Ensuring social security coverage during COVID-19


Ensuring social security coverage during COVID-19

After over a year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to address existing and new social security coverage gaps due to extensive labour market disruptions continue to be at the forefront of governments’ agendas to minimize the negative impact of the crisis and protect people’s livelihoods.

The International Labour Office estimates that an equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost in 2020 alone (ILO, 2021) and the World Bank predicts that up to 100 million people will be propelled into extreme poverty by having to live with under 1.90 US dollars (USD) a day (2011 purchasing power parity) (World Bank, 2020).

In the face of these unparalleled circumstances, governments recurred to different policy measures to protect impacted population groups with a focus on unprotected workers (e.g. informal sector workers, self-employed) and those in the hardest hit sectors (i.e. accommodation, food services, arts and culture, retail and construction services). Some countries scaled up and adapted the coverage of existing social security schemes, whilst others adopted ad-hoc measures mostly in the form of non-contributory emergency cash transfers (ISSA, 2020a).

The protection of the self-employed, domestic and agricultural workers has been of particular concern since contributory social security programmes do not reach many of them (ibid). The introduction and extension of various contributory and non-contributory social security programmes was aimed also at reaching workers in new forms of employment and informal sector workers. The latter, referred to also as the “missing middle”, would have found themselves completely unprotected during this crisis.

As a sanitary emergency measure primarily, access to free or affordable COVID-19 testing and necessary treatment in case of infection was introduced almost immediately. Along with job retention programmes, unemployment benefits were extended to previously uncovered groups (e.g. self-employed, informal sector workers) including their introduction in countries without such programmes (ISSA, 2020b). Care benefits to meet the challenge of childcare due to the closure of schools were mostly based on modifications to sickness and partial unemployment schemes, as well as on adapting existing or newly introducing childcare and parental benefits (ISSA, 2021a). Another main and constant concern during the crisis was ensuring social protection for particularly vulnerable individuals (e.g. low-income households, self-employed workers, domestic and migrant workers, and informal sector workers), on whom the crisis has been most impactful (ISSA, 2020c).

The present article seeks to provide an overview of the policy strategies countries have implemented to maintain social security coverage levels and is based on previous ISSA articles on the extension of emergency cash programs and on extending coverage to artists, domestic workers and the self-employed, as well as on the ISSA COVID-19 Monitor.

Table 1 below presents a stylized categorization of measures for ensuring social security coverage a distinction between the extension of existing programmes and introduction of emergency programmes. It includes a non-exhaustive list of countries that have implemented these measures. Adaptations to relax eligibility criteria and ensure benefits’ adequacy have been re-assessed continuously.

Table 1. Social security strategies to extend/ensure coverage
Measures Countries implementing the measures
Extending protection of existing schemes /programmes to uncovered groups Protection to self-employed, artists, domestic workers, informal sector workers Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominica, France, Guatemala, Namibia, Spain

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2020c; ISSA, 2020b; ISSA, 2020d; ISSA, 2020e; ISSA, 2020f.
Improving adequacy of benefits: Higher and double payments Albania, Algeria, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Philippines, Singapore, Tunisia, United States, Uruguay, Vietnam

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2020c; ISSA, 2020g; ISSA, 2021b.
Easier access to benefits of existing programmes Relaxation of qualifying conditions Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, United Kingdom, European Union

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2021b; ISSA, 2020h; ISSA, 2021a.
Facilitating access to free testing and healthcare China, France, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2021c; ISSA, 2020i; ISSA, 2020e; ISSA, 2020d.
Facilitating access to family support benefits through existing schemes (e.g. sickness and partial unemployment) Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, United Kingdom

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2021a; ISSA, 2020e; ISSA, 2020j.
Introduction of emergency programmes and temporary complementary benefits Providing emergency cash support Anguilla, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominica, Grenada, Guatemala

For more details, please refer to the following articles: ISSA, 2020c; ISSA, 2020f.

Extending health / medical coverage

One of the first measures to respond to the health crisis was to extend access to health care, which was possible thanks to the redirection of fiscal resources to hospitals. Several countries provided free testing and some included COVID-19 treatment into their regular health packages (ILO, 2020). Anticipating the high demand and expecting to cover underserved population groups, some private hospitals were temporarily placed under public regulation (ibid).

Frontline workers’ exposure to the virus posed the immediate question of whether COVID-19 should be recognized as an occupational disease. The National Employment Accident Insurance Institute of Italy (INAIL) was among the first institutions to recognize the virus as an occupational disease thus protecting essential health care staff (ISSA, 2020h).

Facilitating access to family support benefits

With regards to cash sickness benefits these were adapted to be provided for non-traditional purposes, most notably for prevention (i.e. in case of quarantine) and economic criteria (i.e. for employees put on temporary leave in countries without unemployment insurance). Furthermore, access was extended to groups otherwise not entitled to sickness benefits, and in most cases, the financing source was governments’ general revenues (Razavi et al, 2020).

With the subsequent closure of day-care centres, kindergartens and schools, parents had to take on childcare responsibilities. Special temporary childcare benefits were provided to compensate for the loss of income of parents staying at home and not being able to work. Some countries, like France, established childcare facilities specifically for parents working in essential professions, and in particular those in the health care sector. Sickness benefits and partial unemployment schemes were also activated for care needs not only of children at home, but also for people needing constant assistance for performing daily activities and who had lost their main carer due to the lockdown restrictions (ISSA, 2021a). The latter was achieved by the temporary change that social security institutions adopted by allowing insured persons and employees to claim sickness benefits and reduce working hours for the sole purpose of caring for another family member in need. Importantly, temporary cash benefits were provided to families with children living below a certain income threshold, including those whose livelihoods were negatively impacted by the crisis. For example, in Germany, a one-time child bonus of 150 Euros (EUR) per child was paid to low- and middle-income families benefitting around 18 million children. In addition, the proof of salary needed to assess the eligibility to the social assistance allowance for children was modified to take into account only the last month’s salary prior to application for the benefit, instead of the last six (ibid).

Introduction or extension of social assistance benefits for vulnerable groups

Emergency cash programmes played a central role, covering vulnerable groups, such as low-income families and individuals, including older people, children, orphans and persons with a disability. By extension, households with low-income self-employed workers, and workers in difficult-to-cover groups, such as domestic, agricultural and small own account workers benefitted from these measures as well. For example, in Kenya, a one-off cash transfer was paid to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable groups to help them cope with their loss of income. Some of these one-off cash transfers also explicitly encouraged people to stay at home during the lockdown, such as Peru’s “380 soles Bond” that was framed under the campaign “I am staying home” (Yo me quedo en casa). This cash transfer was already being paid to low-income families, but it was expanded to include low-income self-employed workers.

In Argentina, the Emergency Family Income (Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia − IFE) was introduced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The IFE is a non-contributory benefit for households composed of casual workers, unemployed people, workers in private homes and those taxed under the regime for small taxpayers from the lowest categories. The three payments of 10,000 pesos (ARS) each (corresponding to 60 per cent of the country’s minimum wage) were the only income protection for the casual workers and the unemployed without entitlement to unemployment benefits. Furthermore, the IFE was sensitive to women and children, as recipients of the existing Universal Child Allowance (Asignación Universal por hijo) and Universal Pregnancy Allowance (Asignación por Embarazo para Protección Social) were prioritized.

Existing non-contributory programmes relied on their delivery infrastructure to extend their coverage. Latin America’s largest cash transfer programme, “Bolsa Familia”, from Brazil, was extended to cover more than one million additional families. In Malaysia, the Bantuan Sara Hindu (BSH) programme, also a cash transfer for poor families, introduced an extra payment for existing beneficiaries, and added a one-off payment to 1.2 million additional households.

Unemployment benefits

Unemployment benefits are one of the most important measures to mitigate the economic and social impact of shocks and extreme events. Yet, most countries lack social security arrangements to cover the risk of unemployment and effective coverage is low. To support the rapidly increasing unemployed population, in Anguilla, Grenada and Dominica the social security institutions deployed emergency unemployment benefit programmes. For Anguilla, this was not an entirely new measure as the government had introduced a temporary unemployment benefit in 2017 in response to the consequences of Hurricane Irma. Two distinct benefits, one based on previous contributions to Anguilla’s Social Security Board (SSB), and the other targeted to workers not registered with the SSB (including workers in non-standard employment), or who had insufficient contributions to qualify, were initially in place for three months. In Dominica, the financial assistance programme was targeted to low-income families with at least one child under age 18, but it was also provided to individuals who either had been laid off or whose employment had been terminated as a result the COVID-19 pandemic, including self-employed workers and micro-business owners.

Anticipating the hardship that self-employed workers would face due to their low coverage under the existing voluntary unemployment programme, in Denmark this group of workers was given the opportunity to opt into an unemployment insurance fund without having to fulfil the usual requirement of a 12-month membership period before unemployment benefits can be claimed. A further relaxation of eligibility criteria made it easier to claim unemployment benefits for a short duration of time in the case of a temporary closure of the affected business instead of a permanent one required under normal circumstances.


In the face of the continuous uncertainty on the duration of the crisis, governments and the larger international community have acknowledged the need to substantially reinforce social security programmes to protect individuals’ incomes and health. At the same time, these programmes need to be adapted to adequately cover workers in all forms of employment, including workers in new types of work, in the informal economy and in self-employment, who have been among the most affected by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lessons learnt show that social security efforts to extend coverage, particularly to the aforementioned groups, need to be coordinated with health and employment policies, including employment and formalization promotion measures and active labour market policies. The formalization of employment is an essential factor for achieving social protection for all. Whilst contributory social insurance schemes are the major instrument to achieve this objective, tax-financed (non-contributory) schemes also play an important role, especially in times of crisis when the most vulnerable are hit hardest.

A window of opportunity is now open to capitalize on the implemented measures to consolidate the coverage outcomes and, in particular, to sustainably extend social security coverage to difficult-to-reach groups. Institutional capacities acquired during the crisis including through digitalization, inter-institutional coordination, updated beneficiaries registries and innovative delivery channels are key enabling factors in this regard. Clearly, however, the effectiveness of these capacities will depend on sound policy decisions to ensure a comprehensive, progressive and permanent extension of social security coverage to otherwise unprotected workers.

Abiding to the aspiration of Universal Social Protection by 2030, and to a rights-based approach to social security, the ISSA Guidelines on Administrative Solutions for Coverage Extension and the related knowledge offer administrative principles and pragmatic approaches to support social security institutions’ important goal of achieving social security for all.

References and further reading

Becker, U. et al. 2020. Protecting livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis: Legal comparison of measures to maintain employment, the economy and social protection (Working Paper, No. 7/2020). Munich, Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy.

ILO. 2021. ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work (Seventh edition). Geneva, International Labour Office.

ISSA. 2020a. Innovating to extend coverage to difficult-to-cover groups: Good practices from the Americas. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020b. Meeting the employment challenges of the second wave of COVID-19: The case of Europe. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020c. COVID-19: Protecting vulnerable groups through emergency benefits. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020d. Social security responses to COVID-19: The case of Spain. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020e. COVID-19 – Social security measures in France. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020f. COVID-19 social security emergency programmes: Experiences from the Americas. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020g. The social security response to COVID-19: The case of North Africa. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020h. Frontier workers, COVID-19 and telework: Pragmatic social security responses in the European Union. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020i. Social security responses to COVID-19: The case of Italy. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020j. COVID-19 crisis: A renewed attention to sickness benefits. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020k. Can COVID-19 be considered an occupational disease? Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2020l. Social security measures for the self-employed during the COVID-19 crisis. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2021a. Childcare benefits and compensation during COVID-19. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2021b. Unemployment benefits during COVID-19. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2021c. Building more resilient health systems. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2021d. Beyond COVID-19: Towards inclusive and resilient social protection systems. Geneva, International Social Security Association.

ISSA. 2021e. Coronavirus country measures (COVID-19 Monitor). Geneva, International Social Security Association.

Razavi, S. et al. 2020. “Reinvigorating the social contract and strengthening social cohesion: Social protection responses to COVID-19”, in International Social Security Review, Vol 73, No. 3.

World Bank. 2020. Projected poverty impacts of COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Washington, DC.