What might social welfare look like beyond the pandemic? Experts grappled with this question in a recent event in an ongoing speaker series hosted by Harvard’s Center for International Development. The “Beyond COVID” conversation, How to Reimagine Social Welfare, featured Rema Hanna, the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies at HKS; Sudarno Sumarto, a policy advisor on poverty reduction with the Indonesian government; and Stéphane Verguet, associate professor of global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Asim I. Khwaja, CID director and Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development, opened the discussion expressing optimism that COVID-19 infections might be waning, although many countries are still struggling with the pandemic and the effects could be with us for years. But it is, he said, “an opportunity for us to rethink and reconsider” faults in many social systems that the pandemic has exposed. “Our discussion today is not just to recognize and respect the losses we have gone through,” he said, “but also some of the opportunities that may be coming, which will hopefully lead us to more resilient, more socially informed, and more socially aware economies and societies.”

Hanna noted that social losses, such as upticks in poverty and job loss, look very similar to what we would expect in a global economic downturn. “But what makes this pandemic very different is the fact that in addition to the poverty issues, in many countries around the world schools have been shuttered,” she said. With schools closed for months if not years in some countries, children are losing out, and those losses can add up over time if not addressed. “I think we need to think carefully about identifying the supporting programs we need to make sure kids can catch up,” Hanna said.

Asim Khwaja, Rema Hanna, Sudarno Sumarto, Stéphane Verguet
Asim Khwaja, Rema Hanna, Sudarno Sumarto, Stéphane Verguet

Hanna does see signs for hope. “I think there's been a lot of creativity around how to use and improve existing systems in order to get assistance out to many people as fast as possible,” she said. She also noted that governments experimented with new technologies to get populations signed up for aid. “I do think there's often a focus on social protection when times are bad, but the truth is we should be building these systems when times are good so that they’re available when we have the bad times and we can react quickly,” she said. “You want systems in place that think about the intersection between education, human capital development, health and so forth.” But maintaining databases creates challenges as well, Hanna noted: “The poor are often left off these lists because they might not be as connected to society, and the government might not have an incentive to find them.” 

Sumarto, who recently co-wrote an article with Hanna on the challenges of universal health care in developing countries, said the pandemic caused poverty to spike in Indonesia, creating almost 1.3 million newly poor and increasing food and job insecurity. “The pandemic has wiped out Indonesia’s poverty reduction effort within the last three years,” he said. Like Hanna, he predicted the impact of COVID-19 on education will be felt for years to come. “A recent study shows that disruption to learning occurred in about 60 percent of [Indonesian] families with school-aged children who did not have stable internet connection to participate in online learning. And this could potentially lead to learning loss.” Sumarto, however, is hopeful about the measures the Indonesian government is taking. “To mitigate the pandemic’s impact, in 2020 the government rolled out a special budget to broaden its social assistance programs in size and also in scope,” he said. “We also created a health assistance program and a job training program to reach those beyond the bottom 40 percent in our current social registry. And the good news is that our economy has slowly recovered.”

CID Expert Rema Hanna: How to Reimagine Social Welfare

Verguet, whose work bridges academia, business, and government, acknowledged that it will be difficult to anticipate the full impact of COVID-19 on social welfare. “Prior to COVID, inequalities across and within countries were large and in many instances increasing, and COVID has only been an accelerator of this,” he said. “And the inequalities I'm talking about are particularly acute for human capital, education and health.” Post COVID, he suspects there will be increases in the diseases of poverty—for example, malaria and tuberculosis—and drops in immunization rates, leading to outbreaks of deadly vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles. However, he also saw a few signs for hope. “The pandemic really demonstrated that social protection and public services, when working well, do not operate in silos,” he said. “We saw that health performances were better where social and health services were integrated,” he said.

“I do think there’s often a focus on social protection when times are bad, but the truth is we should be building these systems when times are good so that they’re available when we have the bad times, and we can react quickly.”

Rema Hanna

Hanna also emphasized the need to engage a wide range of experts and participants—including companies and activists—when solving social issues. Students, she observed, play a role too. “I love the Kennedy School students; they want to do public service and public good and I think it's really, really incredible,” she said. “When you think about your career in public service and moving between public and private [sectors], moving between nonprofit and government, you learn about the different aspects of the process and that can enrich public service. And I think that’s something that we often don't talk about as much when thinking about public service: including lots of different actors. I think it's something that we should think about more moving forward.”

The next Beyond COVID series discussion on shaping the future of work will take place virtually on March 2, 2022 from 12-1:15PM (ET) featuring Gordon Hanson, Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO); Ashley V. Whillans, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, moderated by Asim I Khwaja, Director of the Center for International Development. 

With a COVID-19 Omicron variant outbreak, an officer sprays disinfectant on a classroom in Jakarta in January 2022. Photo by Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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