IMF

Transparency on trade actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic

Global confirmed cases of COVID-19 will reach two million today, April 15, with the actual number likely much higher and with deaths over 125,000. Nearly every country on earth has at least some confirmed cases.

Different countries and territories are at different stages in dealing with COVID-19 infections, with China, South Korea and Singapore seemingly well past the worst of the first wave of infections. Countries in Europe and various states within the United States are also seeing the rate of infection flatten or even decline following weeks of stay-at-home orders, social distancing and drastic changes to daily life. Hot spots are shifting both within countries (e.g., the United States) and to different countries.

The economic cost of closing down portions of economies has been unprecedented with the IMF characterizing the hit on global GDP to be the worst since the great depression of the 1930s. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020. To avoid even worse economic fallout, countries are pouring huge sums into their economies to prevent massive bankruptcies, limit unemployment and provide expanded social safety nets. Press reports suggest at least $8 trillion has been committed with more being considered in various countries.

For countries who are witnessing likely GDP reductions of as much as 35% in one of the first two quarters of 2020, governments are mapping out scenarios for reopening closed portions of their economies if they have been recent epicenters or engaged in phased reopening if apparently largely past the first phase. Such planning is occurring at the subnational, national or trading bloc level (EU) with little apparent effort to coordinate efforts around the world. Where plans are being discussed publicly, common elements appear to be expanded and harmonized testing (both for the infection and for antibodies), ability to do tracing of individuals who have been in contact with individuals found to have the virus to secure quarantining, capacity of the healthcare system to handle cases, and adequacy of supplies. Concerns about privacy interests are also part of the discussion/needs for democracies. See, e.g., European Commission roadmap released April 15, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_652; https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication_-_a_european_roadmap_to_lifting_coronavirus_containment_measures_0.pdf

For most of the developing and least developed countries, the pandemic has yet to show its full force. Many of these countries have inadequate healthcare infrastructure and don’t have the internal manufacturing capabilities or financial resources to handle the pandemic without assistance if they become an epicenter.

The world has seen limited actual coordination of efforts by major players despite commitments by G20 countries although funding for multilateral institutions like the IMF have been increased to facilitate expanded efforts for the weakest countries. There also seems to be an exchange of information and some cooperation in the research efforts underway to find a vaccine.

Many countries who have been hard hit by the pandemic were slow to recognize the extent of the challenge and often slow in implementing comprehensive actions which has exacerbated the challenges, the loss of life and the harm to their economies. This has led to some lack of transparency at least in the early days and perhaps a reluctance for greater cooperation.

The pandemic’s spread has led to extraordinary gaps in supply availability versus short term demand requirements. For example, the OECD indicated that China, which manufactures half of the world supply of masks, found demand for masks at the peak of the crisis in China at ten times the beginning manufacturing capability of the country. Even after ramp up of production, demand in China was twice as large as the dramatically expanded manufacturing capabilities until the country’s infection rate declined. With both the EU and the US going through huge expansions of COVID-19 cases in March and into April, the global shortage problem has been continued and magnified despite additional capacity expansions occurring in other countries.

With no current vaccine to deal with the infections, countries faced with expanding case loads have often shifted to imposing export restraints to prevent loss of scarce supplies, encouraging expanded production, and using other tactics to address domestic demand even if reducing supply to other countries or even if local actions are counterproductive because of global supply chains and similar actions by others. Export restraints have been imposed by close to 70 countries or territories and include actions by China, the EU, the United States and many others, though restraints are arguably temporary and may have exceptions depending on the country applying the restraints. And countries who had export restraints at one point, may be significant exporters later (China) or had been exporters to hard hit countries prior to ramp up of internal demand (e.g., U.S. to China).

Importance of transparency in times of crisis

Each government attempts to provide some level of transparency to its citizens and businesses on actions it is taking. Members of the WTO have committed to providing information on trade measures taken to respond to COVID-19 and groups of countries (G20) have supported that effort. As of April 14th, WTO Members had provided 49 notifications of trade actions related to COVID-19 that either restricted goods or liberalized movement of goods https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm. While this is a start, there are likely dozens or hundreds of other actions that have not been notified as yet (including actions that may have been withdrawn after a period of time). The lack of full transparency by WTO Members is unfortunate and prevents other Members to understand the reality around the world or to understand potential best practices by other trading partners.

Some business trade associations have put together data bases of actions addressing particular actions important to their members. For example, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (“BiMCO”) has compiled and updates port restrictions/requirements including ability of crew to depart cargo ships in ports, etc. https://www.bimco.org/ships-ports-and-voyage-planning/crew-support/health-and-medical-support/novel-coronavirus—implementation-measures. Similarly, IATA has collected and updates data on requirements for airlines (passenger and air cargo) by country. https://www.iata.org/en/programs/safety/health/diseases/government-measures-related-to-coronavirus/. The data compiled is obviously important for the ships and planes moving cargo internationally. So transparency exists because of efforts of business associations. Unfortunately, one does not see any effort by governments to harmonize requirements across countries to simplify and reduce the costs of moving essential goods.

It does not appear that there are readily accessible data on all suppliers globally of essential medical goods, capacity expansions, current bottlenecks, product availability, etc. It is not clear if such data could be compiled by industry associations or by governments. Presumably such information would be important for a global effort to maximize availability of products to all countries during the pandemic, identify ongoing shortages, prioritize where additional products are needed and so forth. The lack of such information has to be a major shortfall in the transparency needs to effectively deal with the pandemic.

Individual governments, of course, address internal needs on an ongoing basis through notices, regulations, etc. Many of these actions could be notified to international organizations (e.g., to the WTO) in addition to being available domestically. Expanding notifications would improve transparency and potentially encourage other governments to adopt best practices of other countries.

In the United States, many agencies, as well as the White House, are involved in different aspects of keeping goods moving during the pandemic or in restricting the export of such goods. For example, to look just at a few of the agencies involved in the United States, the State Department has made announcements on ensuring H-2 visas for farm workers. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/News/visas-news/important-announcement-on-h2-visas.html. Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have taken various actions to expedite clearance of essential goods or implement Administration restrictions on the export of goods. https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2020/04/08/fema-covid-19-supply-chain-task-force-supply-chain-stabilization; https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/coronavirus. The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have issued various notices addressing special needs for agricultural goods with the collapse of food service sector which supplies restaurants (e.g., temporary waiver of requirements for country of origin information or certain labeling requirements for goods originally destined for food service that are being sold at retail). https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus; https://www.ams.usda.gov/content/usda-announces-labeling-flexibilities-facilitate-distribution-food-retail-locations; https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/counterterrorism-and-emerging-threats/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19. FEMA, EXIM and others are all playing roles as well.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the health of the world’s peoples and has imposed unimaginable costs to the global and national economies. As countries work through their individual challenges, there are a spectrum of options to pursue that will reduce or expand the human and economic costs of the pandemic. International organizations are only as strong as their member governments permit them to be. Many observers have lamented the lack of global leadership. Such lack of leadership handicaps the ability and likelihood of countries to minimize the damage from the pandemic and to prepare better for future challenges. Transparency should be the bare minimum we receive from the world’s governments. While there is certainly some transparency on COVID-19 and trade actions being taken (better in some countries than others), we are not maximizing the benefits that broad-based transparency would make available for countries individually or acting collectively. There is still time for a better effort. There are real costs for failing to do all that can be done on this issue.