Lessons learned from the COVID-19 response in the MENA region

In the months since the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), countries in the region acted quickly to limit the spread of the virus. Lockdowns, curfews and social distancing have undoubtedly saved lives, but these necessary actions have also strained businesses and economies. Communities have suffered from the loss of jobs and livelihoods, the closure of schools and markets, and damage to businesses, many of which may never recover.

A year later, it is clear that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor and vulnerable, largely due to the historically limited coverage of social safety nets and the deterioration of the situation even before COVID-19. . The crises emanated largely from falling oil prices, institutional fragility and conflict in several countries, including Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq. Displaced persons and refugees have further been exposed to extreme vulnerability due to disease and loss of employment opportunities in the informal sector.

Extreme poverty (defined as living on US$1.90 a day) in the MENA region was already on the rise: to 7.2% in 2018, from 3.8% in 2015 and 2.4% in 2013. The Bank World estimates that COVID-19 has pushed 8 million people in the MENA region into extreme poverty and an additional 18 million people living on less than USD 5.50 a day.

Social safety nets have proven to be very effective in mitigating the impact of the crisis and building resilience, even among the poorest households. In the MENA region, 21 countries have officially announced various social protection measures to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, which have covered social assistance, social insurance and labor market programs. Many of these measures draw on and build on existing social protection policies, strategies and programs. Increasing coverage is implemented either through vertical expansion, where existing beneficiaries get additional benefits, or through horizontal expansion, which involves targeting additional beneficiaries.

The World Bank has supported social protection measures through rapid, flexible and adaptive financing and technical assistance. Our support for social protection operations has more than doubled, allowing the number of beneficiaries to increase from 2 million to 16 million according to projections. This magnitude demonstrates that social protection systems in the MENA region were responsive and scalable. And the emergency response has pushed the frontier of the social protection system, forcing the use of technology for payments, the establishment and expansion of the use of social registries, the horizontal and vertical expansion of coverage and benefits, and several other interventions.

The ongoing immunization effort will play a vital role in spearheading recovery in the region; however, social protection will be just as important in the months and years to come. Even as the recovery takes hold, governments will face tight budget constraints, leading to tough decisions on spending and policy choices. For poor and vulnerable households, communities and small businesses, returning to the new normal will depend on policy choices that meet their needs.

Rethinking social protection in the MENA region is therefore even more important moving forward. It will be essential to support countries to strengthen and stimulate policy reforms and innovations that provide adequate social protection coverage for workers in the informal sector, to reform regressive subsidies to create fiscal space for targeted social safety nets , strengthen delivery systems and invest in institutions that can champion the social protection agenda to help guide policies and their implementation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a huge crisis, but also an opportunity for countries in the MENA region to build more adaptive, resilient and inclusive social protection systems. There are many lessons to be learned from the social protection response of MENA countries to the global pandemic. Containment measures, overall, remain in place in several countries in the region due to the second or third waves, and the emergency response for relief is still crucial. For most countries, globally, cash transfers to cope with the emergency period lasted on average only 3 to 4 months.

As countries develop strategies to recover from the crisis, social protection programs will be even more important for the extremely poor and vulnerable, and to help those who have fallen into poverty to lift themselves out of poverty. new. Innovations in social protection will need to create synergies with other investments in education, health and employment to have more sustainable and significant impacts. Continuous innovation, learning and sharing of experiences in the design and implementation of social protection measures will be essential to shape the new normal in the MENA region in the years to come.

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Joel C. Hicks