• A new report finds that only about half of the world has access to social protections like healthcare or unemployment insurance.
  • The report argues that countries are at a crossroads, where they can either create more robust programs or pull back.
  • Throughout the pandemic, existing inequality has become apparent and pressing.

The pandemic’s devastating impact on the world has laid bare some of the economic inequalities countries faced before the crisis hit, and, in many cases, exacerbated them.

Now, however, may be a pivotal moment in implementing stronger economic protections for people around the world, according to a new report.

The International Labour Organization found that, in 2020, just about 47% of the world’s population had access to at least one social protection benefit, including healthcare, unemployment benefits, child benefits, and assured income for elders.

Broadly, the report found that 4 billion are either partially protected or completely unprotected, with just 30.6% of those who are working age covered by “comprehensive” systems, or those that “include the full range of benefits, from child and family benefits to old-age pensions.”

Notably, 8% fewer women than men have access to that coverage. In Europe and Central Asia, 83.9% of people are covered by at least one benefit; in Africa, just 17.4% are.

“This crisis has underscored the vital role of social protection as a front-line policy response,” the report said. “Crucially, it has made the case for universal social protection irrefutable.”

It’s no secret that the impact of the pandemic was felt unevenly even in wealthy countries like the US, with many — including President Joe Biden — fearing that the economy could face a “K-shaped” recovery. That means that higher-income workers see their wages and job opportunities grow, while those at the bottom experience the opposite.

But rising inequality wasn’t just a pandemic-era issue: Insider’s Andy Kiersz reported in 2019 that America already had a two-track economy, where the economic boom was disproportionately helping those at the top.

The least developed area of protection across the world is unemployment insurance, with just 18.6% of jobless workers getting coverage. In the US, calls to reform unemployment insurance (UI) to cover more workers have come as 7.5 million unemployed Americans lose their federal benefits.

Globally, unemployed people, children, and mothers with newborns were all less likely to be covered by social protections. In developing countries, more workers are in the informal economy, where they’re in temporary or non-full-time roles, and aren’t entitled to protections. However, high-income countries spend more of their GDP on social protection.

“The aphorism that the true measure of a society is displayed by how well it treats its most vulnerable members gains particular force in the context of COVID‑19. Held against this yardstick, many societies fall short,” the report said. 

However, temporary relief measures did offer some much needed assistance. After the passage of the CARES Act, which offered income protection ranging from stimulus checks to expanded unemployment benefits, poverty in the US fell in April and May of 2020. Checking account balances went up. When those temporary relief measures ended, nearly 8 million Americans fell below the poverty line.

“Crises, whether related to health, economic shocks, climate change, or disasters and conflicts, have always underlined the need to expand social protection as a key tool to combat poverty and inequalities and strengthen social cohesion,” the report said.

It’s also why the ILO concludes that countries are at a crossroad, where they can pull back spending and continue to fund safety net programs that still exclude potential recipients — or funnel funding into creating longer-lasting and more robust social protection programs.

“Countries can use the policy window prised open by the pandemic and build on their crisis-response measures to strengthen their social protection systems and progressively close protection gaps in order to ensure that everyone is protected against both systemic shocks and ordinary life cycle risks,” the report said.