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Addressing vulnerability in crisis response: Lessons from the pandemic


Lessons from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic present the opportunity to identify and address the critical limitations in every country’s ability to respond to crises and achieve equitable development. In spring 2020, IDRC mobilized to create the COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) initiative to ensure the world's most vulnerable populations were not left behind amidst global upheaval and shifting national priorities. 

CORE specifically set out to understand and evaluate how the world’s most marginalized people experience a global crisis. Over three years, the initiative supported 20 research projects across 42 countries with the goals of comprehending the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and devising more effective policy options to foster equitable recoveries.  

This collective effort has led to a growing body of knowledge on inclusive pandemic responses in the Global South by producing more than 210 publications. CORE findings revolve around three key issues central to equitable crisis preparedness: 

  • informal sectors and the challenges faced by marginalized groups in crisis response 
  • developing shockproof economic policies that contribute to equality 
  • ensuring equitable support for livelihoods and food security. 

Reaching the most vulnerable in the informal economy 

The pandemic unleashed a disproportionate share of blows on migrant workers and people working in informal employment, along with residents of informal settlements. These vulnerable groups experienced greater harms to their livelihoods, weakening their ability to meet their basic needs and forcing them to adopt coping strategies, such as selling their capital, which hindered recovery.  

One CORE project, led by the International Centre for Research and Women (ICRW), examined the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on women working in the informal sector in Kenya, Uganda and India. Researchers surveyed 1,500 street vendors and domestic workers in Delhi and the national capital region. The study shed light on the meaning of informal work and how the pandemic exacerbated specific vulnerabilities of women working in informal sectors of the Indian economy.  

These women suffered both immediate and medium-term economic losses in income, employment and savings. The pandemic also negatively affected their ownership and control over assets, financial autonomy, access to resources (required for food, security or shelter) and access to sexual and reproductive health services. The study revealed that, during the lockdown, 62% of the women surveyed lost their jobs, 32% experienced a reduction in income and 94% used their personal savings for managing expenses. Further, limited access to relevant government documents negatively impacted their eligibility for services and entitlements. 

Women workers in Delhi’s informal sector were forced to borrow heavily, often from family members, peer circles and moneylenders to make ends meet. The study showed 87% of women borrowed money during the first phase of the lockdown, but only 6% from formal financial institutions. Women working in the informal sector reported having to mortgage their jewellery or homes and many continued to be in debt in 2022. They were also heavily dependent on government relief to manage the financial aftermath of the pandemic. For those without government identity documents, which was a sizable number, access to government ration and other benefits was deeply challenging, making their situation more precarious. 

ICRW urges governments to bring informal workers within the purview of formal laws and as Aditi Vyas, Assistant Director, Gender, Youth and Development, put it, “To provide them with the social security benefits they deserve.” The government could improve access to essential government documents, such as ration cards and health cards, through promotional campaigns and representative visits, and by building the capacity of community leaders.  

African seamstress at work
COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequities and increased the vulnerabilities of women working in the informal economy.

Shockproof and inclusive economic policies  

Several CORE research teams examined fiscal measures that were implemented worldwide to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, paying special attention to questions of equity. Research led by South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) sought to examine the macro-economic impact of COVID-19 in Africa. Despite the countries’ best efforts to implement fiscal policy interventions, existing economic structures and policies have hindered COVID-19 pandemic responses. Weaknesses include poor digital infrastructure, lack of financial and social inclusion, and the pro-cyclical policies of spending instead of saving (or paying off debt) during economic booms.  

The research found that lengthy lockdowns in South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria had a significant negative impact on social welfare, such as employment and job security, particularly in the informal sector. Tanzania, Benin and Senegal, which had faster-growing economies and fewer lockdown measures, experienced less severe impacts. However, it is worth noting that Tanzania witnessed a substantial increase in death rates compared to Uganda, which had stricter lockdown measures.   

The research team recommended that national governments enhance their tax base through progressive taxes that increase according to income earned, higher sales taxes and carbon taxes, while using revenue booms to address debt payments. Priority should also be given to universal social security, healthcare and education spending aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The world’s stronger economies could also use international financial instruments to support multilateral development bank investments in infrastructure development and help reduce the public debt of lower-income countries.  

Finally, countries will need to leverage new digital technologies to ensure that social security benefits can reach their most vulnerable people beyond the formal economy, while keeping societies’ economic and financial infrastructure intact.  

The work continues at SAIIA. “Our plan is to use lessons from vulnerability to crisis and the effectiveness of policy stimulus to build a macro-economic resilience index to apply to future crisis situations,” said Conrad van Gass, senior research fellow at SAIIA. 

Equitable support for livelihoods and food 

The final strand of CORE research addresses COVID-19’s profound impacts on livelihoods and food security as lockdowns and economic recessions pushed millions into poverty and disrupted households’ access to nutritious food and other essentials.  

Researchers from the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) and their partner organizations examined social protection systems in the Arab region, with a focus on Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. The research found that the level of people’s vulnerability depended on a mix of intersecting social and political identities and the economic context they belonged to. For example, workers in the informal sector faced different impacts of the pandemic, depending on the presence or absence of state interventions. Gender also played a crucial role, as did geographic regions. For example, a small-scale fisher on the Tunisian coast experienced much less impact from COVID-19 lockdowns than an informal street vendor in Tunis.  

This research highlights the importance that evidence can play in policy dialogues, particularly in this region where policy spaces are generally closed. “COVID-19 reopened the imaginary and the public discourse around social protection, though it did not necessarily reopen policy spaces,” Nadim Houry, executive director of ARI, highlighted.  

ARI’s research contributed to the creation of the Arab Region Hub for Social Protection, a platform bringing together think tanks, media groups, academics, activists and local and regional nongovernmental organizations to share their experiences and rethink policy for social protection. A community of practice and knowledge on social protection in the region, the hub is meant to be a go-to source for evidence and policy recommendations to advocate for the right to universal social security. In 2023, the hub’s first edition of its annual 26 Days of Activism for Social Protection Campaign — running between World Health Day on April 7 and International Labour Day on May 1 — focused on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable social groups, voicing their demands for adequate social protection. 

The disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on informal sectors and marginalized populations pushed many in the Global South into circumstances of food insecurity, with female-led households hit the hardest. CORE research has identified measures to prioritize the immediate food and income needs of vulnerable populations, such as support for smallholder farmers and local supply chains and short-term cash grants and food relief for marginalized groups. Social protection systems must become more inclusive and flexible to increase coverage to those in informal sectors.  

Future pandemic preparedness  

CORE research demonstrated that in times of crisis, responses can either heighten and exacerbate cleavages or support equity and inclusion. The initiative’s trove of evidence highlights the importance of understanding the unique challenges faced by marginalized communities in times of crisis and developing targeted interventions to address their needs.  

As the world prepares for future environmental and humanitarian crises, the lessons learned about equity in crisis preparedness and management responses should remain top of mind for global leaders.  

Learn more : 

Contributors: Tanya Bandula-Irwin and Mylène Bordeleau, program officers, IDRC 

Research highlights

  • COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequities and increased the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups, especially migrants and people working in the informal economy.  
  • Future crisis interventions need to carefully consider patterns of exclusion to ensure greater access to crisis relief. 
  • Measures like support for smallholder farmers and local supply chains, short-term cash grants and food relief help to meet the immediate food and income needs of vulnerable populations.  
  • Programs to provide access to ration and health cards, digitalize payments, expand social security and increase tax revenues can help to shockproof economies.