International COVID-19 Income Supports: An Update

by Alison Pennington and Jim Stanford

The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted global labour markets, and exposed long-standing gaps in social protection systems. Governments around the industrialised world injected hundreds of billions of dollars into a range of unprecedented crisis measures: to support individuals who lost work, to subsidise employers to retain workers despite the fall-off in business, and to facilitate workers to stay away from work when required for health reasons. More recently, as the pandemic progressed and vaccination became widespread, governments have begun considering how to transition toward a post-COVID policy stance. 

In several countries, governments with stronger commitments to public health and safety, and a more inclusive and equitable recovery from COVID-19, have been more cautious and incremental in scaling back government interventions. Some have also made permanent improvements to income security and other policies whose shortcomings became more apparent during the pandemic. In Australia, however, the phase-out of COVID-19 wage subsidies and income supports was accelerated and premature – perhaps more so than any other major industrial country. A new comparison of COVID support policies across numerous industrial countries confirms the economic and public health risks of the rapid elimination of Australia’s COVID programs.

This briefing paper, prepared by Alison Pennington and Jim Stanford, catalogues a selection of international income support measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and reports on recent changes in those programs as vaccinations roll out and economies have re-opened. This catalogue allows us to make a comparative assessment of the level and coverage of Australia’s provisions, in relation to other jurisdictions.

After summarising the status of Australia’s Commonwealth-administered COVID-era payments, other countries are surveyed, organised into two groups: those with income support programs still in place, and those whose programs had been eliminated at time of writing. A conclusion summarises the comparison, which confirms that Australia has been an outlier among industrial countries in the speed with which emergency COVID-19 measures were eliminated.

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