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Social Protection and COVID-19: Policy Responses Must Include Older People

"Around the world, social protection enables people to live with dignity by providing access to health services, income, housing, and food. For older people facing poverty or serious illness, these programs can mean life or death. "

Old caucasian woman sits looking out windowBy Ben F. Belton, Director, Global Partner Engagement, AARP International and Florian Juergens, Global Social Protection Advisor, HelpAge International

Our world has been devastated by a pandemic whose severity and complexity is without equal in modern times. While COVID-19 has not been the great equalizer, it has certainly been the great disruptor. Health systems, economies, and supply chains across the globe have been pushed to near collapse.  

Left in the pandemic’s wake have been increased poverty, hunger, isolation, and death. According to the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers report, “we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks” due to COVID-19. While no demographic has been spared, fatalities among older people have been catastrophic. Places where older people should have been safe, such as long-term care facilities, became death traps. A recent report of 21 countries shows that residents of these facilities made up about 46% of COVID-19 deaths. Things did not have to be this way. From the earliest days, it was clear that older people were at a higher risk of being infected and potential death.

COVID-19 has also exposed the toxic intersectionality between structural inequity and ageism. The United Nations Policy Brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights speaks of the “high levels of inequalities that fuel its spread,” as well as the ageism in public discourse that the pandemic has unleashed.

Reflecting on how the world should respond, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in an interview, “We need a new generation of social protection policies.” He went on to say that, “Every single person is entitled to be recognized as a human being and the dignity of that human being will be fully respected.”

What is Social Protection?

These programs provide security when people face life’s often-inevitable economic shocks or other difficulties. Examples of such programs include pensions, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and paid leave. Around the world, social protection enables people to live with dignity by providing access to health services, income, housing, and food. For older people facing poverty or serious illness, these programs can mean life or death.   

A Critical Component of Countries’ Policy Response to COVID-19

Social protection responses have been a pillar of countries’ efforts to protect their populations and rebuild their economies. The International Labour Organization reports that over 200 countries and territories have announced initiatives that expand or strengthen social protection in response to COVID-19.

Countries have been doing some interesting things. Australia, for instance, provided paid pandemic leave for long-term care workers. In Greece, the government covered a portion of employer social insurance contributions for certain workers. Mexico is offering free life insurance to health workers. And Portugal expanded social security for informal workers, with Prime Minister Costa saying of such workers, “We are here to support you. This is the moment to formalize your participation in public life.”      

Robust Protection in Richer Countries but Limited Support in LMICs

Global spending on COVID-19 related social protection stands at nearly $589 billion, or about 0.4% of the world’s GDP. However, this spending mostly took place in richer countries, with low and middle-income countries (LMICs) making up only about 14% of total spending. 

High-income countries with existing social protection systems were able to quickly implement programs in response to COVID-19. Despite being severely affected by the economic crisis, many LMICs have much less capacity to respond. Poorer countries have struggled to mobilize adequate resources—and develop policy, programs, and systems—in very difficult circumstances.

A key lesson is that countries with accurate population data and a strong social protection infrastructure can more easily find people in crisis and quickly scale-up support. Building capacity for social protection systems in LMICs will be critical to prepare for future crises.   

Older People Must Not Be Forgotten 

COVID-19 has exposed the tragedy of income insecurity in old age. Sadly, that is the reality in most LMICs, where fewer than 20% of older people have a pension, and the benefits that exist are often very low. And as COVID-19 has killed older people across the globe, few social protection responses have specifically targeted them. A mere eight countries have expanded pension coverage for older people and only 35 have temporarily or permanently increased the pension amount. There are also barriers to equitable access of social protection for older people. A survey of HelpAge International network members in Africa, Asia and Latin America found that older people face significant challenges in accessing emergency programs. There is a widespread lack of communications targeting older people and a need for clear instructions on how to access services.

Simple solutions include tailoring communications to take into consideration various literacy levels and physical or sensory challenges, and providing information in multiple formats and local languages. In places where older people receive pension payments in cash, steps must be taken to protect them and facility staff from the risk of infection. Staggering payment days to prevent large groups from gathering, prioritizing older people’s access, and following hygiene and safety protocols are key.

Inclusive Social Protection Supports Recovery

Social protection has been critical in blunting the impact of the pandemic. As the economic crisis deepens in many countries, social protection can be a tool for recovery. The World Bank projects that COVID-19 may thrust 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021. To avoid large-scale humanitarian crises, untold suffering, and irreversible setbacks, social protection systems must be strengthened, and older people must not be forgotten.  

 

 


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