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Covid-19 test to our social protection system

Tuesday March 24 2020
HONG KONG

People wear masks on a train on the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Hong Kong on January 25, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. PHOTO | DALE DE LA REY | AFP

By JAMES JUMBA

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 global pandemic, the government has set in motion a raft of measures designed to not only arrest the spread of the coronavirus disease in Kenya but also ameliorate its negative financial and economic impact on the population.

Many governments in the developed world are at different stages of deploying a variety of financial and social assistance mechanisms to help its citizens and business communities, who are struggling through the shocks associated with the pandemic.

But many low- and middle-income countries, such as Kenya, lack the fiscal wherewithal or latitude to offer impactful interventional support to those most vulnerable to the related shocks.

It will be interesting to see how the government manoeuvres the balance between its aggressive tax collection strategy and the need to provide incentives to cushion the vulnerable citizens from the impact of Covid-19.

DEPRESSED BUSINESS
The manufacturing and services sectors are staring at a depressed business outlook with a number of companies already contemplating layoffs or some element of downsizing.

The informal employment sector, which largely relies on the multiplier effect of formal employment, seems likely to be hit hardest as a result of these developments.

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This pandemic will most certainly increase vulnerability in the entire spectrum of our society, hence the need to scale up interventions such as universal or targeted cash transfers for stipends and food or price subsidies.

Although it is not expected that the current government-led social protection programmes will be negatively affected in the immediate period, it can be foreseen that this pandemic will cause significant fiscal strain in the long term that might adversely affect the government’s agenda to expand some of these programmes.

With overstretched fiscal resources, the interventions expected from the government to cushion the larger part of our population from the multiple shocks may not be sufficient. Perhaps it is time we fell back to some of the fading traditional social protection mechanisms to help us to wade through this unprecedented challenge.

A good neighbour may now have to share their meal with that child who initially relied on the school feeding programme for food or be ready to give a sibling who has just lost his job a roof over his head.

GLOBAL CHALLENGE

A pensioner could be forced to split his pension cheque to give a lifeline to his child in the city while a vulnerable mother in the countryside may still have to share her subsistence crop harvest with a close relative.

Further, the pandemic is a global challenge that requires strong international partnerships that bring together all countries of goodwill and international development organisations to mobilise resources and strategies not only to eliminate the coronavirus but also scale up various social protection mechanisms.

It is also a clarion call to the government and other actors in the social protection space to double their efforts in driving the agenda of strengthening our social protection institutions and safety net mechanisms to make them more responsive to such calamities in the future.

Mr Jumba, a lawyer, is a social protection specialist. [email protected]

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