global Coalition to End Child Poverty. Access here.
ILO (2019). 100 years of social protection: The road to universal social protection systems and floors. Access here.
ILO (2019). Work for a brighter future – Global Commission on the Future of Work. Access here.
ILO (2020). COVID-19 and world of work: Impacts and responses. Access here.
Oxford Policy Management (2018). Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems Research - Working paper 1: Conceptualising Shock-Responsive Social Protection. Access here.
Russon, M. (2020). Coronavirus: ‘How is £94 a week going to pay anyone’s bills?’. BBC News. Access here.
United Kingdom Government Department of Work and Pensions (2019). Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2017/18. Access here.
Vos, R.; Martin, W.; and Laborde, D. (2020). How much will global poverty increase because of COVID-19? International Food Policy Research Institute. Access here.
Whittaker, L. (2020). Coronavirus: school closures mean an increased risk of hunger for families around the world. The Conversation. Access here.
World Bank (2019). Exploring Universal Basic Income: A Guide to Navigating Concepts, Evidence, and Practices. Access here.