COVID-19 and social security in the Americas: experiences and lessons for the future

COVID-19 and social security in the Americas: experiences and lessons for the future

On 3 December 2020, the ISSA Social Security Virtual Summit for the Americas brought together more than 500 administrators, managers and experts in the field from across the region.

Under the theme Towards a new normal: Challenges and opportunities, the Virtual Summit was an opportunity to take stock of the dynamic social security responses to COVID-19 and to assess the long-term challenges and lessons learnt in this region.

Following some opening remarks from the President of the International Social Security Association (ISSA), Professor Joachim Breuer, ISSA Secretary General Marcelo Abi-Ramia Caetano noted that the unprecedented crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic had generated a similarly unprecedented response and a renewed consensus on the fundamental importance of social security to social and economic stability.

He added that, at a global level, the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated existing challenges, such as the changes currently underway in the world of work, high levels of inequality, poverty, and gaps in social security coverage.

This region, like other parts of the world, has seen the adoption of measures to, among other things, temporarily extend coverage to vulnerable groups and self-employed workers, strengthen health-care systems and extend the material scope of social security systems through the creation of new benefits.

The Secretary General noted that the ISSA is in the process of drawing up new guidelines on service continuity and concluded by emphasizing the key role social security institutions have played in implementing these measures, adapting their activities and transforming their processes to fit their new reality in order to ensure they can provide service continuity and meet user needs.

On the basis of this overview of the measures put in place to address the social security crisis, and the outcomes of the sessions on coverage, inequalities and the digitization of service delivery, summit participants sent a strong message on the fundamental role of social security as well as the administrative capacity of societies and their resilience in the Americas. Looking beyond the challenges that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the summit identified a series of opportunities for improving social security in the region.

Session 1: COVID-19: Temporary crisis or turning point for social security?

This session opened with a keynote address from Vinicius Pinheiro, Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. In his speech, Vinicius Pinheiro stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic had led to the worst global economic crisis in a century – one that has been felt particularly acutely in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a sharp fall in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the loss of many jobs. The severity of the crisis in this region owes both to structural conditions in the labour markets, including high levels of informal labour and socially unproductive activities, and to social conditions, such as great disparities in income, access to core services and access to social security.

The panellists – directors of social security institutions in Argentina, Costa Rica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States – confirmed that income-protection measures have proved to be among the most effective strategies to mitigate the effects of the crisis. As such, contributory social security benefits, social transfers and emergency programmes have played a key role in reactivating economic activity in the region.

The panel also stressed that the challenges faced now, and those that are yet to come, provide a real opportunity for social security institutions: an opportunity to use digital transformation to ensure service continuity; to work together with the financial sector to improve beneficiaries’ use of bank accounts and their financial inclusion; to raise the profile of social security as a stabilizing force in the economy; and to convince governments, businesses and workers of the importance of rolling out occupational health and safety programmes.

Session 2: Coverage extension: building on crisis responses and seizing new opportunities

In this session, Katja Hujo, Senior Research Coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), underscored the impact of social policy on growth and economic stability, wealth redistribution, social cohesion, and the progressive respect for human rights. She also emphasized that, while the economic, employment, health and social crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly resulted in innovative social policies being implemented in record time, some of the pre-existing challenges exacerbated by the pandemic call for medium- and long-term strategies.

Senior officials from institutions in Brazil, Ecuador, Spain and Trinidad and Tobago shared some of the actions taken in their countries to extend social security coverage. These include implementing emergency programmes aimed at vulnerable and informal workers, establishing temporary benefits and services, increasing the flexibility of benefit-eligibility criteria, reducing contribution rates, and adapting the systems’ legislative frameworks.

Success factors common to these various experiences were the development of administrative solutions permitting service continuity, the adoption of new technological tools, the simplification of processes and digitization of services, and the implementation of learning and development programmes for social security staff.

It was clear from the various interventions that some challenges remain – challenges that include the establishment of social protection floors, the strengthening of labour standards, the reduction of macroeconomic and fiscal imbalances, and the bolstering of social protection systems (including integrated health systems) – and that overcoming these challenges is key to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Session 3: Access, adequacy and the gender gap: Enhancing social security’s role in addressing inequalities

Shahra Razavi, Director of the Social Protection Department at the International Labour Office, launched this session by underlining the vital role of social protection in reducing poverty and inequality. She also noted that how successfully social security systems meet these objectives depends on the effective coverage, the risks, and the adequacy of the benefits accorded. Although 67.6 per cent of this region’s population is covered by at least one cash social security benefit, compared with just 45.2 per cent globally (ILO, World Social Protection Database), there remain a number of structural challenges. For example, access to decent employment, the gender gap in terms of both income and membership of contributory systems, inequalities in accessing benefits, and the benefits’ ability to ensure a decent standard of living.

Panellists from Canada and Mexico shared some of the gender-related social security measures that have recently been put in place in their countries. Of particular note are contributory social security systems’ extension of coverage to difficult-to-cover groups, such as domestic workers, and the strengthening of programmes and services that enable carers to remain in work and incentivize a more equitable redistribution of domestic responsibilities.

The session also touched on moves to reduce other types of inequality, which have improved both genders’ access to social security in Canada, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Such measures include processes to promote the use of banking services; intergenerational involvement in counselling and psychological support; the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to safeguard access to health services through teleconsultations and telemedicine; and the introduction of paid leave to care for sick children.

Session 4: COVID-19 and ICT: An accelerating paradigm shift in social security service delivery

The final session of the regional summit highlighted how the crisis had driven innovation across the entire region, not only boosting access to benefits, but also confidence in social security systems. In his speech, Morten Meyerhoff Nielsen, EGOV Adviser at the United Nations University, provided a series of examples to demonstrate how the crisis has positively altered institutions’ working practices, both internal and external, promoting the use of technology, digital channels, automation and data analysis, as well as inter-institutional coordination and the transfer of information between institutions providing complementary services.

Some concrete challenges also came up, such as how to protect sensitive data, the need for electronic identification systems, and the risk of excluding certain segments of the population with limited access to or a lack of familiarity with digital channels.

The experiences of Chile, Panama, Peru and Uruguay show how the use of technology has accelerated the digital transformation of social security institutions, thereby enhancing service quality and leading to time and cost savings. Among other things mentioned were the creation of digital medical records, telemedicine, the development of online and mobile applications, the integration of information systems, and the use of data analysis in resource planning and decision-making.

Recognition of achievements: Good Practice award

As the summit drew to a close, the ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas 2020 was awarded to Employment and Social Development Canada for its good practice entitled Service transformation: Design-thinking and the Acceleration Hub.

To find out more about our panellists’ contributions, or to watch the keynote speeches, please visit the event page containing the videos or the web page containing the presentations.