The webinar entitled ‘How can social protection systems respond to the COVID-19 crisis?’ was the second event of the Social protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series, which is part of a joint initiative to systematise and share knowledge on social protection responses to the COVID-19 crisis. This webinar aimed at presenting a comprehensive framework to explore how various countries are using their existing social protection systems to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa Hannigan (DFAT) moderated the session and was joined by speakers Valentina Barca (independent consultant) and Michael Samson (EPRI), as well as Christoph Strupat (DIE) as a discussant. The participants explored how integrated social protection interventions can contribute to a more comprehensive response to tackle the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis. They also identified cross-cutting themes and overarching questions to be explored in upcoming webinars of this series. The event was organised by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), GIZ and DFAT, and took place on April 7th.


You can watch the webinar recording here and access the webinar presentation here.


Valentina Barca started her presentation by highlighting that the framework for the webinar series, developed in collaboration with Rodolfo Beazley (OPM) and Fabio Veras (IPC-IG), aims to explore how social protection can play an important role to support the COVID-19 response, therefore, diving into practical considerations. The speaker emphasised that there is a consensus across all institutions and experts about the need to act fast and precisely to avoid the negative consequences of this unprecedented crisis. In addition, she pointed out some key differences between this crisis and other shocks experienced in the past - such as different segments of the population being affected in different forms, high risk of contagion and lockdowns being a threat to social protection delivery, multidimensional poverty etc - and how these characteristics affect social protection systems and programmes.



The potential role of social protection

Valentina stressed that what can be done in any given country will depend on what they have in place at the moment. Broadly, any social protection system is comprised of three core pillars: social insurance (contributory), social assistance (non-contributory), and labour market policies/interventions. Different countries have different sets of programmes in place in order to address the specific risks their populations face. However, in many low- and middle-income countries (but also in some high-income countries), social protection systems are usually fragmented and do not give adequate protection to all risks and to all population, which results in the ‘missing middle’.

The speaker highlighted that an increasing number of countries have been developing more categorical programmes (categorical cash transfers, school feeding programmes, social care services) to achieve this segment, but still very often people are left behind. Therefore, ideally, we would have a system that covers all risks, whether they are idiosyncratic or covariate, and which would give universal coverage in terms of the people who are reached (i.e. people can access the system when in need) and the adequacy of the benefits that beneficiaries are receiving, but that's often not the case.



Shock-responsive social protection and COVID-19

Valentina argued that a lot of the literature around shock-responsive social protection is focused on preparedness, actions that can be done to strengthen the systems and be ready in advance. However, in this pandemic, most countries are in an ex-post situation, so the focus is on what can be done now. For this, there are two key features that are important to consider regarding shock-responsive social protection systems: resilience and adaptation.

The first step for any country is to make sure that their existing systems and programmes won’t collapse, which will require some changes to routine design and implementation. This is related to system and programme resilience. The second dimension is asking whether there is the potential for those programmes to adapt so as to cover changed context and needs. This can be done via existing or completely new programmes that build on existing systems to the extent possible if these are strong enough.



By framing the issue and focusing on adequacy, coverage and comprehensiveness, the speaker invited the audience to look across the many social protection components and instruments in terms of social insurance, social assistance and labour market policies and interventions. She, then, made practical considerations on options and examples of key strategies that countries should be considering.





Making a decision

In order to choose what works best for their country, governments should focus on:

a) The impacts on different population groups and current “protection”:

  • Who is actually going to be most affected by the crisis and what level of current protection do they have?
  • What is the size of each section (population group) in the country?
  • How is each covered already by SP?
  • What are the implications of the composition of affected population for social protection policy options to face the shock?
  • Demographic, gender, minorities, urban/rural dimensions

b) Strenght of existing systems and how to build on those: 

  • Policy: financing, legal and policy framework
  • Programme (design): Setting eligibility criteria and qualifying conditions; setting transfer type, level, frequency, duration
  • Administration: outreach, registration, enrolment, payment, case management, complaints and appeals, protection, VAM/M&E, information management

So how can we build on those to quickly register, enrol and pay?


c) Focus on outcomes:

  • Timeliness and simplicity vs accuracy
  • Building on what is already in place
  • Coherence across all components to comprehensively address needs (universality
  • Coordination with other mechanisms
  • Act short-term, but think medium-long term


The Coronavirus Triple Threat

Michael Samson began his presentation by exploring the three types of interacting shocks that make up a crisis:

  1. Direct exogenous shock(s): condition(s) or event(s) resulting directly from a crisis in the absence of mitigation - e.g. drought destroys crops and livestock
  2. Indirect exogenous shock(s): condition(s) or event(s) resulting indirectly from a crisis in the absence of mitigation - e.g. lost livelihoods create hunger
  3. Indirect endogenous shock(s): condition(s) or event(s) resulting indirectly from responses to a crisis or the resulting consequences - e.g. shock-responsive cash transfers improve food insecurity but create inflation



The coronavirus Triple Threat involves all three and so much of the immediate consequences have resulted from the way we're responding to the crisis around the world. Moreover, there are major social protection gaps, particularly in Africa, but also in other regions. Therefore, it is important to think in a more coherent approach that can strengthen the effectiveness of responses.



Some key social protection and health responses were explored by the speaker, such as:

  • Pre-emptive social health interventions (including appropriate preventive measures) complemented by immediate supply-side investments can mitigate the epidemiological shock - e.g. Taiwan’s government established the National Health Command Center to better coordinate different agencies, moved to ramp up domestic facemask production, rolled out island-wide testing for the coronavirus.
  • The main social protection intervention is universal health provision - e.g. Indonesia contributing IDR 3 Trillion to the national health insurance scheme to cover contributions for 30 million non-salaried workers.

Moreover, he emphasised that the main response of governments globally – both in terms of unconditional cash transfers and formal labour market initiatives – has been provision-oriented measures. Many countries are scaling up existing cash transfer programmes, and this often offers the most rapid livelihoods response – e.g. South Africa faces this opportunity with the Child Support Grant, but hesitates to act in the face of the financial implications; Brazil’s Bolsa Familia adds over a million new beneficiaries; Indonesia’s PKH aims for a similar increase this month; Philippines 4Ps waives all conditionalities.


How can governments make social protection’s provision function work better to tackle this pandemic?

Michael also dived into some specific questions (with summarised responses):


  • What do we do when our programs don’t cover all of the affected people?

Evidence suggests that benefits are often redistributed across households to correct targeting errors and improve equity. Monitor, identify options to expand horizontally, adapt.  

  • How to register people quickly?

Use existing registration systems and adapt them as necessary. Move households from waiting lists to receipt. Adopt other systems as appropriate: for example, use a public works payroll system to provide unconditional cash transfers to vulnerable and now displaced workers.

  • How can we leverage existing delivery systems even if they are weak?

More universal approaches sidestep the weaknesses in existing delivery systems. Proxy recipients for those who are ill or unable to receive benefits (monitor).

  • What do we do about raising people’s expectations of ongoing larger transfers?

Be honest and transparent, but recognise there is uncertainty. Do not inordinately dampen positive expectations.

  • What do we do when we have to wind back systems after a social protection expansion when people are still very vulnerable, and this may cause instability?

Many social protection programmes started as temporary schemes and evolved— for the good—into permanent systems. Creating unnecessary pessimism now will undermine the potential of the systems to strengthen economic recover.


Core social protection interventions create a two-way street, required by the mainline response for equity but in turn reinforcing the effectiveness of this response. These core social protection benefits and programmes might suffice in the short term. However, in many developing countries, if the likely worst-case scenario materializes and these kinds of measures are required for 12 or 18 months or longer, there is going to be a need for contextual responses.

Adaptive livelihoods and disruption-resilient human capital

The speaker highlighted that most livelihoods’ interventions in response to the pandemic focus on the formal labour market, but informal labour markets dominate livelihoods in developing countries. Therefore, adaptive livelihoods are key for developing countries’ response. He also stressed that crises can affect children with long-lasting consequences, including psycho-social impacts, consequently, it is important to think on how governments, communities and households can support child development and human capital activities that are resilient to this disruption.  

Communications, behaviour change and social norms

A major area of comprehensive social protection involves communications for development—and in many countries globally, communications are failing. Trust in authorities is a vital resource for tackling a pandemic. Many comprehensive social protection programmes aim to achieve developmental impact by including behavioural change components (e.g. hand-washing and other aspects of water-and-sanitation investments complement existing social protection initiatives). Moreover, crises often provide powerful forces that work to change social norms.


The speaker also highlighted key challenges on delivering a better response: attention gaps, finance constraints, political will, and evidence gaps.


Main takeaways

  • Social protection interventions should not delay an appropriate mainline pandemic response.
  • Core social protection interventions should align as closely as possible with the schedule for the mainline responses, and both reduce social and economic costs as well as reinforce the effectiveness of the mainline responses.
  • More comprehensive social protection responses can further reduce both short-term and long-term costs and better ensure overall coherence.
  • Credible rapid-response evidence, including that from household-based micro-models, can inform a more integrated and comprehensive response.
  • In the likely worst case-scenario, for which responses requires multiple years of successive phases, the first phase can lower long-term costs by tackling the emerging vulnerabilities of the new seclusion society.



Christoph Strupat reflected on both presentations and stressed that a wide range of options and examples were offered on how social protection can respond to this current crisis. The discussant emphasised the short-term social protection responses options presented by Valentina Barca to stabilize current social protection programmes, such as school feeding programmes and public works programmes, as key for addressing an immediate need. He also suggested countries use ‘triangulation of information’ when adapting/implementing measures and scaling up programmes: 1. information about current beneficiary, 2. information by other programmes or sector, and 3. information about the spread of the virus, and where it has been more affected. 

The discussant offered some insights on Michael Samson’s presentation by underlying the importance of comprehensive social protection programmes, in particular, and how these changes in vulnerabilities and risks are affecting the way countries deal with the crisis (programme delivery, financial constraints, political instability etc).

He also highlighted some key information from research on past pandemics, including that many of those who were contaminated by and survive the Spanish Flu ended up having long-term negative health consequences, which in some cases led to labour constraints. It’s hard to predict if this will be the case for the COVID-19 crisis, but might be that we already have to think of a larger share of people that will need to be covered by some type of social protection instruments in the long term.

The discussant also posed a couple of questions to the speakers:

  • How to support, especially, countries that only have inadequate social protection systems and programmes in place?
  • How can countries with low delivery capacity implement comprehensive approaches, considering all kinds of constraints?


The webinar concluded with a rich Q&A session, accessible here. You can also join the Q&A discussion here


This blog post is part of the Social protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations.

Join our online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-10 [Task force]" to learn more about the initiative and future webinars