Blog written with inputs from Sarah Bailey
COVID-19 hit, as several Eastern Caribbean countries and territories were still recovering from the effects of hurricanes. For Small Island Development States, there may be a small silver lining – the pandemic’s impacts have led their governments to take a closer look at their social protection systems: “No matter the type of crisis, there is always a role for social protection”.
- Most Caribbean governments took early measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19
Early measures in response to COVID-19 by governments across the region yielded important results on the health front, but curfews and closed borders interrupted commercial activity and the halt/sharp decline in tourism resulting in cascading economic impacts. Early estimates by UNICEF, in May 2020, of percentage changes in total employment indicated that Eastern Caribbean countries may lose an average of 27 per cent of their jobs. A CARICOM Caribbean Food Security and Livelihoods Survey implemented by WFP found that 7 out of 10 respondents had faced job loss or reduced income in their household – 9 out of 10 among those who classified themselves as having well-below average income.
- Social protection was part of every country and territory’s response to COVID-19 in the region
While governments across the region have experience in relying on social protection in the case of hurricanes, the financial and economic crisis and other events, COVID-19 has significantly altered regional experiences on shock-responsive social protection. In line with the global trend, social assistance accounts for most of the social protection response to immediate and/or medium-term needs with a strong focus on cash-based measures. Yet, in-kind responses, such as food assistance, are still more common across the region, while public works programmes are less commonly used. With regard to social insurance, unemployment benefits are the most commonly used measure in the region.
For many Eastern Caribbean countries and territories, the fallout from COVID-19 came at a particularly inopportune time: Many were still recovering from the long-lasting effects of the 2008/2009 financial and economic crisis, while also having been affected by natural disasters. As Permanent Secretary Sylvanie Burton of Dominica summed it up for her island nation, “Dominica suffered from the devastation from Hurricane Maria in 2017, and as we were making strides in the development process of our country to rebuild this nation, here comes COVID-19”.
- A first lesson emerging: Moving from preparedness for natural hazards to multiple hazards
“Oftentimes in the Caribbean, we focus on the impacts of natural hazards, but as COVID has taught us it is really about multiple impacts” (Velda Joseph, 2020).
COVID has shown that a non-natural hazard can also have severe negative implications for all sectors of the economy, including social, economic, health and wellbeing aspects. According to Permanent Secretary Velda Joseph of Saint Lucia, while the country had a 25% poverty rate in 2016, current calculations estimate that this poverty rate could double as a consequence of the COVID-19 fallout. Similarly, preliminary estimates for the post-COVID-19 unemployment rate suggest it could be twice as high as the 21% pre-COVID-19 in Saint Lucia (UNICEF, 2020). Declines in revenue, particularly due to the negative impact on the tourism sector, losses of income and a decline in remittances are just some of the underlying causes hitting the region particularly hard.
Increased social protection needs, including food, income, housing and psychosocial support have already been recorded by the Saint Lucian Ministry of Equity, since COVID-19 entered the region in March 2020. The Government of Saint Lucia responded with temporarily scaled-up social assistance, including initial cash top-ups (combined with hygiene kits) to particularly vulnerable groups, including children in foster care, with disabilities and people with HIV/Aids, as well as increasing the number of people benefiting from the Public Assistance Programme (from 2600 to 3600 households), supported by UNICEF and WFP respectively*. While social security supported National Insurance contributors, those unable to contribute but unemployed due to COVID-19 also receive 3 months of support (ECD 500) - including hairdressers, small restaurant/bar owners, artists, tour guide operators and other service providers in the tourism industry. Hot meals and food were distributed, educational assistance and psychosocial support provided.
- What is next: Increased social protection will be required well into the foreseeable future
In the face of continuous socio-economic impacts, governments will have to continue to provide increased social protection. In Saint Lucia, plans for the needed transition from response to recovery are already underway: by offering skills and job (re)training, public works, micro-lending, promoting backyard gardening for food security – as implemented in Dominica – and reviewing the national insurance system moving towards unemployment insurance – looking to Barbados’ experience with it.
In Anguilla, the social protection response also flagged several bottlenecks, which can help inform future investments in the system. “COVID has taught us the importance to work across sectors – especially as it relates to data sharing. Ideally, we can establish a system that will allow for seamless sharing of information to support a more joined-up targeted social protection response. While integrated MIS may not be the short-term plan, there is definitely a need for a central electronic registry for social protection schemes. As sector integration improves, the need for effective online linked-up databases will become increasingly important. … Our focus going forward with the assistance of UNICEF will be on system strengthening, so how do we ensure that our systems are positioned to best respond to future shocks” (Bonnie Richardson-Lake, 2020). A COVID-19 Human and Economic Impact Assessment for Anguilla conducted by UNDP, UNICEF and UN Women, in June 2020, highlighted that if social protection measures, such as unemployment benefits, are designed for a short-term period, these will be unable to stabilize workers’ incomes—particularly those in the tourism industry. The temporary (contributory) unemployment benefits have now already been extended well into 2021.
- Finding opportunity in crisis: Social protection to better prepare and respond in the future
“If there is a silver lining to this COVID pandemic, it is that it has caused us to look at our systems with a critical eye.” (Bonnie Richardson-Lake, 2020).
Based on lessons from Hurricane Maria and COVID-19 in Dominica, some opportunities identified include the need for improved coordination and collaboration between disaster risk management, social protection and other sectors, for linkages with national plans and other cross-sector strategies. “We all have to collaborate and coordinate so we can be able to reach more persons. We have to share lessons learned and training experience so as to build awareness and knowledge. And most importantly we have to work with our partners” (Sylvanie Burton, 2020), given that financing will continue to be a challenge, and technical expertise needed. WFP has been supporting the government in their social assistance response, introducing digital registration and reconciliation of cash transfer payments – laying the groundwork for more efficient processes.
“SIDS can stand to benefit from technical and financial assistance that will not only help us through these difficult times but will enable us to build resistant more SRSP systems. (…) COVID has really driven home the importance of preparedness in absence of shocks, having systems in place prior to unexpected events ensuring that the most vulnerable members of the populations are able to cope, that programmes are resilient and more importantly that they are shock-responsive”, (Bonnie Richardson-Lake, 2020). “We have to leverage the opportunities that social protection presents to help our nation build resilience” (Velda Joseph, 2020). Therefore, “no matter the type of crisis, there is always a role for social protection” (Bonnie Richardson-Lake, 2020).
*The support provided by UNICEF and WFP forms part of a wider Joint Programme, which draws on the expertise of 5 UN organizations, also including the ILO, UNDP and UN Women. Under this Joint Programme US$4.75 million has been provided to assist the Governments of Barbados, Saint Lucia and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) in strengthening their social protection systems, ensuring access to people in need during times of crisis.
“This blog post is published as part of the activities to promote and disseminate the results and key discussions of the global e-Conference ‘Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?’, held in October 2020. The blog summarises the key messages from the e-Conference’s Side Event on Lessons from the COVID-19 Response for Shock-responsive Social Protection in the Caribbean. The session was moderated by Sarah Bailey, WFP, and Christina Dankmeyer, UNICEF. It was joined by speakers Bonnie A. Richardson-Lake, Ministry of Social Development of Anguilla; Velda Octave-Joseph, Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Local Government and Empowerment of Saint Lucia; and Sylvanie Burton, Ministry of Youth Development and Empowerment, Youth at Risk, Gender Affairs, Seniors' Security and Dominicans With Disabilities of Dominica. You can watch the full session here.”.