Social protection is a key element of the multi-sectoral and patient-centered approach required to reach several health and poverty-related SDG targets. The immediate needs have been accentuated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It exemplifies the socio-economic determinants and consequences of poor of health, plainly demonstrating the reciprocal relationship between poverty and adverse health and social outcomes. We clearly see the extent to which illness can restrict a person’s capacity to generate income, causing millions of households across the globe to lose earnings. Further, despite its global reach, COVID-19 is far from the ‘great equalizer’ having claimed a disproportionate number of victims from poor and marginalized communities. For these individuals, the consequences of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come, thrusting millions more into a cycle of poverty and poor health.
Countries have explored the role of social safety nets in health emergencies. Often, approaches are designed as short-term fixes, to be revoked once the emergency or in the COVID-19 example, pandemic, has subsided. Given the monumental gaps in the global landscape of social protection, a return to a “business-as-usual” approach will not suffice. COVID-19 is just the most recent global emergency to highlight the importance of safety nets during times of illness. Over the past few decades, the global HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) strategies have gradually been adapted to encompass social protection elements in response to growing evidence on the need to complement medical interventions with social safety nets and enablers. Regardless of the disease in question, insufficient social protection continues to exacerbate adverse health outcomes across the globe, particularly within vulnerable populations.
This sentiment has been at the centre of the SPARKS Network, which began as a TB-focused research consortium in 2016. Mirroring current conversations on COVID-19, SPARKS have developed a wealth of experience in identifying the mechanisms which shape the relationship between diseases and poverty, resulting in the development of social protection interventions in low- and middle-income settings. As SPARKS expand its research base, a growing body of evidence indicates that gaps in social protection negatively impacts recovery from a range of health conditions far beyond TB, and will likely impede the enormous efforts made towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Given the intrinsic value of social protection both in the present and future, now is an opportune time for international collaboration and consensus building on global social protection strategies. The 2020 SPARKS annual conference will gather a network of global leaders in public policy and research, to facilitate the exchange of knowledge on social protection and health. The event will provide an overview of the current evidence base for social protection interventions, the gaps in research and the future outlook on social protection globally.
As part of this conversation, we will explore an array of social protection strategies across interlinked SDGs, ranging from universal health coverage (UHC – SDG target 3.8), social safety-nets (SDG target 1.2), food security (SDG target 2.1) and decent work and labour right (SDG target 8.8). Furthermore, perspectives on gender, class, history and social justice will be prominent features in these discussions, helping to deconstruct barriers to global health equity. Together, these discussions aim to identify overlapping ideas, themes and priorities from multiple stakeholders. In doing so, we can foster new opportunities for multi-sectoral collaboration and solidarity.
The opportunity for collaboration has never been so urgent and yet, so achievable. We are living through an extraordinary period of history, where humanity is unified in a desire to protect against disease and poverty. As a collective, we can embody this shared commitment by championing innovation in social protection, to ultimately mitigate and overcome the health epidemics of the present, and in the future.