Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing gaps in social security coverage. The crisis' impact is particularly severe in low- and middle-income countries where many workers, especially those in the informal sector, have no access to any form of social protection. The crisis prompted governments to establish new social security benefits on an emergency basis for uncovered groups and to take rapid measures to expand existing social security schemes for those covered populations perceived as particularly vulnerable.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns and other containment measures are disrupting labour markets, putting people out of work, and endangering the livelihoods and income security of millions of workers. Its devastating effects are hitting hardest the informal workers and difficult-to-cover groups, such as domestic and agricultural workers, and persons employed in micro and small enterprises, since many of them are not covered by contributory schemes. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 60 per cent of the world's employed population, or nearly 2 billion people, are in the informal economy, and most of them work under challenging conditions and without social protection (ILO, 2018).
To attenuate the effects of the crisis and prevent further increases in poverty levels, nearly all governments worldwide have implemented a wide range of temporary social protection measures, initially intended to last for three months. The ISSA monitor COVID-19 Social Security Responses reports that between March and October 2020, as many as 37 countries and territories introduced emergency social security programmes.
Extraordinary measures and legislation focussed particularly on sickness, unemployment and social assistance benefits, including social transfers and food support. An unprecedented number of measures also expanded the scope and increased the benefits of existing social assistance programmes. The COVID-19 Social Security Responses monitor observes that between March and October 2020, 23 countries in the Americas implemented measures to strengthen existing non-contributory schemes, including increases in benefit amounts, the ad hoc provision of additional payments, the advancement of transfers, and the relaxation of qualifying conditions.
Based on the entries to the ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas competition 2020, this article analyses experiences in Anguilla, Argentina, Canada and Grenada to extend social protection by introducing and scaling up emergency income security programmes as part of the urgent response to the pandemic. These experiences demonstrate the importance of these measures for affected population groups, and highlight the key role of administrative capacity and agility to ensure their effectiveness.
Anguilla: Implementing an emergency unemployment/underemployment benefit
To prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the country's shutdown on 27 March 2020. In anticipation of the effects of the lockdown on thousands of workers in an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism, the government reintroduced a temporary unemployment benefit that had already been implemented in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
To provide support to as many people as possible, two government-funded benefit programmes were introduced. One programme was administered by the Anguilla Social Security Board (SSB) and was based on the individual’s contribution records. The government administered another programme that directly paid the benefit to those who were not covered by the SSB or did not have sufficient contributions. The policy decision made thousands of workers eligible for a cash transfer for up to three months, including self-employed persons and those in non-standard employment.
For the ASSB, this meant providing a flat-rate benefit of up to 1,000 Eastern Caribbean dollars (XCD) a month to unemployed or underemployed persons who had at least 50 weeks of contributions before 1 February 2020. Mindful of social distancing protocols and the need to protect clients and staff from the virus, the challenge was how to serve the public given that most of the staff were on furlough, only a skeletal force worked at the SSB office, and processes were paper- and presence-based.
In less than a month, the SSB put in place a web-based platform to receive online applications and to make online benefit payments through banks. Protocols ensured the security of the platform. While the platform was being developed, the SSB launched a full-fledged awareness campaign to inform the public of the new benefit and what needed to be done to avail of it. Social media and a dedicated call centre responded to customer inquiries and needs. Dedicated and skilled staff working with a robust computerized system were the cornerstone of the programme's success.
Argentina: Emergency family income
To respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Argentinian government funded the Emergency Family Income (Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia – IFE), a non-contributory programme that targeted households composed of casual workers, unemployed persons, domestic workers and those who were in the lowest categories of small taxpayers. Initially conceived as a one-off flat-rate benefit of 10,000 Argentine Pesos (ARS) paid in March and April, a second payment was made in June and July, with the possibility of a third payment.
The implementation of the IFE has many noteworthy features:
- Timely roll out. The government created the IFE by decree five days after the country's first generalized lockdown.
- Coordinated approach. The implementation of the IFE required the coordination of five national bodies, namely, the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Labour, the Federal Administration of Public Resources (Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos – AFIP), the National Social Security Administration (Administración Nacional de la Seguridad Social – ANSES), and the Office of the Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers.
- Targeted approach. The programme targeted vulnerable and difficult-to-cover groups, including low-income self-employed persons enrolled in a simplified system for small contributors (Monotributistas A, Monotributistas B and Monotributistas Sociales), informal workers, domestic workers, and unemployed persons significantly affected by the lockdowns.
- Sensitivity to children, women and the unemployed. The IFE was compatible with other non-contributory benefits. It also prioritized beneficiaries of the Universal Child Allowance and the Universal Pregnancy Allowance. The first round of payments showed that 55.7 per cent of the recipients were women; 61.7 per cent fell within the category of informal workers and unemployed persons not receiving an unemployment benefit.
- Adequate level of benefits. The flat-rate amount of 10,000 ARS corresponded to nearly 60 per cent of the country's monthly minimum wage.
- Identifying the uncovered. Because the IFE targeted casual workers and the unemployed who do not receive unemployment benefits, the IFE became an entry point for these groups to social security, favouring their inclusion in future policies. By channelling the second IFE payment through banks, it also facilitated access to those previously excluded from the banking system.
Based on the information provided by ANSES, the provinces with the highest incidence of poverty and indigence in Argentina had the highest IFE coverage rates. Micro-simulations estimate that the IFE prevented 2.8 million people from falling into poverty and saved 1.4 million people from destitution.
Grenada: Implementing a temporary unemployment benefit
Anticipating the labour market and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and acknowledging the absence of unemployment protection, the government of Grenada tasked the National Insurance Board (NIB) to implement a temporary unemployment assistance benefit (UAB). In addition to the financial implications of administering an unfunded benefit, the NIB was also aware of the potential recessive effects of the pandemic on contribution payments, investment income, and possible increases in sickness claims. In this context and in compliance with social security legislation, the NIB requested an independent actuarial assessment of the pandemic's financial impact, including the design and cost of the UAB.
The NIB Board, and subsequently the government, approved the actuarial recommendations, including the allocation of no more than 10 million XCD for the UAB, the eligibility conditions to avail of the benefit, the benefit amount and duration, and the administrative procedures to file claims. Simultaneously, NIB developed a cloud-based online submission platform, a software to process claims, and staff training on the use of the new software. The electronic funds transfer service was scaled up to allow direct payment to a beneficiary’s bank account. The NIB's Public Relations Department rolled out a communications campaign to inform all members of the new benefit.
The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the NIB's digital transformation, as evidenced by the use of a web-based benefit application form for employers, the scaling up of online payments, and the development of an automated notification system to inform members on the status of their claims via email.
The sequential approach that the government and the NIB took to implement the UAB roughly follows the process outlined by the ILO Recommendation No. 202 on the establishment of social protection floors (see Figure 1). The future policy direction of the government of Grenada in terms of establishing an unemployment protection scheme remains to be seen.
Figure 1.Sequential approach for formulating and implementing social security extension strategies
Source: Adapted from the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202).
Canada: One-time tax-free payment for seniors
The Old Age Security (OAS) programme is the first pillar of Canada’s retirement income. Non-contributory, residence-based and financed through general tax revenues, it seeks to provide minimum income guarantees to seniors and contribute to the income replacement of the retired. The benefits under the programme include an OAS pension that is paid to all persons aged 65 and over who meet residency and legal status requirements, a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for all low-income OAS pensioners, and an Allowance for low-income persons aged 60 to 64 who are the spouses or common-law partners of GIS recipients, or are widows or widowers. The Employment and Social Development Canada administers the programme.
Recognizing the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health, physical mobility and financial situation of the elderly, the government earmarked 2.5 billion Canadian dollars (CAD) to finance a one-time tax-free payment of CAD 300 for OAS pensioners, with an additional CAD 200 for GIS recipients, and an additional CAD 500 for Allowance recipients. The additional financial support aims to help seniors with the heightened health, economic and social challenges resulting from the pandemic.
The speed at which the government acted on the one-time tax-free payment for seniors reflected the urgency of the situation.
- The Minister for Seniors was able to take measures rapidly by establishing the new grant under the existing regulations of the Department of Employment and Social Development Act (DESDA). This innovative approach allowed the government to obtain the requisite authority to provide the CAD 2.5 billion in benefit payments in a few weeks.
- To ensure a seamless delivery of payments, the emergency benefits did not require the filing of applications. A different IT system was developed and Artificial Intelligence was used to ensure that the most vulnerable Canadians received the benefit.
- In most cases, the payments were deposited automatically to the eligible senior's bank account. Cheques were issued to beneficiaries who were not enrolled for direct bank deposits.
- The one-time payment was designed to be non-taxable to ensure that it did not impact the recipient's entitlement to any other federal or provincial income-tested benefit.
Emergency programmes are particularly valuable policy tools in times of crisis. The measures adopted in Anguilla, Argentina, Canada, and Grenada illustrate some of the ways in which such programmes may be designed. In Anguilla and Grenada, the emergency measures were introduced to provide income security and bridge the lack of an established unemployment programme. In Argentina, the temporary measures became an opportunity to identify more individuals in difficult-to-cover groups. In Canada, the additional transfers enhanced the existing schemes for the elderly.
The effectiveness of emergency programmes depends directly on the available capacity to implement them and to deliver benefits to vulnerable population groups. Significantly, all country examples analyzed in this article show governments relying on the delivery infrastructure of existing social security institutions and entrusting them with additional tasks and mandates. Social security institutions responded in a rapid, agile and flexible way, innovated existing IT systems and developed online platforms to administer benefits and emergency assistance to population groups including those not yet registered with them.
By their very nature, emergency programmes are temporary and therefore have limited potential in realizing on a sustainable basis the human right to social security. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark reminder that coverage gaps need to be addressed more urgently and that efforts to build comprehensive social security systems must be strengthened. In addition, and now more than ever, there is also clear evidence for the importance of appropriate investment in the administrative capacity to deliver social security as a strategic asset for the resilience of societies and economies.
Gentilini, U. et al. 2020. Social protection and jobs responses to COVID‐19: A real‐time review of country measures (Living paper version 11). Washington, DC, World Bank.
ILO. 2012. Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202). Adopted in Geneva, 101st ILC session (14 Jun 2012).
ILO. 2018. Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture (3rd ed.). Geneva, International Labour Office.
ILO. 2020. Brief: COVID-19 crisis and the informal economy: Immediate responses and policy challenges. International Labour Office, Geneva.