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COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The government’s emergency social protection response, the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), has also been notably massive, introducing one-off near-universal income protection. It is an insightful case given that the country’s existing social assistance system has been celebrated as a model for developing countries, even though it has been mostly bypassed in the emergency response. Moreover, the country’s highly stratified and fragmented social policy system has resulted in implementation delays and irregularities that have fostered social hostilities and undermined the potential for such momentary universalism to have lasting transformative effects.

The Philippine government first imposed its ‘community quarantine’ on 15 March, which has since been extended until 30 June. Thus far, the pandemic has not been severe relative to evolving global indicators, with 302 confirmed infections per million people and 11 confirmed deaths per million people as of 25 June (although at only 5,760 tests per million people, these confirmed rates are likely to be significantly underestimated). However, as elsewhere in the Global South, the lockdown has thrown the country into an employment crisis given that more than 60 percent of its workforce is informal, most in precarious situations even when earning above the official poverty line.

In response, the government rolled out the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), comprising at least 13 different schemes and with an estimated total budget equivalent to as much as 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP [1]. The largest scheme is the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which has been allocated 200 billion Philippines pesos (PhP; about 3.5 billion euros), more than three times the combined budget of all the other schemes.

The ESP was initially intended to cover 17.9 million households, while the other SAP cash subsidy schemes were to target more than 5.2 million individuals. Assuming that none of these overlapped (e.g. only one subsidy recipient per household), the SAP would have covered over 23 million households, or more than 96 percent of the roughly 24 million households in the country. This extent of coverage is effectively universal, representing an attempt to provide basic income support to all but the richest five to ten percent of households.

The ESP initially sought to provide cash transfers to low-income and vulnerable families during the months of April and May, the projected duration of the lockdown. The transfers range from 5,000 to 8,000 PhP per month (about 90 to 140 euros), depending on the minimum wage of the region of residence. This is notably more generous than the existing poverty-targeted conditional cash transfer programme, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (hereafter Pantawid), which provides families with at most 3,450 PhP per month (approximately 60 euros). The 4.4 million Pantawid families have nonetheless been included in the ESP and the amount they receive has been topped-up to the ESP amount.

Despite these ambitions, the SAP has already been faltering. Based on our research [2], a number of problems can be discerned:

Delays and backtracking in the distribution of the ESP. While the ESP was supposed to be paid in two monthly tranches in April and May, the first tranche was yet to be completely distributed as of 15 June [3]. It was later announced that the second tranche, whose distribution only began on 11 June, would only be distributed to beneficiaries living in communities where the lockdown conditions had not been eased – about 8.5 million families – as well as to an additional five million ‘waitlisted or left out’ families, or, as explained by the DSWD, those that did not make it to the list of first tranche beneficiaries [4]. It is not clear whether either of these numbers include the Pantawid households mentioned above or why there would have been ‘left out’ families from a programme that was ostensibly universal.

Vague and fragmented selection guidelines. In addition to this lack of clarity at the aggregate level, the guidelines in the selection of ESP beneficiaries have also been vague and fragmented, which subjects them to different interpretations and discrepancies on the ground. There is no single document that describes the process in detail or provides even an overview. The social registry that is used for poverty targeting in the Pantawid – the Listahanan – was not used for the identification the non-Pantawid families, who constituted 75 percent of the ESP target beneficiaries in the first tranche. Instead, the government reverted to reliance on village-level government functionaries, who have proven decisive in identifying ESP beneficiaries and distributing assistance. This has re-politicized the administration of social protection after years of supposed attempts at depoliticization by means of the Listahanan and the Pantawid.

Failed attempts at overcoming residualism. The SAP reflects an attempt to overcome the limitations of the country’s polarised and fragmented social protection system, even while this system has rendered almost impracticable its universalist impulses. The existing system notably excludes close to half of the population at the middle of the income distribution – often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ [5]. This refers to the 40 percent of employed people working in the informal sector who are not covered by the contributory social insurance designed for those formally employed, which covers about 40 percent of employed people, while at the same time they are not covered by the Pantawid, which covers about 21 percent of the population. The Pantawid beneficiaries are presumed to be the poorest people, although there have been serious concerns regarding its accuracy of targeting, meaning that it excludes many of the poor, while including many who are not (at least, not according to the poverty lines used by the programme) [6].

Social hostilities in the face of systemic confusions. The confused and fraught implementation of the SAP has therefore exacerbated fundamental schisms entrenched within the existing social protection system, including confusions about who is in fact targeted by the ESP and contestations by local government officials over the number of beneficiaries set for their respective cities or municipalities [7]. In particular, given the perception that Pantawid families are prioritised by the ESP (in the sense that they are automatically eligible for the programme), they have drawn public attention and scrutiny, even though they only accounted for about 25 percent of targeted recipients of the ESP in the first tranche. As a result, anti-poor sentiments have proliferated on social media since the distribution of the first tranche [8].

The inadequacy of celebrated models of poverty-targeted social assistance

These confusions and tensions show how the pursuit of genuine universalism within an existing stratified, fragmented and residualist social protection system presents major in-built challenges for advancing beyond moments of crisis. While the Philippines has been able to roll out a massive emergency social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown, with near-universal coverage of possibly more than 90 percent of the population, reliance on the existing institutional infrastructure has had the effect of fostering social hostilities and potentially quelling support for such universalism among the population.

This is particularly significant given that the flagships of this infrastructure – the Pantawid and the Listahanan – have received huge support from international financial institutions and successive governments for 13 years prior to the pandemic and have been promoted as models up to the crisis, yet they have proven to be utterly inadequate for identifying systemic vulnerabilities at such a crucial time as the pandemic. The enormity of need engendered by the COVID-19 crisis evidently pushed the government to go beyond its conventional focus on poverty-targeted social assistance. As it scrambled to do this, it mostly bypassed the targeted system that had been so carefully groomed and adulated by donors, which has been neither fit for the purpose of actualizing universalistic aspirations, nor politically facilitative for their perpetuation.

[1] https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/03mar/20200328-JOINT-MEMORANDUM-CIRCULAR-NO-1-S-2020.pdf

[2] This work builds on our ongoing research that we have been conducting since 2015 into the political economy surrounding the institutional evolution of the Philippine social protection system, as part of ERC-funded research project entitled ‘Aiding Social Protection: The Political Economy of Externally Financing Social Policy in Developing Countries’ (grant agreement No 638647). Our current research on the COVID response has been based on deskwork ¬– by necessity given that all three authors have been in lockdown in Europe – and has involved the collection and analysis of official documents (including relevant laws, presidential reports, and other administrative edicts) and media coverage concerning the Philippine government social protection responses to the pandemic, and selective remote interviews with  social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who have been involved with the COVID-19 response at various levels of government.

[3] https://public.tableau.com/views/SAPMonitoringDashboardforEmergencySubsidyunderAICS/Dashboard1?:display_count=no&:showVizHome=no

[4] See https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/06/11/1-3-m-4ps-beneficiaries-get-sap-2-cash-aid-reports-dswd/ and https://www.dswd.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Annex-A.-Media-Based-SAP-FAQs-Part-3-ver-june-1-8pm-final.pdf

[5] Cf. Fischer 2018, 2020; ILO, 2017; Rutkowski, 2020.

[6] The rampant inaccuracies of the Pantawid are detailed in our forthcoming article currently under review. Also see Kidd and Athias (2019). 

[7] For instance, see https://www.rappler.com/nation/257316-reinstate-original-beneficiaries-metro-manila-mayors-dswd

[8] E.g., see viral posts on Facebook like this and this, and news reports like this.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Emma CantalEmma Lynn Dadap-Cantal is a PhD student at ISS. Her dissertation is a comparative case study of the political economy of social protection in Cambodia and the Philippines, with particular emphasis on the role of external donor influences in shaping the social protection systems in these two countries.

Charmaine G. Ramos

Charmaine G. Ramos (c.ramos@luc.leidenuniv.nl) is a lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her current research focuses on analysing social policy and resource governance, as a means for exploring how political economy dynamics constrain and structure institutions for social transformation and productive expansion in developing economies.

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Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer


Title Image Credit: Asian Development Bank on Flickr

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COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

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COVID-19 | How Kerala’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting inadequate responses elsewhere in India by Sreerekha Sathi

The Indian state of Kerala seems to have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well, limiting the amount of virus-related infections and deaths through its assertive approach. Kerala’s outlier position in India is well known, and its development model that differs from those of other Indian states might well be the cause of its successes in responding to COVID-19. Central to this development model—and the state’s response—is a well-functioning public healthcare system rooted in the state’s left-wing government. The rest of India and other countries can learn several lessons from Kerala’s government and its people, if they are willing to listen.


By the end of April, India’s coronavirus infections exceeded 40,000 cases, while around 1,300 people have died from the virus. India has been under a severe lockdown since 25 March, which due to the country’s socio-economic dynamics has caused many problems for working-class and unemployed people, especially for the large body of internal migrant labourers and marginalized communities, many without the resources to self-quarantine. Millions of Indians will face starvation due to a sudden loss of income as the lockdown has made it impossible for them to engage in economic activity. More than 90 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion people work in the informal sector, while two-thirds of the population moreover have to get by on less than US$2 a day.

Kerala, a small state on India’s southern tip, was hit first and hardest. The state reported its first case of coronavirus (COVID-19) on January 29th, and by May counted 500 infections, however had only three virus-related deaths with a recovery rate above 90 percent. It is evident that the state with its population of 33 million people has had significant successes thus far in staving off the virus. Here, for example, there is no shortage of medical masks for health professionals, no lack of hand sanitizers, and people living in the state have not been running around trying to hoard basic necessities as has happened in rich countries like the United States. The story of the state’s success in controlling the pandemic has attracted global attention, particularly because this state in India, one of the poorest countries in the Global South, has managed to do what many others with vastly more resources have not been able to.

So how has Kerala been doing this?

The coronavirus epidemic hit the state as it was in the process of recovering from two majors disasters that occurred in 2018—severe floods and the spread of the deadly Nipah virus. These disasters shaped responses to COVID-19 by creating a readiness to respond to future disasters, so that when the coronavirus emerged, the state and local communities were dedicated toward collectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, knowing what was at stake.

When the number of coronavirus cases reached around 100, the state government’s popular health minister declared a campaign called ‘Break the Chain’ to fight the further spread of the virus. The campaign that reached deep into Kerala’s densely populated cities and villages was focused on sharing information about the virus and how to fight it by educating people on maintaining personal hygiene. The state government in a short time installed water taps in all important public transportation hubs and public offices and provided free hand sanitizers. It also informed people about the importance of social distancing and self-quarantining. Students from colleges and universities along with volunteers from different sectors were entrusted with the duty of producing facial masks and hand soap and distributing them through community institutions. This engaged public response is world away from the policies elsewhere in India and many other parts of the world that consigned people to their houses, leaving them to fend for themselves without providing adequate support.

As in other countries, while health professionals remain at the center of the fight against the virus, it is important to point out just how central the community healthcare workers in Kerala have been. The backbone of the fight have been women called Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and Anganwadi workers (Sreerekha, 2017) who are employed in the state’s social welfare schemes and who were able to reach every nook and cranny of the state’s numerous cities, villages, and towns to trace contacts effectively. Alongside these women workers have been the state police and fire departments as well as other emergency services who have helped the state fulfill services such as distributing essential medicines to non-corona patients.

Most importantly, state-backed community kitchens have been a lifeline for many hungry residents. For the first time in history, by the third week of March, Kerala opened community kitchens in every village and municipality of the state, providing free cooked food so that no-one would go hungry during the lockdown. This contrasts very sharply with the experience of poor people in many other parts of India, where they are left mostly at the mercy of NGO or volunteer help.

How Kerala does it differently

A well-functioning public healthcare system is at the core of the state’s response, the foundation for which goes back to the much popular, well-debated and critiqued Kerala development model (Ravi Raman, 2010). The state is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), well known for its experiments with projects related to the grassroots decentralization of government and community-driven developmental planning in the 1990s. The Kerala development model does have its limitations, especially in addressing issues of gender and caste hierarchies and discrimination, and its successes have been achieved even alongside the pressures and compromises with liberal modernity. The state’s successes in fighting the pandemic though have been possible due to relevant steps taken on time and owing to the functional state mechanisms supplemented by the support and commitment of local community networks and an educated population.

With a very high number of expatriates and a big tourism industry the state needed to quickly implement restrictive measures. This has not been an easy path for Kerala, especially considering the fact that its officials are in a constant battle with the right-wing BJP central government. Time and again, the BJP central government has tried ‘to teach Kerala a lesson’ by cutting its funds or even halting the arrival of aid during emergencies. The right-wing party has until now failed to ever win any elections in the state.

Amidst all these dynamics, Kerala presents a useful lesson to the world as a state that even in the face of extreme adversity through sensitive and practical programs and with the support of a politically educated community has been able to take major steps to protect the interests of its residents, particularly marginalized and working class populations. Although the COVID-19 threat remains, Kerala has collectively mobilized to confront it. Kerala’s public healthcare system functions through effective local development measures and community and state networks to make it possible not only to tackle the COVID-19 threat, but also to protect the well-being of its people in so doing.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the author:IMG_4882

Sreerekha Sathi is Assistant Professor of Gender and Political Economy at at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in The Hague. Her research interests span theories of women’s work, feminist critiques of development, feminist research methodologies and social movements in the global south, specifically South Asia.

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