What is happening to public works during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis so far? In a previous blog, we argued that public works will be important in supporting informal workers following the crisis. But at this stage of the pandemic, because of social distancing, governments are considering either suspending public works or waiving work requirements. For example, Uttar Pradesh in India is now delivering unconditional cash transfers to almost 30 million workers of the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) public works program. And work requirements are waived in Ethiopia’s rural safety net. Ongoing discussions on optimal social distancing will affect how public works could work under different social distancing configurations, especially in high-density urban locations. Click To Tweet
There is recent experience of using public works to complement public health responses to epidemics. When Ebola was ravaging eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018-19, a cash-for-work program was launched at the epicenter of the outbreak. The rationale was simple: provide short-term employment in Ebola hotspots to tackle infrastructure gaps that limited first responders’ access to patients. By benefiting the affected communities, the program also boosted receptiveness to health responders’ sensitization efforts, which was hindered by a lack of trust in government. Within six months, the project provided temporary jobs for 12,000 beneficiaries, who worked on strategic transport corridors needed for medical and stabilization efforts. In line with public health protocols, protective gear and chlorine-treated water were given to the beneficiaries. The project was also integrated into the Ebola strategic response plan prepared by national authorities with support from international partners.
How could we adapt public works as a COVID-19 response mechanism? Public works could offer temporary jobs to people with a low COVID-19 risk profile, accelerate the public health response, and mitigate its consequences. Click To Tweet Proposals from around the globe include: public works corps to assist epidemiologists with contact tracing, set up drive-through testing sites, and carry out infection control in nursing homes and homeless shelters. In the Central African Republic, there are plans to use cash-for-work to produce masks. These forms of pubic works extend a growing body of experiences with ‘cash-for-services’ such as in Greece and South Africa. But how to do it in practice? Three issues stand out.
First, the type of selected works needs careful selection and adaptation. Public works programs could also support environmental cleanups to help control COIVD-19. Click To Tweet In the Philippines, workers who have lost jobs due to quarantine can get 10 days of work on the disinfection/sanitation of their houses and neighborhoods. Other potential jobs include childcare, food distribution, water drainage or garbage collection. Indonesia is looking at options through its Ministry of Villages. The COVID-19 pandemic also adds to health threats such as measles and malaria, so public works that build medical infrastructure could bring longer-term benefits beyond the COVID crisis. Where reliable connectivity exists, some public works could be performed remotely, consistent with social distancing protocols. Remote mentoring for adolescent girls is occurring in Kampala, for instance, which may offer some ‘lateral’ lessons for remote public works. The next blog in this series explores the potential for digital public works in more depth.
Second, there is a need to revisit implementation practices. Adjusting to COVID-19 means adhering to the concepts of ‘duty of care’ and ‘do no harm’. In the above-mentioned Philippines project, beneficiaries receive an orientation on safety and health, get appropriate pay for the tasks carried out, and will also be enrolled in micro-insurance. In one public works program in Uzbekistan, participants now wear masks and do work that doesn’t require close proximity or large groups such, as public disinfection.
Third, communication and community involvement is essential. This is a clear lesson from the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa (2014-16) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2018-on-going). Constant interaction with public health professionals and medical teams on the ground is essential. That also means using country systems and taking account of humanitarian and development needs.
In conclusion: although short-term social assistance responses to COVID-19 will remain centered on unconditional transfers, there can be a growing role for pandemic-adapted public works that are adapted for social distancing. There are no off-the-shelf blueprints. But emerging practices offer grounds for optimism about using such programs, both in the initial relief phase and especially in the subsequent recovery stage.
This is the seventh blog on ways to protect workers and jobs in the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis, based on a World Bank Jobs Group Note: “Managing the Employment Impacts of the COVID-19 Crisis, Policy Options for the Short Term.” Stay tuned for more blogs in the series.