Harnessing social protection during pandemics | Sunday Observer

Harnessing social protection during pandemics

6 December, 2020
Digital payment systems are vital to improve the efficiency of the delivery process.
Digital payment systems are vital to improve the efficiency of the delivery process.

Strengthening social protection systems is of critical importance to respond to shocks such as Covid-19. They play a vital role in addressing consumption shortfalls and supporting income and job security for affected communities.

Many countries have been taking various measures to strengthen their social protection. These include social assistance measures like cash and in-kind transfers, social insurance measures like pensions, unemployment benefits, social security contribution waivers/subsidisation, and active labour market related measures such as wage subsidies and training measures.

The Government too introduced a relief package that included financial and non-financial assistance to help households that were affected by the pandemic. One of the key measures was a social protection measure, i.e. a monthly cash transfer of Rs. 5,000 for two consecutive months (April and May 2020) to various vulnerable groups.

This social protection measure was based on a number of existing social protection schemes such as the Samurdhi cash transfer program, disability assistance, farmers’ and fishermen’s pension schemes. Committees were also set up in each Grama Niladhari (GN) division/ward to identify and approve other deserving individuals and families for this cash grant.

Horizontal expansion

Sri Lanka’s social protection response to Covid-19 showed a horizontal expansion and scaled-up coverage compared to the pre-Covid-19 level; it covered not only the current beneficiaries of the programs considered (e.g. Samurdhi, elder’s assistance and disability assistance programs) but also those who were in the waitlists as well as individuals and families selected by the Committees.

Vertical expansion

This social protection measure also indicated some level of vertical expansion, i.e. higher level of benefits compared to their pre-Covid-19 levels. Yet, the level of generosity of the benefits (compared to the pre-Covid-19 levels) varied from 0% to over 100% depending on the beneficiary category.

For example, over a 100% increase in benefits was seen among the current beneficiaries of the Samurdhi and Elders assistance program while beneficiaries of the disability assistance program and kidney patients allowance merely received their regular monthly allowance of Rs. 5,000.


Despite the expansion, the cash transfer scheme had a number of limitations. Immediate and short-term measures such as distribution of cash assistance are inadequate to sustain recovery and to mitigate future crises. Long-term measures are needed to strengthen Sri Lanka’s social protection.

• Integrated social protection system: The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need for an integrated social protection system and a unified and coordinated structure at the national level as well as at the divisional level in Sri Lanka. The existing system is a fragmented system with parallel structures.

• Scaled-up and universal coverage: The pandemic has also shown that not only the poor and vulnerable, but all segments of the population require protection. This calls for a universal social protection system, including social protection floors.

• Digitisation of payments: Digital payment systems are key to improve efficiency of the delivery process without delays and higher transaction costs, while complying with health guidelines to combat a pandemic.

They do not need the physical mobility of people and payments in cash. Thus, it is time for Sri Lanka too to move towards a digital payment system for delivery of cash.

This Policy Insight is based on the comprehensive chapter on “Harnessing Social Protection During Pandemics” in ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2020’ report - the flagship publication of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.