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Despite progress in recent years in extending social protection in many parts of the world, when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit many countries were still facing significant challenges in making the human right to social security a reality for all. This report provides a global overview of progress made around the world over the past decade in extending social protection and building rights-based social protection systems, including floors, and covers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, it provides an essential contribution to the monitoring framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Five messages emerge from the report:
The pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy across all countries. Pervasive challenges such as high levels of economic insecurity, persistent poverty, rising inequality, extensive informality and a fragile social contract have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The crisis also exposed the vulnerability of billions of people who seemed to be getting by relatively well but were not adequately protected from the socio-economic shock waves it has emitted. The pandemic’s socio-economic impacts have made it difficult for policymakers to ignore a number of population groups – including children, older persons, unpaid carers, and women and men working in diverse forms of employment and in the informal economy – who were covered either inadequately or not at all by existing social protection measures. In revealing these gaps, this report shows that the pandemic has propelled countries into unprecedented policy action, with social protection at the forefront.
COVID-19 provoked an unparalleled social protection policy response. Governments marshalled social protection as a front-line response to protect people’s health, jobs and incomes, and to ensure social stability. Where necessary, governments extended coverage to hitherto unprotected groups, increased benefit levels or introduced new benefits, adapted administrative and delivery mechanisms, and mobilized additional financial resources.
However, despite some international support, many low- and middle-income countries have struggled to mount a proportionate social protection and stimulus response to contain the pandemic’s adverse impacts in the way that highincome countries have been able to do, leading to a “stimulus gap” arising largely from significant coverage and financing gaps.
Socio-economic recovery remains uncertain and enhanced social protection spending will continue to be crucial. The most recent IMF forecasts warn of a divergent recovery, whereby richer countries enjoy a swift economic rebound while lowerincome nations see a reversal of their recent development gains. Ensuring a human-centred recovery everywhere is contingent on equitable access to vaccines. This is not only a moral imperative, but also a public health necessity: a deep chasm in vaccine availability will unleash new viral mutations that undermine the public health benefits of vaccines everywhere. Already, however, inequitable vaccine access, yawning stimulus gaps visible in the crisis response, unfulfilled calls for global solidarity, increasing poverty and inequalities, and recourse to austerity cuts all indicate the prospect of uneven recovery. Such a scenario will leave many people to fend for themselves and derail the progress made towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the realization of social justice.
Countries are at a crossroads with regard to the trajectory of their social protection systems. If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it is the potent reminder it has provided of the critical importance of investing in social protection; yet many countries also face significant fiscal constraints. This report shows that nearly all countries, irrespective of their level of development, have a choice: whether to pursue a “high-road” strategy of investing in reinforcing their social protection systems or a “low-road” strategy of minimalist provision, succumbing to fiscal or political pressures.
Countries can use the policy window prised open by the pandemic and build on their crisis-response measures to strengthen their social protection systems and progressively close protection gaps in order to ensure that everyone is protected against both systemic shocks and ordinary lifecycle risks. This would involve increased efforts to build universal, comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection systems, including a solid social protection floor that guarantees at least a basic level of social security for all over the course of their lives. The alternative would be to acquiesce in a low-road approach that fails to invest in social protection, thereby trapping countries in a “low cost–low human development” trajectory. This would represent a lost possibility for strengthening social protection systems and reconfiguring societies for a better future.
Establishing universal social protection and realizing the human right to social security for all is the cornerstone of a human-centred approach to obtaining social justice. Doing so contributes 1 Excluding healthcare and sickness benefits. to preventing poverty and containing inequality, enhancing human capabilities and productivity, fostering dignity, solidarity and fairness, and reinvigorating the social contract.