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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

 13 July 2020 (updated) / Stephanie Guha, Policy Adviser Poverty/LNOB, SDC

In these difficult and uncertain times, we would like to share 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 spreads across the globe, it exposes existing inequalities and socio-economic divides.

Topics ​

  • Inequalities and LNOB

  • Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on global poverty

  • Social protection – a response to the pandemic


Inequalities and LNOB 

When the centre of the pandemic fully hit Europe and the United States, we highlighted articles describing the close interrelations of low socio-economic status, poor health and the vulnerability to be impacted by the virus and its consequences in high and middle income countries:

How the pandemic might reinforce existing social inequalities (Le Temps – in French)

We're about to learn a terrible lesson from coronavirus: inequality kills (The Guardian)

What covid-19 is teaching us about inequality and the sustainability of our health systems (EuroHealthNet)

As coronavirus deepens inequality, inequality worsens its spread (The New York Times)

From pandemics to poverty: the implications of coronavirus for the furthest behind (Overseas Development Institute)

These trends are worrying and indicate that the worst is likely yet to come as 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.

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.

Globally, we are facing enormous challenges as some of the preventive measures recommended by the WHO are hardly applicable or even unfit to non-Western contexts, such as the recommended practice of social distancing in densely populated urban areas, including slums and informal settlements. Thus, such places are hotspots to spread the disease.

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

© Dewald Brand/Miran for Oxfam

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.

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.

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. ​

Selected case studies from different parts of the world on structural inequalities and their links to the pandemic

The well-known Indian writer and human rights/ecology activist Arundhati Roy wrote a gripping article on the political context and immediate impact of containment measures in India. She explains how the containment - applied 2 hours after having been announced - has ignored the reality of about 460 mio disadvantaged people: migrant workers, people living on daily wages, who have suddenly lost their livelihoods. Further, this crisis is coming in the middle of politically created tensions opposing Muslims and Hindus. The Covid-19 crisis is still to come she says and we can be sure that it "will be dealt with, with all the prevailing prejudices of religion, caste and class completely in place." But this crisis as all others can also be an opportunity to break with the past and imagine our world anew. Read more and see further analyses below:

 India: 'The pandemic is a portal'
 Senegal (in German)
 Zimbabwe and Africa more broadly
 Latin America (in German)

Estimated impact of COVID-19 on global poverty 

On the 8th of April, the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) released a worrying report on theestimated impact of the Covid-19 crisis on global poverty which could increase for the first time since 1990. In developing countries, half a billion (8% of the global population) might be pushed into poverty. In some regions, the adverse impacts could result in poverty levels similar to those recorded 30 years ago, posing a threat to the SDG's goal of ending poverty by 2030:

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 global effort to protect the livelihoods and lives of the poorest of the poor in the Global South. 

Kunal Sen, Director of UNU-WIDER

Read the updated v​ersion of the paper, which confirms earlier estimates: the COVID-19 crisis could lead to 80-400 million new poor living under $1.90 per day and potentially take extreme poverty back over 1 billion people. These numbers represent a reversal of 20–30 years in global poverty reduction.  ​

A report presented to the UN Human RightsCouncil 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 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 this 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 paperDignity 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.

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

  • ​The World Bank's social protection unit publishes weekly updates on the global social protection response. Since March, a total of 200 countries/territories have planned or put in place 1'055 social protection measures.​Find further details on the living paper here» 

  • ​​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»

Webinars on role of social protection in response to the pandemic

The knowledge-sharing platform on social protection currently offers several webinars on the role of social protection in response to the pandemic:

15 July 2020

Why are human rights considerations fundamental to social protection responses to COVID-19?
14 July 2020

COVID-19 Aftershocks: Out of Time to End Hunger and Child Poverty by 2030​
10 July 2020

Impact of COVID-19 and social protection: What measures work?​
8 July 2020
Poverty monitoring in the context of Covid-19
15 June 2020
Identification and registration of beneficiaries for SP responses in the wake of COVID-19: challenges and opportunities
2 June 2020

Impact of COVID-19 on public works programs: policy options in the short and medium term​
26 May 2020

Linking Social Protection and humanitarian cash and voucher assistance (CVA) – what do we really know and where to start? Findings from the CaLP commissioned high level briefing paper at the time of COVID-19
21 May 2020

Impacts of COVID-19 on care politics
19 May 2020​​

Coronavirus Crisis – Challenges and Responses: maintaining essential health services while responding to COVID-19
12 May 2020
Social protection financing in the wake of COVID-19 and beyond5 May 2020
 Impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on formal sector workers: (potential) social protection responses
28 April 2020
 Impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on employment: (potential) solutions for informal/ self-employed workers
21 April 2020
Lessons learned and Opportunities: Linking social protection systems to humanitarian cash in a pandemic
16 April 2020
 G2P Payments in COVID-19 context: key areas of action and experiences from country emergency action
14 April 2020
 Social protection responses to COVID-19: Actions that can make a difference for older people9 April 2020
 How can social protection systems respond to the COVID-19 crisis?7 April 2020
 Exploring universal basic income: lessons for COVID-19 response and beyond31 March 2020

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

In its latest Pathways' Perspectives on social policy in international development two experts on social protection reflect on some of the key lessons they have learned 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»

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!