North African countries reacted quite swiftly to the spread of the coronavirus. They declared national states of emergency, imposed widespread lockdowns and closed their borders from the very first cases of infection. Systems for testing and systematically monitoring confirmed cases were also put in place. In addition, health facilities and hospitals were bolstered and remodelled with a view to improving the care of COVID-19 patients. All of this has led to convincing results in terms of controlling the spread of the pandemic.
However, such an outcome would not have been possible without the simultaneous roll-out of social support measures for citizens and support mechanisms aimed at those businesses most affected by the crisis. Social security institutions have played a leading role in developing these policies. They showed remarkable agility and responsiveness in adapting their internal structures and procedures, which enabled them to handle a sudden increase in workload with a reduced workforce, given that they themselves are also subject to the lockdown rules.
Measures taken by social security institutions for the benefit of their members
The social security measures put in place by the region’s various institutions are intended to simplify administrative procedures, speed up (even bring forward) the payment of benefits, limit as far as possible the need for clients to visit their offices in person and, therefore, avoid congestion. To assist employers, the social security institutions have relaxed controls and extended the deadlines for payment of contributions. The following are some of the most common measures taken:
- The streamlining of administrative procedures, easing of controls and extension of entitlement to benefits. The requirement to submit periodic documents in order to receive benefits has been dropped during the lockdown. In addition, some benefits have been paid early and certain eligibility conditions waived;
- The deferral of routine medical checks for benefits related to disability, employment accidents and occupational diseases. Medical reviews have been replaced by home-based administrative checks;
- The staggering of monthly benefit payments across several dates to avoid overcrowding at post offices (in Tunisia, for example, 60 per cent of private-sector pensioners receive their pensions by way of an electronic postal order);
- New forms of cooperation with national postal services, including involving postal workers in making home payments of old-age and disability pensions and equipping recipients of electronic orders with a free card enabling them to withdraw the money from post-office-approved automatic cash dispensers or to make purchases electronically.
Operational measures and internal restructuring
With the implementation of these new measures, the new targets set for the duration of the health crisis and the added pressures imposed by the need for their own employees to socially distance, social security institutions had to adapt their internal structures without delay, quickly redeploying and upskilling their staff.
The following are examples of the resulting measures:
- The creation of employee rotas for those unable to work from home in order to ensure continuity of service and benefit payments;
- The implementation of teleworking arrangements for any staff whose physical presence in the workplace is not required, including providing the requisite equipment. Teleworking is henceforth governed by the same line-management, working-hours, annual-leave and performance-management rules as regular employment. Guidance has also been drawn up for teleworkers with a view to ensuring their health and safety as well as the integrity of the social security institutions’ information systems;
- The informing of clients (pensioners, affiliates and members) by letter about online services, smartphone applications, call centres and other voice servers, and urging them to make use of these facilities. Information campaigns have also sought to make users aware of the new, simplified procedures in place.
Measures taken in the region to aid vulnerable socio-professional groups and struggling employers
In Tunisia, in order to promote job retention and guarantee an income for employees during the lockdown period, a decision was taken on 21 March 2020 to: 1) open up a funding line worth some 300 million Tunisian dinars (TND) to support furloughed workers; 2) create an exceptional TND-150-million financial package to support disadvantaged groups, to be paid in the form of an allowance; and 3) defer monthly payments on bank loans by six months for employees whose monthly income does not exceed TND 1000.
Some 260,000 families in need have benefitted from this programme, as well as 464,000 low-income families, 382 families requiring support to care for young children, 121 families requiring support to care for elderly relatives and 286 families requiring support to care for dependants with special needs. Exceptional welfare benefits of TND 100 have also been paid out to 140,000 retired people in receipt of a monthly pension of TND 180 or less.
For its part, Algeria has granted a special solidarity allowance, made up of two payments of 10,000 Algerian dinars (DZD) apiece, to self-employed workers and families in need who have been affected by the measures put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Businesses have also received assistance. 73,635 employers had an extra 30 days to pay their contributions for April 2020, with an equivalent measure applying to the self-employed. Contributors facing penalties for late payment were given a six-month moratorium on existing surcharges and fines. Payment plans for existing debts were also established for employers in arrears, across all wilayas (administrative districts).
The Business Intelligence Committee (Comité de Veille Economique – CVE), a body set up in Morocco to monitor the economic situation in the country during the coronavirus crisis, has secured a range of measures for SMEs, including suspending the payment of social security contributions.
Furthermore, and in anticipation of an impending social crisis linked to the closure of multiple factories, hotels and cafés and to mass furloughing in many companies, employees affiliated to the National Social Security Fund (Caisse nationale de sécurité sociale – CNSS) are able to claim a net monthly allowance of 2,000 Moroccan dirham (MAD) from the fund to help them manage the effects of the crisis. The allowance was established by the King and endowed with around MAD 30 billion.
Workers who have been laid off continue to receive family allowances and statutory health insurance. Those affiliated to the CNSS can also request a three-month deferral of bank repayments on consumer credit and mortgages.
How the Maghreb’s social protection systems responded to the COVID-19 health crisis was of vital importance to the region’s individuals and companies. The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and the unerring commitment of the countries in question were key. While it is true that most of the region’s social security institutions had begun the process of digitizing their activities well before the crisis hit, COVID-19 undeniably provided an extra impetus. The project to establish a unique identifier, for example, which was passed from one government to the next in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution, finally came to fruition during this crisis. This has enabled support to be provided to hundreds of thousands of needy families who would not hitherto have been identified.
The Maghreb’s social security institutions are well aware that the hardest part is yet to come. Indeed, hardship resulting from the economic recession – from the job losses and company bankruptcies caused by the health crisis – will only add to the problems already facing these institutions, most of which are even now in financial trouble. They will need to show the same level of innovation and courage as they have shown during the lockdown phase if they are to overcome these difficulties.