Social protection systems underpin the most successful government responses to COVID-19.

A Global Fund for Universal Social Protection can put them in place in the most vulnerable countries.

Four weeks ago, on 11th March 2020, the WHO Director-General declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus rang the alarm bell and called for political leadership, he said that “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic”, but he noted that some countries are struggling with capacity, resources or resolve.

Four weeks later, more than four out of five people (81 per cent) in the global workforce of 3.3 billion are affected by full or partial workplace closures.

The ILO’s latest analysis of the catastrophic effect of COVID-19 on working hours and earnings shows that in the next three months there could be a loss of 195 million full-time equivalent jobs, with 125 million in the Asia-Pacific region, 22 million in Africa and 29 million in the Americas.

Mercy and her family. Credit: Ben Crowe

With unemployment at a level not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the scale of human devastation now extends beyond the risk of contracting COVID-19 to the risk of destitution including malnutrition and starvation. Without work, without an income, workers like Mercy, a single mother of three children, will not have money to feed her family.

Worldwide, prime ministers and presidents are showing their resolve to tackle the pandemic using all the tools at their disposal. Some countries have more tools than others to cope — such as health care systems and unemployment insurance.

But a world in the grip of a pandemic is only as safe as its most vulnerable citizens. And the capacity and resources to tackle this pandemic must be shared if we are going to recover and rebuild resilient economies.

While the WHO warned about the pandemic for months, the speed at which countries have put in place lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus and effectively put whole economies on pause has caused profound global and national economic shocks for working people.

Unlike the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the urgent and lifesaving economic and social responses required do not need to go to a design team. There is one already agreed, and it’s called Universal Social Protection.

Almost a decade ago, the world’s leaders, through the UN, endorsed the call for Universal Social Protection. Today, 55% of people have no access to social protection, and a further 20% have little coverage of essential services or income measures central to the promised social protection floors in Sustainable Development Goal 1.

While many of the best government policies in response to Covid-19 have drawn on existing social protection programmes, the pandemic has exposed the gaps in many countries. The lack of paid sick leave, and high levels of informal workers — including workers who rely on platform business, freelancers, contractors and the self-employed with no employment contract — make income security so precarious.

This is not isolated to one or two countries: 60% of the global workforce are working informally without rights. And there is no social protection for the 38% of the world’s population who lack public health care, and only 21% of the global population are covered with unemployment benefits.

Adam, Airport worker in Mogadishu

Adam, a Somali airport work in Mogadishu told me, “I lost my job on 18 March without pay when the airport was closed for Coronavirus, and I have got no other income to pay rent for our place, feed my family of 8 (my wife and 7 children) and cover medical costs of my dependents. The pharmacy wants me to pay money upfront, and won’t give me any credit. The danger of the virus is everywhere, I can’t even migrate to pursue a livelihood.“

This week’s ITUC Global COVID-19 Survey shows 57% of countries in Africa and 35% in the Americas are not providing wage protection and income support for workers. And even where there is some support, 41% say it is not enough to cover essential costs including food, electricity and housing. This is most strongly felt in the Asia-Pacific region, where 64% of countries say it is not enough to cover essential costs.

The pandemic has laid bare how the social contract has been broken, and we need to rebuild it starting with Universal Social Protection.

Four weeks into the global pandemic, we know we need to protect poorer nations from a humanitarian disaster on a scale not witnessed to date, and the world’s wealthiest countries and donors can support a Global Fund for Social Protection.

The reasons for supporting the poorest nations with a Global Fund for Social Protection to respond to the pandemic can be driven by public health, morals, politics or economics.

The support is required for health systems in developing economies and to provide income to cover basic goods. In some countries or regions of countries, it will require support for food and water packages as a transition to the systematic distribution of income support.

The risk of systems failures in health due to a lack of systemic capacity, and the risk of starvation for many, are the major threats to life that must now be averted.

With all the talk of raising funds to support economies, funding social protection for the poorest countries and part funding for low- to middle-income countries struggling to save lives is affordable. “We must do whatever it takes” is the cry that’s widely heard around the world.

A Global Fund would require less than US$5 billion a year in the 28 poorest countries and from US$25 billion a year for partial support for low- to middle-income countries according to need.

Modelling shows that both low-income and lower-middle income countries do not have the capacity to pay for social protection immediately. Financing needs to be provided through international assistance. Starting from 2022, international aid could progressively phase out as domestic resource mobilisation is secured.

We are one world, but inequality will again dictate the massive struggle for many just to survive this pandemic. If human life and our shared humanity mean anything, the time to demonstrate solidarity is now.

Global solidarity for social protection is urgent to save lives and it’s affordable. Political leadership can make it happen. Which governments will be the first to step up?

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.