Social protection in times of Covid

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the economy in several ways

Social protection  in times of Covid

No part of the world has remained untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone has suffered directly or indirectly due to the disease or been affected by the preventive measures. Social protection systems are crucial to protect the poor and the vulnerable when such crises hit.

In this case, the higher costs of medical treatment on one hand and a shutdown of businesses as a result of a lockdown strategy to reduce spread of disease on the other, resulted in a reduction in supply and affordability of essential household items.

Higher prices for food and basic goods and limited access as well as higher medical costs have adversely affected millions of people. Like many other nations that have faced economic crisis due to this pandemic, the Pakistani economy has suffered a decline in trade and investment, leading to an increase in unemployment, poverty and food insecurity.

Most countries are still struggling to protect their people, especially the vulnerable and the marginalised people, who are at a higher risk. In Pakistan, out of the 59 million people earning their livelihoods in the informal sector, 11.5 million people face the threat of falling into poverty as their incomes are declining due to the closure of economic activities.

The pandemic has hit the economy in several ways. It has aggravated the challenges Pakistan was already facing in the absence of social assistance, with a focus on food insecurity and healthcare coverage. As of 2018, 36.9 percent of Pakistan’s population faced food insecurity. The social security/ insurance covers the formal sector/ targeted populations that make up around 28 percent the labour force.

Recently, the PBS conducted a national level survey to measure the magnitude and extent of the impact of Covid-19 based on three major socio-economic domains: work situation/ employment, food security and general well-being of the population during Covid-19.

According to the survey, 27.31 million workers, 22 percent of the working population, have been affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns. 74 percent of the affected workers are in the informal sector. They have either lost their jobs or have been unable to work due to a lockdown.

To deal with these socio economic impacts, various coping strategies have been adopted at the household level. These include reduction in food expenditure, delay in payment of liabilities, spending from savings, loans and selling of property and assets. One of the main coping strategies in the Covid-19 is spending from personal and bank loans and savings to meet the financial crunch.

According to the PBS, “Households in all provinces have adopted almost the same patterns to cope with the situation, i.e., reduction in non-food expenses. In the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the second most adopted strategy reported is use of savings/ loans/ sale of property for coping with the financial shock (45 percent and 50 percent, respectively). In Sindh and Balochistan, the second most common measure adopted by households to cope with the shock was reduction in food expenditure (to the tune of 56 percent and 50 percent, respectively). Some households also managed the situation by borrowing money from family, relatives, employers or banks. This percentage is higher in Balochistan with 61 percent, followed by Sindh with 53 percent.”

A report launched on June 24, by Social Protection Resource Centre (SPRC) based on PBS micro data to bring out different associations and dimensions of impacts on coping strategies and vulnerabilities, shows use of loans and savings was more common. It says 69 percent of both male and female heads of family used their savings or borrowed money to cope with the economic situation.

Similar trends can be seen in people with no formal education and lower education levels. Alarmingly, 16 percent and 13 percent family heads sold property or assets with an education from nursery to middle and matric to FSC, respectively. Meanwhile, 76 percent of people living in urban areas spent from savings and loans from relatives as their key coping strategy to overcome the economic burden. 52 percent of people living in rural area also used their savings and loans.

According to a Pakistan Bureau of Statistics survey, 27.31 million workers, 22 percent of the working population, have been affected by the Covid-related lockdowns.

24 percent of people living in rural areas and 13 percent of people living in urban areas have sold properties and assets to fulfil their economic needs. In both populations, the use of savings and loans remained the most common coping strategy in the households to cope with the economic situation during Covid-19, fragilising the situation of the poor even further. The report also shows that among the households facing moderate food insecurity, 64 percent had to spend their savings and borrowed money. As a second option, 20 percent sold their properties and assets. 67 percent of households that faced severe food insecurity also used their savings and loans.

The statistics show that households that suffered from moderate to severe food insecurity did not reduce their food intake. The most prevalent or focused coping strategy used by such households during the Covid-19 was the use of savings and loans, not government support.

The government had responded, at the national and provincial levels, with interventions in health sector and cash distribution to address the impacts of income loss. The government of Pakistan had announced an economic support package of Rs 1.2 trillion in the form of a multi-sector relief package to address the challenges arising from the outbreak of Covid-19.

Initiatives taken by the government in response to Covid-19 included Covid Relief Cash Transfer Programme, a Loan Extension and Restructuring Package, State Bank of Pakistan Rozgaar Scheme, facilitating new investment, supporting the health sector to combat Covid-19 and the Ehsaas Ration Portal.

At the centre of the economic package was emergency support for social protection programmes. In terms of sources and coverage of social assistance, the results of the report indicated that overall, 33 percent of the households, i.e., approximately 17.07 million households received assistance during the pandemic. The government expanded the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme from 4.9 to 12 million households and distributes Rs 144 billion rupees Rs 12,000 per household, providing cash grants of Rs 158 billion to nearly 3 million daily wagers.

A detailed analysis of the PBS data done by an SPRC team showed a complex picture. A major portion of the assistance did not come from government’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash Transfers but from private social assistance. More than 93 percent of the recipients were men.

It is evident that the focus of social assistance in terms of cash transfers from the government and private sources during Covid-19 lockdown was mainly the male population due to restrictions on access to employment and work, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors where labour force participation favoured male workers.

The national social assistance programmes have an undesirable rural bias. The rural-urban divide in the provision of social assistance showed that social assistance from official sources during Covid-19 lockdown went mostly to villages. Private social assistance mainly covered the urban areas. Overall, out of the total assistance provided, 41 percent benefited the urban population and 58 percent went to the rural population.

Assistance from the private sector/ NGOs was significantly more but with limited coverage. This implies that the policy adopted by the government, based on a short-term solution to cover the targetted population registered/ identified from the BISP beneficiary data, did not help in this crisis the way it should. A large number of households and communities were thus left to fend for themselves.

Evidence suggests that if resilience to shocks was already integrated in the system by universalisation of life course social protection, then these emergency responses to shocks would have made a real difference in a sustainable way. At present, in Pakistan, we only have targetted income transfer programmes with a high risk of inclusion and exclusion errors.

There is a clear need for inclusive and transformative social protection regime that extends the benefits of economic growth by strengthening the federal and provincial institutions in such a way that if a natural disaster or pandemic hits, the system has the capacity to absorb the shock and cushion the people.

The writer is based in Islamabad

Social protection in times of Covid