In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in the developing world responded quickly to the threat of infection, and to the economic contraction that followed from quarantine measures. A range of governments, in countries from India to Nigeria to Peru, aggressively pushed through stimulus packages intended to shore up economies and provide critical income lifelines to families hit by loss of work or business. The international financial institutions (IFIs) and some developed-country governments stepped up as well, with the IMF making up to ‘$250 billion of its $1 trillion lending capacity’ available to member countries, the G20 recommending a temporary suspension of debt payments for the world’s poorest countries, and the World Bank promising to provide ‘up to $160 billion in financing from April 2020 to June 2021’.
As economic difficulties continue and poverty and inequality increase, the need to rethink insurance schemes and the social contract between state and society has become pressing.
But as economic difficulties continue and poverty and inequality increase, the need to rethink insurance schemes and the social contract between state and society has become pressing. Indeed, the situation demands no less than a structural reimagining of the nature of work and social insurance in the context of the fractured labour markets that have evolved over the past 30 years. The pandemic is exacerbating the economic and social insecurity of those employed in the informal sector, reflecting a failure of domestic and international policy prescriptions.
A coordinated response is needed between IFIs and national governments to develop flexible, individual and publicly subsidized insurance schemes that provide social safety nets to informal and self-employed workers in developed and developing economies alike. The major shareholders in the IMF and the World Bank will need – with the support of developed economies such as those in the G7 and G20 – to push for policy changes that will specifically support social insurance agendas and programmes targeting informal sector and ‘gig’ workers. The IFIs will need to develop the capacity to advise on the development of these programmes, and systematically monitor and evaluate their effectiveness, in collaboration with beneficiary governments.