New Policy in Focus examines changes and challenges for social protection after COVID-19



Unicef Ethiopia


Social protection across the whole life-cycle is the subject of the first section of the latest issue of Policy in Focus magazine “What’s next for social protection in light of COVID-19: challenges ahead”.


During the global e-Conference “Turning the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?” a set of 14 round tables took place, as experts and policymakers gathered to talk about universal child benefits; gender-responsive social protection; disability-sensitive programmes; elderly vulnerability; and unemployment protection, among other themes. The articles reflect an updated view of the thematic discussions held throughout the four days of the conference.


In the first article, “Universal child benefits: The pathway to universality in COVID-19 times”, David Stewart, Atif Khurshid and Aristide Kielem show that COVID-19 is having a profound impact on child poverty. The effects can be both immediate and long-lasting—what affects children now will fully impact societies and economies in the years to come as they become the next generation of adults.


In this vein, the article presents reasons for the need to consider universal child benefits (UCBs), irrespective of the household’s welfare or income level. Despite political economy issues related to coverage and financing being of utmost importance, UCBs are more feasible and affordable than they appear at first, especially when progressive realisation is considered; a gradual implementation can be a very viable pathway to universality.


To summarise, the authors stress that “no child should see their potential unfulfilled due to the lack of a small amount of financial resources in the household, yet this is the case for hundreds of millions, perhaps more than a billion, children”.


Women and girls have also been disproportionately affected by the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, from staggering increases in unpaid care responsibilities to the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence.


According to Clare McCrum, in the article “Gender-responsive social protection in times of COVID-19”, despite the evidence of the socioeconomic impacts and burden of unpaid care on women, according to a mapping by UN women and UNDP, only 18 per cent of social protection responses were gender-sensitive—addressing women’s economic security or increased burden of care. The author raises the question: “What enables and blocks gender-responsive social protection, and what do we need to do to prepare for the next crisis?”.


She explains that, in times of crises, scale and speed are often the only two dominant policy objectives and everything else takes a backseat. When systems do not address gender under ‘regular’ circumstances, they will not address gender during a crisis. However, if necessary reforms are not enacted, this crisis will happen again, and again women and girls will lose income and education, as they are financially unprotected while continuing to bear the disproportionate burden of care work that is essential to keeping our households, communities and economies going.


For the author, we are posed with a political economy problem rather than a technical challenge. Gender matters in every element of social protection design: which instruments are prioritised, who qualifies for support, how programmes are funded, how they are delivered, and who is consulted regarding these decisions. It is necessary to place the needs of women and girls at centre stage in social protection reforms and economic recovery efforts.


Alexandre Cote, from the UNPRPD/ILO/UNICEF Inclusive Social Protection Project, points out in the article “Bridging the disability inequality gap: Changes needed for an inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery” that the COVID-19 crisis has magnified the obstacles and inequalities faced by people with disabilities, as they are particularly vulnerable due to a combination of higher health-related risks, loss of income, and disruption of formal and informal support systems.


The role of social protection systems for persons with disabilities is also under discussion, since it often focuses on their incapacity to work, instead of supporting their inclusion.


Historically, the main disability-related social protection schemes have been compensation for loss or lack of income-earning capacity, which creates a challenging dilemma for persons with disabilities: any attempt to engage in economic activity, which is always risky, may result in the loss of the household’s only stable source of income. This sole focus on incapacity to work has created a divide between those who can and those who cannot work and has contributed to perpetuate prejudice.


The COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of a disability-inclusive information system, ideally combining single registries and disability ones. With the progress of digitalisation, disability assessment can be carried out with greater reliability at the community level and can feed automatically into registries that could be used for case management as well as policy planning.


The elderly also face special danger from COVID-19, as the risk of serious illness and death increases with age. According to Florian Juergens, Usa Khiewrord and Aura Sevilla, in the article “Older people’s income security and access to social protection during COVID-19 and beyond”, in countries with limited pension coverage the pandemic further deteriorated older people’s already fragile economic situation.


With few work opportunities and limited pension coverage, most elders rely on their families to survive. Pensions are crucial for poverty reduction and human development, and will remain so after COVID-19.


Social pensions also ensure that gendered inequalities, such as the gender pay gap, are not replicated later in life and that all women have access to an adequate pension in old age. Global experiences and research demonstrate that universal social pensions are affordable even in low-income countries, and that relatively modest transfer levels have outsized impacts.


The COVID-19 crisis has also greatly impacted the labour market and exposed broad inequalities in terms of protection to income losses. In many countries, unemployment protection schemes have played a critical role in crisis response, supporting businesses to retain workers, thereby preventing unemployment, and providing income security for those who lost their jobs.


For Céline Peyron Bista, Quynh Anh Nguyen and Maya Stern-Plaza, in the article “Extending unemployment protection as a response to the COVID-19 crisis and as part of efforts to build back better”, moving forward, countries need to shift from emergency measures to more sustainable income security mechanisms for workers who lose their jobs, together with measures to facilitate the return to decent employment, guided by human rights and international labour standards. Effective unemployment insurance schemes will need to strengthen employment support measures but also accelerate the transition from an informal to a formal economy.


Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/NahomTesfaye 


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