Outbreak exposes weak social protection for poor
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Outbreak exposes weak social protection for poor

The global number of Covid-19 cases is now over 1.3 million with no sign of abating. Within Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines lead the region with 209 and 163 deaths respectively. While the number of Covid-19 cases in the region is small compared to that in the US, Italy or Spain, this may change drastically in the coming weeks as the pandemic sweeps across millions living in the slums.

The World Health Organization has urged Asean governments to take "aggressive" actions to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. One thing is certain, the health crisis will exact devastating economic and social costs on the region in the months and years to come. Already the coronavirus is exposing the weak social protection for the urban poor and vulnerable communities and this will exacerbate the growing inequality within certain Asean countries.

In Thailand, the decision to proceed with construction work on high-rise apartments and office complexes, amidst a partial lockdown in the country, is exposing hundreds of migrant construction workers to the disease, most of whom were not given masks or hand sanitisers or any information about the coronavirus.

Singapore has also given the green light for construction work to continue. Compared to citizens who were handed free masks and hand sanitisers by the government, migrant labourers have to rely on civil society groups for these provisions. As it stands, there has been an outbreak of Covid-19 cases in three migrant worker dormitories. Fear of contracting the virus is growing within these groups, who live in largely unsanitary and crowded conditions, with little information about the coronavirus.

In the Philippines, the sudden announcement of a month-long lockdown for Metro Manila has caused panic and confusion for millions of residents, with some slum residents staging a protest to say that they had not received any food packs and other relief supplies from the government since the lockdown. The outlook is also grim for some 30 million Indonesians living in the slums, most of whom are left to fend for themselves, with little access to affordable healthcare and unemployment benefits.

Like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003, the Covid-19 pandemic is a looming crisis for the urban poor and vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia, such as migrant workers, ethnic minorities, the elderly and people with disabilities. Women and girls also face heightened vulnerability as the burden of care work falls on them when their family members fall sick. Another at risk group is the informal and part-time workers who make up about 70% of Asean's workforce. Many are daily wage earners and/or members of marginalised communities. Their livelihoods will be severely hit by pandemic-response measures, as was the case with the lockdown of Metro Manila.

The 2013 Asean Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection assures that everyone, especially the poor and the vulnerable, are entitled to equitable access to social protection that is a basic human right and covers essential services. It defines social protection as covering, "but is not limited to, social welfare and development, social safety-nets, social insurance, social assistance, social services". It also calls for governments to "allocate adequate financial resources for social protection".

Yet, the current state of social protection in the Asean region is diverse and patchy. Compared to Western Europe and Latin America, which spends about 25% and 12.5% of their GDP respectively on social protection programmes, Asean countries spend only about 6%. A report by the Asian Development Bank states that despite considerable GDP growth in recent decades, the majority of economies in Asia and the Pacific, in particular middle-income countries, have not correspondingly strengthened their systems of social protection.

Only four Asean countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand -- have achieved (near) universal health coverage with the remaining countries committed to achieving it in the near future. Even so, there exist large discrepancies between and within member states in terms of out-of-pocket health expenditure, availability and accessibility of health services, quality and financial sustainability.

It is worth noting that social insurance, such as pensions, unemployment benefits and health insurance, is the dominant form of social protection in Asean, which benefits mainly salaried employees with stable jobs. This means that large segments of the labour force, especially those working in the informal sector or in small enterprises, are not covered by such forms of insurance. Further, social assistance systems (such as welfare assistance, cash or in-kind transfers, health assistance, disaster relief, disability benefits) are underdeveloped and usually dwarfed by social insurance on spending. Moderately poor people -- and people living just above the poverty line -- do not benefit from existing social protection schemes. Women, who tend to work in the informal labour market, enjoy less access to social insurance, social assistance, and labour market programmes.

It is clear that there is ample room not only to scale up social protection expenditures in Southeast Asia but also to broaden coverage of social protection systems.

Social protection played a crucial role during the global financial and economic crises of 1997 and 2008 in mitigating the adverse social and economic impacts. It is also an important tool in mitigating the impacts of shocks from natural disasters, which Southeast Asia frequently suffers from.

While Asean governments will focus on slowing the spread of the virus, it is equally critical to use this opportunity to re-evaluate and strengthen social protection for its populations. The Covid-19 will not be the last of a pandemic we see, nor may it be the worst. Crises such as this and disasters related to climate change have revealed new vulnerabilities and the inability of Asean countries, communities and households to absorb livelihood and other shocks.

Asean governments need to rapidly invest in strengthening and extending social protection systems and expand affordable access to essential services such as health, education, water and sanitation

In doing so, Asean may have a chance to mitigate the losses and damage from Covid-19, with far greater impacts on the urban poor and vulnerable groups.

Chen Chen Lee is Senior Fellow, Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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