It is easy but mistaken to think that public health emergency measures and social policy can be separated . This paper compares the experiences of Brazil, Germany, India and the United States during their 2020 responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to show that social policies such as unemployment insurance, flat payments and short-time work are crucial to the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions as well as to their political sustainability . Broadly, public health measures that constrain economic activity will only be effective and sustainable if paired with social policy measures that enable people to comply without sacrificing their livelihoods and economic wellbeing . Tough public health policies and generous social policies taken together proved a success in Germany . Generous social policies uncoupled from strong public health interventions, in Brazil and the US during the summer of 2020, enabled lockdown compliance but failed to halt the pandemic, while tough public health measures without social policy support rapidly collapsed in India . In the COVID-19 and future pandemics, public health theory and practice should recognise the importance of social policy to the immediate effectiveness of public health policy as well as to the long-term social and economic impact of pandemics.