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Leave No One Behind, Inequalities and Social Protection in times of COVID-19

​Women wearing masks at Nima market in Accra, Ghana, 20 April 2020. With 2074 positive cases, Ghana is one of the countries most affected by the virus. © REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

 Stephanie Guha, Policy Adviser Poverty/LNOB, SDC​ ​

 Estelle Gagnebin, Academic Trainee, Quality Assurance and Poverty Reduction Section, SDC 

Over the uncertain and difficult course of the pandemic​, we have shared some reflections on COVID-19 and its effects on the most vulnerable, the poor and people left behind to highlight further dimensions of the health crisis. As the pandemic spread across the globe, it has increasingly exposed existing inequalities and socio-economic divides. ​

​​Inequalities and LNOB

It has become apparent over the last year that the pandemic exposes inequalities - no matter whether in high or middle income countries - due to the close interrelations of low socio-economic status, poor health and the vulnerability to be impacted by the virus and its consequences.

It took just nine months for the fortunes of the top 1'000 billionaires to return to their pre-pandemic highs, while for the world's poorest, recovery could take more than a decade. 
​Oxfam report​​: The Inequality Virus

In 'The Inequality Virus​' – the 2021 version of its annual inequality report, Oxfam underlines how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed our collective frailty and the inability of a deeply unequal economy to work for all. At the same time, it has also shown the vital importance of government action to protect our health and livelihoods. The report stresses that there can be no return to where we were before. Instead, citizens and governments must act on the urgency to create a more equal and sustainable world. 

Since the virus arrived in countries least equipped to deal with it, a global response is needed to get ahead of the health pandemic as it hits vulnerable populations and weak health systems across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia with grave consequences on the most vulnerable. In this regard, the OECD's Development Policy Brief COVID-19 and developing countries: What policies and partnerships to respond, reset and rebuild?​ identifies key aspects in the medium- and long-term strategies in order to attain economic recovery and social cohesion and to build resilience and puts forth five key considerations for governments​ as part of an international response. 

The Development Initiatives blog on What actions are required to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus on the poorest and most vulnerable people? states that without connecting humanitarian, development and peace approaches, the impact of the unfolding crisis will be worse, we will see hard-won development gains reversed and people falling back into poverty. Moreover, Development Initiatives asks How visible are the vulnerable in the data on coronavirus? and argues that better data infrastructure is needed to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the most vulnerable and poorest people, what help is needed and whether support is working.

A brief, developed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on certain groups of people and offers some key policy recommendations to ensure no one is left behind in COVID-19 prevention, response and recovery. The brief reflects the interventions and feedback of speakers and participants in the 3 April 2020 webinar on COVID-19: Leave No One Behind, co-organised with Help Age International and UN Women.

The 'From Poverty to Power' blog explores​ How Covid and Inequality Feed Off Each Other: Launching the 2020 Commitment to Reduce Inequality Index​​​. The recently published third edition of the index ​of which measures governments are taking in three areas proven to be essential if a country is going to reduce the gap between rich and poor.  These are pro-poor public services (on education, health and social protection); the progressivity of the tax system and finally the extent to which labour rights and minimum wages are in place.

​Some ​of the preventive measures recommended by the WHO, such as recommended social distancing, are hardly applicable or even unfit in densely populated urban areas, including slums and informal settlements. Such places are thus potential hotspots to spread the disease. Additionally, extreme weather events and natural disasters ​pose an additional challenge to several countries, such as India and the Philippines, when trying to contain the pandemic. 

© Dewald Brand/Miran for Oxfam

Another measure – the main defence against the virus – is washing hands with soap and clean water (for 20 seconds!) or to self-isolate if sick. But what if you cannot do either of those things? One billion people live in slums or informal settlements, where water for basic needs is in short supply and where space is constrained and rooms are often shared. Two billion persons globally do not have access to safe water services. Yet discussion about vulnerability in these contexts has been startlingly absent. Read more on the issue here fromIDS and fromOHCHR.

Certain groups of people are differently and to varying degrees impacted by the pandemic. Persons with disabilities are not only at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but they also face barriers in accessing healthcare services as well as disruptions in their usual healthcare service provision. A series of practical tools for a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response can be found in this document of the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)’s guidance further highlights key points to consider to ensure that people with disabilities are included in programming responses to COVID-19. ​

Among the vulnerable groups, children directly experience the consequences of the pandemic by COVID-19 induced school closures. Girls and children from low-income households are affected most as disruption of education may cause an early drop-out from school. Moreover, for many, free school meals are no longer available with the widespread closure of schools. For more on the issue, consult:

 and  Save the Children.

“We are already seeing that the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls is profound. Women are disproportionately affected by lockdowns and this is resulting in a reduced access to health services," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa as part of a WHO brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in Africa.

​The disproportionate impact on women is not limited to access to health services as wider economic and social problems caused by the pandemic disproportionately touch upon women's lives. For instance, India's unemployment rate is at a new high as 27% of the population is unemployed with grave consequences on the most marginalised women: 

“This unemployment is going to be borne mostly by women, with religious, caste and economic inequalities adding to the burden. As cutbacks rise with the financial lockdown, women will be the first ones to be removed, due to inequalities, in access to technology and skills. With more than 60% of women employed in the informal sector, according to the PAC study, options like working from home and virtual workspaces are not viable. These economies already operate in a cycle of poor wages, discrimination and poor working conditions. They will simply do away with female employees. Such was the case for domestic and garment factory workers" ​as highligted by Southern Voices in Impact of COVID-19 on India's Female Labour Force Participation.


As part of their series that aims to better understand and explain the data on COVID-19, Development Initiatives published a background paper presenting a critical appraisal of the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 in Kenya. It focuses​ on the economic ​impacts – especially on housing, transport, food security and the labour force - and then assesses the governmental measures taken by the government and their effects on the lives of Kenyans with a focus on the most vulnerable and poorest people. ​​


Estimated impact of Covid-19 on global poverty

The United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) released a worrying report on the estimated impact of the COVID-19 crisis on global poverty​, which could increase for the first time since 1990. The COVID-19 crisis could lead to 80-400 million new poor living under $1.90 per day and potentially take extreme poverty back by over 1 billion people. These numbers represent a reversal of 20–30 years in global poverty reduction:​​

​​This study shows that the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, and in particular, the SDGs on no poverty and zero hunger, is under considerable threat. The need of the hour is to bring together development agencies, national governments, civil society and the private sector in a glo​bal effort to protect the livelihoods and lives of the poorest of the poor in the Global South. 

Kunal Sen, Director of UNU-WIDER

report presented to the UN Human Rights ​Council on the 7th of July by Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, also states that the global COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more than 250 million people to the brink of starvation and dashed hopes of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. 

​I welcome this report, which illustrates that poverty is not a matter only of low incomes. It's a matter of disempowerment, of institutional and social abuse, and of discrimination. It is the price we pay for societies that exclude people whose contributions are not recognised. Eradicating poverty means building inclusive societies that shift from a charity approach to a rights-based empowering approach. 

​Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights


On this topic, see also the following articles:
Coronavirus could turn back the clock 30 years on g​lobal poverty (The Guardian)
Updated estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty (World Bank)

As the coronavirus pandemic further unfolds, we are beginning to see some wildly varying projections on poverty levels. The estimates range from 22 million to half a billion people being pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. In th​is podcast, find out about why differences in poverty projections exist, how poverty is measured and learn about how recovery from the crisis might differ from country to country. 

OXFAM calls for an Economic Rescue Plan For All in its new paperDign​​ity not Destitution to tackle the coronavirus crisis and rebuild a more equal world. To meet the scale of the crisis, $2.5 trillion dollars have to be mobilised to tackle the pandemic and prevent global economic collapse. It prioritises helping people in need directly: giving cash grants to all who need them. According to OXFAM, an immediate suspension of the debt payments of poor countries, combined with a one-off economic stimulus by the International Monetary Fund and an increase in aid and taxes, can pay for this.​

On 30 June 2020, a Wilton Park roundtable took place in partnership with Development Initiatives, More than 50 senior representatives of government, international organisations and civil society organisations discussed about 'Responding to COVID-19: what are the main challenges for the Leave No One Behind agenda and how can the policy response be shaped to address these?It became clear the most vulnerable people will be hit the hardest and that the pandemic will reverse some of the progress made towards reaching the SDGs, among others to end poverty. The response to the crisis requires joint efforts from the international community and the report defines some priority actions to be taken, among others the inclusion of the LNOB principle into programming, investing in social safety nets and in sustainable foundational data systems. See here for theshort report summarizing the key statements.​


Social protection - a response to the pandemic

What actions should be taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the poorest and most vulnerable?

Several scholars and practitioners see in social protection an important response mechanism to support those without adequate safety nets. It can help to mitigate some consequences of the crisis, to provide vital support and strengthen resilience of the most vulnerable people:


© World Bank

  • Despite progress in recent years in extending social protection in many parts of the world, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many countries were still facing significant challenges in making the human right to social security a reality for all. This ILO 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 and covers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights the importance of a determined recovery strategy to build rights-based social protection systems based on a shared understanding of social protection as an investment with high returns, offering a way to end poverty, reduce inequalities and reinvigorate the social contract.

  • The World Bank's social protection unit published regular updates on the global social protection response. As of 11 ​December 2020, a total of 215​ countries/territories have planned or put in place 1'414​ social protection measures.​Find further details on the living paper here» 

  • The UN’s independent expert on extreme poverty said in a report -Looking Back to Look Ahead: A Rights-Based Approach to Social Protection in the Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery​ - that ​while governments have adopted more than 1,400 social protection measures since the outbreak of COVID-19, they were largely insufficient, and warned the worst impacts on poverty were yet to come. “The social safety nets put into place are full of holes,” said Olivier De Schutter, calling on world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York to strengthen measures to help the poor. “These current measures are generally short-term, the funding is insufficient, and many people will inevitably fall between the cracks.” ​


© Jointly produced by Ugo Gentilini with the socialprotection.org team (Mariana Balboni, Patricia Velloso, Fabio Veras, Fabiana Pullen Sousa, and Marina Carvalho), Valentina Barca, and Martina Bergthaller​ 

  • The International Labour Organisation (ILO) for its part underlines the importance of restructuring the social protection systems to guarantee a basic level of social security for all, as precarious workers are among those highly impacted by the economic measures and consequences of the pandemic. Watch the short video below​ or read more here» 

  • The Asian Development Bank makes recommendations on how governments can strengthen social protection to minimise the economic impact of the COVID-19 on the poorest people. Read more»

  • In its new paper, UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Economist Network examines potential social security responses that countries in Asia can put in place. It provides a brief overview of social security systems in Asia, examines responses that Asian countries have already implemented and proposes a range of more effective complementary or alternative approaches. Read more»

  • Cash transfers have been a common measure implemented by governments to reduce the impact of income loss and unemployment. The Center for Global Development underlines the implications of the design of those programmes to which people have access and control over the distributed funds. Especially, given persistent gender gaps in financial and digital literacy, access to technology, and identification documents, women may fall short unless governments design and implement programmes with those gender-specific constraints in mind. Read this paper for a case study of women's access to cash transfer in Pakistan​.​

What has the COVID-19 crisis taught us about social protection?

In its Pathways' Perspectives on social policy in international development, two experts on social protection reflect on some of the key lessons they have learnt about social protection in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

The paper argues strongly for a universal coverage approach against the mainstream social protection concept of only reaching out and targeting the poor and the marginalised. The global pandemic is teaching us that we are all vulnerable and at risk of being affected by the virus and its socio-economic consequences.

The authors recommend that countries should establish universal, lifecycle social security systems. In order to reach everyone and ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable members of the society are also adequately protected, a universal approach is the better strategy: a universal crisis requires a universal approach to social security.

The uncertain time we are living therefore offers an opportunity to rethink social protection systems. 

Click here to read the full issue»


Adapted SDC programmes

​Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the SDC has adapted its programmes and projects to respond to the needs of the left behind. This non-exhaustive snapshot gives examples of projects that aim at leaving no one behind in the response to the crisis. ​

Emergency support

In Albania, the Swiss government-supported UN Joint Programme “Leave No One Behind" is working closely with the Government of Albania and partner agencies to identify areas of emergency support. The aim is to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the poorest and other vulnerable groups, such as persons and children with disabilities and the Roma and Egyptian communities. Implemented activities include ensuring access to information for all, bringing emergency support to the poorest and supporting online education and trainings as well as online specialised social services.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the SDC supports Caritas Switzerland to bring emergency support to the most vulnerable households in 19 communities. All targeted municipalities have been or are currently cooperating with Caritas Switzerland in other projects. This allows for a coordinated, effective and efficient emergency aid for families in need, in close collaboration with the municipal authorities and other local partners in order to select the most vulnerable households. 

Also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Association Zemlja djece is supported to provide food and hygienic packages to 150 socially vulnerable families from 9 rural location in Tuzla cantons. These are families where none of the parents has a permanent source of income, and they mostly live on an irregularly paid child allowance. ​

Gender-based violence 

Global trends have shown an increase in Gender-Based Violence (GBV) cases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increases of 25-35% have been reported for different countries. The restriction of movement and social distancing measures that have been put in place in many countries have made it difficult for the GBV survivors to access GBV service.

In Tanzania, the SDC works in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on responding to gender-based violence and harmful practices during the COVID 19 outbreak and in the recovering phase. The project strengthens the capacities of existing helplines to respond to cases of GVB and harmful practices and provide psychosocial support to survivors and link them to various services including the police, gender desk officers, the legal aid, the health and social workers. The coverage is also expanded to reach approximately 15 million listeners with various messages on GBV and COVID 19 through community radios.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the SDC support the ​Association Vive Žene to ensure that the Safe House (SH) operates in this uncertain period, by establishing a mandatory isolation room and ensuring the continuation of psychosocial work with women in need. Cantonal authorities obliged the Association to establish the isolation room with the emergence of COVID-19 in order to continue the work of the Safe House. Without the isolation room, no new tenants could move into the house without putting all SH staff and beneficiaries in danger. The psychosocial help provided by professionals is intensified, as the measures of isolation and limited movement combined with job losses give offenders a sense of greater power over victims.

Also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Center of Women's Rights (CWR) from Zenica is supported by the project WeAreHereYouAreNotAlone. This intervention aims at providing psychosocial support, free legal aid and support in court appearances to SGBV victims in Zenica and throughout BiH. With the project, CWR strengthens and promotes their free phone help line which is often the first contact point for women in need. They also organise four educational online seminars to raise awareness and encourage women to seek help. In this regard 30000 copies of an informational pamphlet on the rights and procedures will be distributed in urban and rural areas.​

Social Protection

In order to Leave No One Behind, the Union government of Tanzania has set up a comprehensive safety net for assisting the vulnerable and marginalised households to have access to income, health services and education: social protection is one of the key governmental strategies to address poverty in Tanzania mainland and Zanzibar. As part of the response to the COVID 19 pandemic, Switzerland advanced its support to the Tanzania Social Action Fund for the implementation of the Productive Social Safety Net Programme (PSSN) with the overall goal to enable vulnerable and marginalised population in mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar to access food, basic services (health & education) and be given an opportunity to enhance their livelihoods ​sufficiently to exit the social safety net.  

The COVID19 pandemic is a precarious context for the implementation of the PSSN II but it is at the same time increasing its relevance. The consequences of the pandemic compounded by other shocks, such as the recent floods that affected several regions will contribute to more households falling into poverty and thus fit in the target beneficiary criteria of TASAF. The impact of the pandemic will be strongly felt in the first two years as many poor households will still be recovering from the economic shock. TASAF will most likely face political and social pressure to respond to the situation immediately. Already, PSSN II development partners are discussing with the government on the adaptation of the PSSN II to the COVID19 pandemic.​​


What experiences are you making with regard to the above topics? What thoughts are moving you? What reflections bring you to new insights? 
Feel free to share them with the Poverty-Wellbeing team via poverty-wellbeing@helvetas.org
We look forward to reading from you! 


Leave No One Behind

Leave no one behind: mov​ing the agenda forward
21 January 2021

​​Data to 'leave no on​e behind' in the context of Covid-19​
19 October 2020

Financing to​ ‘leave no one behind’ during the Cov​id-19 pandemic​

14 October 2020​

Social protection

For ​past webinars on social protection and COVID-19, ​please see here»​​