Plug social protection gaps to prevent future crises, says ILO

THE International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed devastating gaps in social protection coverage developing countries.

In fact, the ILO has warned that recovery will only be sustained, and future crises prevented, if developing countries can transform their ad hoc crisis response measures into comprehensive social protection systems.

Two briefing papers released by the ILO point out 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, health care has become “a matter of life and death”.

It pointed to Jamaica and noted that the Government has adapted its programme of advancement through health and education and provides nutritional support to the programme’s students during school closures.

“Although food was first provided in kind, and could be picked up at different distribution points, families will now receive cash payments as long as schools remain closed in order to reduce their travel time and costs,” noted the ILO.

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 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 savings,” 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,” added Razavi.

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