With over 1.9 million people across the globe affected by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) to date [1], the search continues for the most effective means to contain the spread of the disease and limit its impact on health, economies and lives. Social protection emerges as a key response mechanism. In rural areas, it can play a critical role to save lives and livelihoods. This blog will look at the specific situation and needs of rural populations, and advocate for their appropriate coverage, in order to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and foster an inclusive recovery. 

Social protection as a key response to COVID-19

The current measures to contain the pandemic are focused on strengthening health care systems and slowing down the pace of contagion by limiting the ability of individuals to circulate and congregate [2]. In addition to health and civil protection measures, social protection is increasingly recognized as an important part of the emergency response, to accompany confinement measures, and ensure they can be complied with, to guarantee healthcare coverage for all, and also to reduce the magnitude of the pandemic’s secondary impact on livelihoods, in particular for the most vulnerable (UNICEF, 2020). 

This is particularly urgent in rural areas, especially in developing countries, where poverty and deprivation are pervasive, human development indicators lower, and access to basic infrastructure and services - including health care - is a challenge even in “normal" times. Safeguarding livelihoods now is important to avoid worsening secondary economic impacts of the pandemic and to ensure maintaining food and nutrition security of the entire population (Torero Cullen, 2020).    

As of 10 April 2020, 126 countries around the world - and this number is growing by the day - had adopted or announced special social protection measures as part of their COVID-19 response (Gentilini, Almenfi and Orton, 2020) [3]. Initially, many of these measures originated from high-income countries, but increasingly all regions and income levels are represented. 

While highly diverse in their operational details, magnitude and reach, these measures can be categorized as follows:

  • New (one-off or recurring) transfers, either universal (only two instances) or poverty/categorically targeted
  • Expanded social transfers or other social assistance programmes, when an existing social assistance programme is expanded to: include more beneficiaries; and/or deliver a larger benefit; 
  • Modified social transfers to anticipate periodic payments, eliminated conditionalities and/or include a different delivery modality (e.g. school feeding provided as takeaway or directly at children’s house, etc.)
  • Utility and debt payment waivers or postponement
  • Social insurance benefits (some countries have even expanded these to informal workers)
    • Health insurance
    • unemployment benefits
    • Sick leave
    • Waivers or subsidized contributions
  • Employment: wage subsidies, changes in labour laws, unemployment benefits, etc. 

Many countries introduced several measures to support different needs. Mainly these measures seek to ensure that everyone has access to health care and services, notably related to COVID-19 testing and treatment; to protect incomes while people are unable to continue working – either because they are ill or because movements are restricted, or in the aftermath of the pandemic when the secondary effects of the pandemic will be felt. However, lesser focus has been put on protecting and promoting livelihoods to ensure an inclusive recovery; and many of these measures risk of leaving rural populations behind.

The dual challenge of rural areas to fight COVID-19 and ensure food security

Rural areas face a dual, sometimes conflicting, challenge. On the one hand, social distancing and confinement measures need to be applied in order to stop the spread of the disease; and, on the other hand, activities related to food production, distribution, processing, and retailing need to be maintained to ensure food security for all. These challenges will be difficult to meet in contexts where access to health care is limited, informality is high (hence insurance coverage is low), access to basic infrastructure (such as running water) is sometimes non-existent, poverty is high, and movement of seasonal workers is a common phenomenon.

The specific role of social protection during and after the COVID-19 pandemic is to provide income support or security to all vulnerable people. In rural areas, this is critical to prevent the likely increase in child labour [4], it can also avert the accentuation of gender inequality and marginalization of particularly vulnerable groups, and ensure critical access to health care. Moreover, social protection can support livelihoods, and hence ensure a more inclusive recovery, when it is implemented in conjunction with other measures aimed at supporting production, in coordination with the agriculture (crop and livestock), forestry and fisheries sectors, to support small producers, especially the most vulnerable, and avoid disruptions in food systems.

Leave no one behind: the specific challenges of rural populations 

Many of the extraordinary social protection measures adopted as a COVID-19 response have the potential to reach rural populations. However, across the globe, there is currently a rural-urban divide in terms of social protection coverage, in particular regarding social insurance and health coverage. As it stands, 56% of rural dwellers do not have access to any health coverage (while this share is only of 22% for the urban population), and this share is as high as 80% in Africa (ILO, 2017). Many people infected with COVID-19 will therefore not be able to access necessary services related to testing and care without incurring catastrophic expenses. This could also contribute to the spreading of the disease. Social insurance measures are instrumental to secure income when people can no longer continue working due to sickness, care responsibilities or mandatory restrictions of movement related to COVID-19 containment measures. But this protection is unavailable to many. In rural areas, social insurance coverage is extremely low due to high levels of informality and specific exclusion of workers from the agricultural sectors (Allieu and Ocampo, 2019) [5]. Even for social assistance, for which rural coverage rates are relatively higher, some barriers exist which could leave rural populations behind. 

Mainly, gaps in coverage may arise due to:

  • Low participation in social insurance schemes and high informality, thus excluding many rural workers from social insurance benefits such as health insurance, sick leave, and unemployment benefits.
  • The ability of social protection systems to continue or rapidly increase registering of participants and delivering of benefits will also depend on the preparedness of the system to respond to shocks, the institutional capacity to quickly process applications, demands and payments, and where physical delivery of benefits is not possible due to social distancing measures, the capacity to switch to immaterial delivery channels. 
  • Physical barriers, such as distance to registration or delivery points, can impede people from accessing benefits that they are entitled to. In many parts of the world, social benefits are still delivered in-kind or physically by distributing cash. When trying to switch to other delivery channels (such as mobile money or bank transfers, limited mobile money or banking penetration or limited technological literacy) some huge limiting factors can be faced.
  • Although specific contexts vary, “women and girls, people in rural areas, indigenous peoples, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, gender and sexual minorities, youth and older persons” are disproportionately affected by poverty and inequality, especially those who experience multiple and compounding forms of discrimination and disadvantage (UNDP, 2016).  Many of the most marginalized face further risk through a lack of access to or insufficient social protection and will face greater barriers to recover from the secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, these measures may not entirely respond to the specific needs of rural populations, as highlighted above. Addressing issues of child labour, gender disparities and social exclusion and stigma will be particularly key during the emergency, and once it is officially over. Women bear a high share of the COVID-19 burden, because the gender dimensions of care work expose women and girls disproportionately to the virus (Boniol et al, 2019). In addition to the direct risks, an increase in care responsibilities and work burden can affect the well-being and the ability of women to engage in paid work. 

Additional work that falls on girls may also limit their ability to learn while reductions in school-feeding programmes may impact their nutrition and lower further their chances to benefit from education. In contexts where food insecurity is prevalent, women and girls eat the least and last, and the closure of schools and the reduction of school-feeding programmes may have disproportionate impacts on girls.In response to COVID-19, but also to ensure an inclusive recovery, social protection systems need to expand their reach to rural populations, and also increase the adequacy of their policies and programmes with regards to rural populations’ specific needs. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) can specifically support efforts to expand social protection systems in response to COVID-19 and their reach of rural populations. Understanding coverage gaps both in numbers and adequacy (of new or expanded social protection benefits) and highlighting the specific needs and vulnerabilities of rural populations are important initial steps. In line with these first steps, FAO can support the design of appropriate policies and programmes, accompanying governments and other actors in their efforts to tailor programmes to the needs of vulnerable populations in terms of design and operations. In order to reduce the economic and food security impact of the pandemic, FAO can foster coordination with agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors to support lives but also livelihoods. 


[1] https://covid19.who.int accessed 16 April 2020 

[2] To various degrees – depending on the context from quasi total lockdown as in Italy, to limits in the number of people in gatherings (Senegal, Switzerland, etc.)

[3] Numbers updated every Friday, accessible at http://www.ugogentilini.net/

[4] As children are out of schools, more able to freely circulate unnoticed while parents are unable to work and savings dwindle. The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action is preparing a specific brief on the impact of COVID-19 on child labour, looking as well as the agriculture sector. It will be available on https://www.alliancecpha.org/en

[5] Only 45% of the world’s population is covered by at least one social protection benefit. When looking at adequate coverage, this share drops to only 29%. While rural-urban disaggregated statistics do not exist, specific barriers exist for rural populations which makes under-coverage endemic to rural areas. (Allieu & Ocampo, 2019)



Allieu, A. M., & Ocampo, A. (2019). On the path to universal coverage for rural populations: removing barriers of access to social protection.Rome: FAO.

Boniol, M., McIsaac, M., Xu, L., Wuliji, T., Diallo, K., & and Campbell, J. (2019). Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 Countries. .World Health Organization.

FAO. (2017). FAO's Social Protection Framework. Enhancing food security, nutrition and rural development outcomes for all.Rome: FAO.

Gentilini, U., Almenfi, M., & Orton, I. (2020). Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures.version 2. 27 March 2020. Available at: ugogentilini.net.

ILO. (2017). World Social Protection Report 2017-19.Geneva: ILO.

Torero Cullen, M. (2020). COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond?Rome: FAO.

UNDP. (2016). Human Development Report 2016: Human Development for Everyone.New York: UNDP.

UNICEF. (2020). COVID-19 Emergency Response Monitoring and mitigating the secondary impacts of the COVID19 epidemic on WASH services availability and access.New York: UNICEF.



Social Protection Programmes: 
  • All programmes - General
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Coverage
  • Informal social protection
  • Labour regulation
  • Political economy
  • Social protection systems
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Disasters and crisis
  • Food and nutritional security
  • Poverty
  • Global
  • Global
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