The COVID-19 pandemic has led countries across the Americas to take unprecedented steps to protect their populations, chiefly in the fields of public health and social security.
As the International Social Security Association (ISSA) reports, States put into place a wide range of policies designed to safeguard their citizens against lost income when lockdown measures made it impossible for them to carry out their productive economic activities.
Such policies have been many and varied, but commonly have comprised of employment protection, the mobilization of unemployment benefits and the creation of social programmes to protect those groups hit hardest by the crisis, such as self-employed and informal workers.
According to a new study by the ISSA, Social security responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – The Americas, the pandemic has borne witness to specific ad hoc and emergency intervention to support the region’s vulnerable people, including:
- temporary cash benefits paid on a regular basis for a limited period and one-off lump-sum payments to support the vulnerable;
- temporary increases in existing benefits;
- advance payment of benefits to reduce the health risks of overcrowding in payment centres;
- temporary relaxation of eligibility criteria and extension of coverage for existing benefits to population groups that previously enjoyed no coverage, such as informal workers.
For the working population, a number of specific responses have been rolled out. For those affiliated with social insurance programmes, as well as for employers, greater flexibility in the payment of contribution has been made possible in some countries, sometimes including a temporary exemption from paying contributions. A major shift in some countries has seen COVID-19 infection classified as an occupational disease, affording workers with access to improved social protection. Many countries have witnessed emergency support for the unemployed as well as a strengthening of unemployment benefits.
These and other developments will be discussed at the ISSA’s Virtual Social Security Forum for the Americas, 1–3 December 2021. They are addressed in detail in a forthcoming ISSA report, Priorities for social security: Trends, challenges and solutions – The Americas 2021, to be launched at the event.
The importance of social security organizations and service continuity
There is no doubt that social security organizations have been key to implementing wide ranging emergency measures efficiently and effectively. Similarly, medical service providers have played a fundamental role in the roll out of national health measures.
Importantly, all key public institutions have successfully maintained the continuity of their services while reducing unnecessary physical contact with the public. The transition towards an integrated human/digital approach has not only helped to achieve these ends, but also provided a blueprint for moving towards a more agile social security system and higher-quality services.
To respond to the social distancing restrictions that significantly reduced the services that could be provided to the public, the organizations adjusted their service-delivery models, by adopting measures such as:
- a greater use of digital channels, including electronic, mobile and shared data services;
- the use of call centres to provide services to those unable to access digital channels, and home based services where required;
- softening requirements for physical presence and paper-based documents in the submission of requests and the handling of operations;
- the re-deployment of staff and adapting processes to handle an unprecedented volume of operations.
Two years on
Although social security organizations acted swiftly to adapt their service-delivery models to ensure service continuity with a minimum of face-to-face interaction, efforts to meet existing and emerging social protection needs stemming from the pandemic remain key priorities for national governments.
For the ISSA, a major lesson to be shared from these experiences is the importance of investing in institutional capacity – qualified staff, technology, infrastructure and governance – to ensure the effectiveness, scope and timeliness of the social security measures implemented.