National debates around social protection and welfare provision have long been permeated by the discourse on deservingness, dividing the scene between high and middle-income earners (the yacht owners and cruise goers) who “contribute” to society through taxes and their hard work, versus “the others”, “the poor” (left to their precarious rafts) that require support from the State. The way this scene has been scripted, we were never all in the same boat. Nonetheless, we have argued elsewhere that everyone contributes to society, and that the static and rigid distinction of who “the poor” are, is somewhat artificial.
But does the current COVID-19 pandemic change that perspective on who deserves State support and who is vulnerable to shocks, risks and pandemics?
Yes, we are in the same boat
I have never been much of a sea lover, but I have always been a firm believer that we are all in the same boat despite structural inequalities that leave many in society behind. Never has advocating for social protection systems for all based on human rights principles and social justice been so crucial as it is during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Our societies and technocratic experts in the fields of international development and social policy have decisively improved our understanding of poverty. We no longer see it as merely a lack of income, and we have advanced significantly in developing a wide set of tools to measure poverty from a multidimensional perspective and incorporating human rights considerations into global debates.
But has this nuanced understanding of poverty filtered through to national dialogues and mainstream thinking? Do we see poverty as something we, ourselves, could experience? Or is it just for a different segment of society, the “others”?
Unfortunately, there is still an underlying assumption in many societies that poverty is linked to personal rather than structural failings — that it is an individual lack of drive that perpetuates poverty rather than our collective inability to put in place proper social and economic policies to address poverty.
And of course, the storytelling around who “the poor” are, as well the circumstances that lead people to experience poverty, have a stark impact on our preferences for where our tax money should go, and on the policies that our policy makers devise.
Are the old lifeboats enough?
So will we reach for the sorts of responses most societies relied on during non-pandemic times? A “lifeboat” approach that tosses out floating rings and rickety dinghies to those who fall overboard? The prevailing social protection policy “solutions” have comprised: making sure that only the most “deserving poor” in our societies access State support; that we use “scarce resources” in the most effective ways to make it last; welfare systems that apply sanctions and conditions to service delivery so that individuals prove their deservingness; and a complete disregard of the fact that social protection is a right, not a State handout. This has been true in countries as diverse as the richest country, the United States, to middle-income countries in Latin America, to many low-income countries across the world.
But then, COVID-19 emerges on the horizon. Suddenly, those who are better off – those who were enjoying their outing on the summer yacht or taking that hard-earned cruise – realise that we are just as vulnerable as our fellow seafarers in the rafts and dinghies below. Precipitously, segments of society that are better off realise we are all vulnerable to shocks and risks, just like “the others” who receive benefits from the Government. As such, societies are experiencing how many other segments of society (beyond “the poor” and vulnerable) are losing their jobs, companies are closing their doors, and this virus is having deep and profound impacts on different sectors of the economy. It is suddenly no longer just “the others”.
How sad to see that it is only in moments of crisis that we are, essentially, all in the same boat.
The unequal structures we have created in our modern societies are brought to their knees as we all recognise that unequal health provision, unequal access to the formal labour market, and fragmented and insufficient welfare provision are just not up to the task to a pandemic such as COVID-19.
And that is when we realise that the push for more social justice, as well as more equal and dignified Government social protection provision, is exactly what we need.
So how do we weather the storm?
By recognising that we are all in the same boat when it comes to the need for social protection, and that we need societies based on pillars of solidarity and fair and equitable distribution of wealth and access to services, we can hopefully start pushing for policies and solution that go beyond the shock-responsive solutions that are required right now. By reminding ourselves and policy makers that basing our societies on notions of “them” versus “us”, and then founding our social and economic policies on these assumptions, just does not work. It is in times as this where societies are to measure up to the task at hand.
Acknowledging that all individuals are right holders with entitlements to dignified jobs, universal health care, and universal social protection access, among others. We are all vulnerable to experiencing shocks, risks, poverty, disability and vulnerability, and as such, we all require the support of the State at key moments across our lifecycle.
The countries that had already realised that they are all in the same boat, and had painstakingly erected arks of welfare states and more inclusive systems, are the most likely to come out the least affected, better equipped to return to -hopefully- a new “normal”.
COVID-19 reinforces countries’ collective commitment — within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals — to leaving no one behind, and more importantly, that human rights obligations signed off by States must be guaranteed for all citizens. We are, indeed, all in the same boat.
Read more like this:
Pathways’ Perspective: What has the Covid-19 crisis taught us about social protection?
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