While the release indicates that there will be delays in deliveries of vaccines in March and April because of increased COVID-19 cases in India, developments in India could mean an even greater delay in supplies than announced in March. For example, the major supplier of vaccines to COVAX in the first half of 2021 is the Serum Institute of India (“SII”) which is licensed by AstraZeneca to produce that vaccine in India for distribution in large part to COVAX. Yesterday, the president of SII indicated that export shipments could resume in June depending on cases levels in India. See Financial Times, India to restart Covid vaccine exports in June if local cases fall, April 7, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/fcdffb8f-f86e-4bd9-adec-20256aeb0a07. It doesn’t appear that SII has notified COVAX of a further delay past April, but a June resumption, if it occurs, suggests that delays will continue through May at a minimum.
While COVAX is looking to expand sources of vaccines, SII is the major source through June. Professor Simon Evenett has put out a one page analysis of the implications for supply to COVAX from SII if the resumption of exports is premised on India fully vaccinating all those willing to be vaccinated for whom the government of India has opened up vaccinations. While SII has not stated that resumption of exports is tied to full vaccination of Indians who are 45 years or older, Prof. Evenett’s paper is an interesting analysis of how long a delay could occur in terms of SII becoming a major exporter again. His paper entitled “Vaccine Maths 2: Will India start exporting COVID-19 vaccines again in June 2021?” is embedded below.
With the spread of the new variants of COVID-19 that have higher rates of transmission and higher rates of serious infection, many countries find themselves facing increased numbers of cases and increased hospitalizations and deaths even as vaccine supplies are increasing and vaccination roll outs starting in many countries. There is a lot of attention within multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO and by a number of countries on the needs for increased production and distribution to all countries. See, e.g., April 6, 2021, IMF April World Economic Outlook, IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings and U.S. efforts on global access to vaccines, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/04/06/imf-april-world-economic-outlook-imf-and-world-bank-spring-meetings-and-u-s-efforts-on-global-access-to-vaccines/. COVAX is an important part of the solution but it will need more funding and greater diversity of suppliers to meets its role in the equitable and affordable access to vaccines in 2021 and 2022.
“Global prospects remain highly uncertain one year into the pandemic. New virus mutations and the accumulating human toll raise concerns, even as growing vaccine coverage lifts sentiment. Economic recoveries are diverging across countries and sectors, reflecting variation in pandemic-induced disruptions and the extent of policy support. The outlook depends not just on the outcome of the battle between the virus and vaccines—it also hinges on how effectively economic policies deployed under high uncertainty can limit lasting damage from this unprecedented crisis.
“Global growth is projected at 6 percent in 2021, moderating to 4.4 percent in 2022. The projections for 2021 and 2022 are stronger than in the October 2020 WEO. The upward revision reflects additional fiscal support in a few large economies, the anticipated vaccine-powered recovery in the second half of 2021, and continued adaptation of economic activity to subdued mobility. High uncertainty surrounds this outlook, related to the path of the pandemic, the effectiveness of policy support to provide a bridge to vaccine-powered normalization, and the evolution of financial conditions.”
The following tables from the IMF webpage taken from the new report show first the global, advanced economies and developing economy outlook for 2020, 2021, 2022 and then for various major countries and regions for the same periods.
Much has been written about the need for debt relief and greater access to vaccines for many low-income countries to help them get through the pandemic and back on track for economic expansion. The IMFBlog from April 5, 2021 provides an overview of the serious challenges faced by low income countries and the potential sources of financial support available through the IMF if supported by member countries. See IMFBlog, Funding the Recovery of Low-income Countries After COVID, April 5, 2021, https://blogs.imf.org/2021/04/05/funding-the-recovery-of-low-income-countries-after-covid/.
“Several factors hamper the economic recovery of low-income countries. First, they face uneven access to vaccines. Most of these countries rely almost entirely on the multilateral COVAX facility—a global initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines led by a consortium of international organizations. COVAX is currently set to procure vaccines for just 20 percent of the population in low-income countries. Second, low-income countries have had limited policy space to respond to the crisis—in particular, they have lacked the means for extra spending * * *.
“Third, pre-existing vulnerabilities, including high levels of public debt in many low-income countries, and weak, sometimes negative, total factor productivity performance in some low-income countries continue to act as a drag on growth.”
The blog post reviews estimated financial needs over the next five years. The estimated needs are $200 billion to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic (including adequate vaccinations), an additional $250 billion to speed convergence with advanced economies, and an additional $100 billion if various risks materialized. Potentially $550 billion — obviously a huge number.
The blog identifies various potential sources of funds to address these needs that can be available through the IMF.
“- Expanding access to concessional resources under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, including extending access to emergency financing. From March 2020 to March 2021, about $13 billion has been approved to more than 50 low-income countries. The IMF is also currently reviewing its lending framework to low-income countries, beyond the temporary increase in access limits.
“- Proposal for a new allocation of Special Drawing Rights . Support is building among the IMF’s membership for a possible SDR allocation of $650 billion. This would help address the long-term global need for reserve assets, and would provide a substantial liquidity boost to all members.
“- Debt service relief through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust to 29 eligible countries. The recently-approved third tranche covering the period April-October 2021 brings total debt service relief up to $740 million since April 2020. Such relief provides space for poor countries to scale up spending on priority areas during the pandemic.
“- Supporting a further extension of the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) until end-December 2021. The DSSI delivered US$5.7 billion in debt service relief for 43 countries in 2020 and is expected to deliver up to US$7.3 billion of additional debt service suspension through June 2021 for 45 countries.
“The needs of the poorest countries over the next five years are acute. But they are not out of reach. A strong, coordinated, comprehensive package is needed. This will secure a rapid recovery and transition to a green, digital, and inclusive growth that will accelerate convergence of low-income countries to their advanced economy counterparts.”
“COVID-19 vaccines, alongside widespread testing, improved treatment and strong health systems are critical to save lives and strengthen the global economic recovery. To provide relief for vulnerable populations, low- and middle-income countries need fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe vaccines.
“That’s why the World Bank (WB) is building on its initial COVID-19 response with $12 billion to help poor countries purchase and distribute vaccines, tests, and treatments. The first WB-financed operation to support vaccine rollout was approved in January 2021.
“By March 31, 2021, the WB had already committed $1.6 billion in vaccine financing in 10 countries including Afghanistan, Cabo Verde, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, Tajikistan, and Tunisia. More than 40 additional projects are in the pipeline and will be approved in the coming weeks and months.”
The World Banks’s Spring meeting is also occurring this week and addressing the COVID-19 pandemic remains a critical part of the World Bank’s agenda.
U.S. announced larger role in global vaccine rollout
President Biden has had as his first priority to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States while committing to greater involvement in multilateral organizations. He has rejoined the World Health Organization, contributed $2 billion to the COVAX facility to obtain vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, with an additional $2 billion to be contributed as other countries fulfill their pledges, agreed to a fund raising event for COVAX later in April, loaned four million vaccine doses to Canada (1.5 million) and Mexico (2.5 million) and agreed with Japan, India and Australia to produce one billion doses of a vaccine (2021-2022) in India with funding from the US and Japan and distribution by Australia to countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
On April 5, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Biden Administration’s intention to be more actively involved internationally as it gets the U.S. population vaccinated. See U.S. Department of State, Secretary Antony J. Blinken Remarks to the Press on the COVID Response, April 5, 2021, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-remarks-to-the-press-on-the-covid-response/. The portion of Secretary Blinken’s remarks dealing with greater international engagement and the appointment of the U.S. coordinator for global COVID response and health security is copied below.
“There’s another major element to stopping COVID, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
“This pandemic won’t end at home until it ends worldwide.
“And I want to spend a minute on this, because it’s critical to understand. Even if we vaccinate all 332 million people in the United States tomorrow, we would still not be fully safe from the virus, not while it’s still replicating around the world and turning into new variants that could easily come here and spread across our communities again. And not if we want to fully reopen our economy or start traveling again. Plus, if other countries’ economies aren’t rebounding because they’re still afflicted with COVID, that’ll hurt our recovery too.
“The world has to come together to bring the COVID pandemic to an end everywhere. And for that to happen, the United States must act and we must lead.
“There is no country on Earth that can do what we can do, both in terms of developing breakthrough vaccines and bringing governments, businesses, and international institutions together to organize the massive, sustained public health effort it’ll take to fully end the pandemic. This will be an unprecedented global operation, involving logistics, financing, supply chain management, manufacturing, and coordinating with community health workers who handle the vital last mile of health care delivery. All of that will take intensive diplomacy.
“The world has never done anything quite like this before. This is a moment that calls for American leadership.
“Now, the Biden-Harris administration’s main focus to date has been to vaccinate Americans – to slow and ultimately stop COVID here at home. We at the State Department have been focused on vaccinating our workforce in the United States and in embassies and consulates around the world. That’s been the right call. We serve the American people first and foremost. Plus, we can’t forget that the United States has had the highest number of COVID cases of any country in the world by a significant margin. So stopping the spread here has been urgently needed for our people and for the world. We have a duty to other countries to get the virus under control here in the United States.
“But soon, the United States will need to step up our work and rise to the occasion worldwide, because again, only by stopping COVID globally will Americans be safe for the long term.
“Moreover, we want to rise to the occasion for the world. By helping bring to a close one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, we can show the world once again what American leadership and American ingenuity can do. Let’s make that the story of the end of COVID-19.
“We’ve already taken some important steps.
“On day one of the administration, we rejoined the World Health Organization. By being at the table, we can push for reforms so that we can prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to the next biological threat.
“Congress recently provided more than $11 billion for America’s global COVID response, which we’ll use in several ways, including to save lives by supporting broad and equitable vaccine access; providing aid to mitigate secondary impacts of COVID, like hunger; and helping countries boost their pandemic preparedness.
“I’d note that this builds on a long tradition of American leadership. The United States is the world’s largest donor to global health by far, including through international efforts like the Global Fund and the World Health Organization – and through our own outstanding global health programs, like PEPFAR, which has helped bring the world to the cusp of the first AIDS-free generation.
“We’ve also made a $2 billion donation to the COVAX program, which will supply COVID vaccines to low-income and middle-income countries. We’ve pledged another $2 billion that we’ll provide as other countries fulfill their own pledges.
“We’ve already loaned vaccines to our closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada.
“And we’ll work with global partners on manufacturing and supplies to ensure there will be enough vaccine for everyone, everywhere.
“As we get more confident in our vaccine supply here at home, we are exploring options to share more with other countries going forward.
“We believe that we’ll be in a position to do much more on this front.
“I know that many countries are asking for the United States to do more, some with growing desperation because of the scope and scale of their COVID emergencies. We hear you. And I promise, we’re moving as fast as possible.
“We’ll be guided every step by core values.
“We won’t trade shots in arms for political favors. This is about saving lives.
“We’ll treat our partner countries with respect; we won’t overpromise and underdeliver.
“We’ll maintain high standards for the vaccines that we help to bring to others, only distributing those proven to be safe and effective.
“We’ll insist on an approach built on equity. COVID has already come down hard on vulnerable and marginalized people. We cannot allow our COVID response to end up making racial and gender inequality worse.
“We’ll embrace partnership, sharing the burden and combining strengths. The collaboration we formed a few weeks ago with the Quad countries – India, Japan, Australia – is a good example. Together, we’re increasing the world’s manufacturing capacity so we can get more shots out the door and into people’s arms as fast as possible.
“And by the way, one of the reasons we work through multilateral collaborations where possible is because they often share and defend these same values. For example, the COVAX initiative is designed explicitly to ensure that low- and middle-income countries can also get vaccines, because it’s only through broad and equitable vaccination that we’ll end the pandemic.
“Finally, we’ll address the current emergency while also taking the long view. We can’t just end this pandemic. We must also leave our country and the world better prepared for the next one.
“To do that, we’ll work with partners to reform and strengthen the institutions and systems that safeguard global health security. That will require countries to commit to transparency, information sharing, access for international experts in real time. We’ll need a sustainable approach to financing, surge capacity, and accountability, so all countries can act quickly to stem the next outbreak. And we’ll keep pushing for a complete and transparent investigation into the origins of this epidemic, to learn what happened – so it doesn’t happen again.
“All told, this work is a key piece of President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda. We’ve got to make sure that we can better detect, prevent, prepare for, and respond to future pandemics and other biological threats. Otherwise, we’ll be badly letting ourselves and future generations down.
“This is a pivotal moment – a time for us to think big and act boldly. And the United States will rise to the challenge.
“I’m here today with a remarkable leader who will help us do just that.
“Gayle Smith was the administrator of USAID for President Obama, and served on the National Security Council for both President Obama and President Clinton, where we first got to know each other and worked together. She has deep experience in responding to public health threats, having helped lead the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, having worked for years on the global fights against malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS. She is joining us from her most recent role as president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, primarily in Africa.
“She’s tested. She’s highly respected. She will hit the ground running. And I can say from having worked with Gayle and admired her for years that no one will work harder, faster, or more effectively to get us to the finish line.
I”’m grateful she’s agreed to serve as the coordinator for global COVID response and health security. Gayle Smith, the floor is yours. Thank you for doing this.
“MS SMITH: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with you again, and to call you Mr. Secretary.
“I’d also like to thank my friends at the ONE Campaign for making this possible. And I look forward to working with the men and women of the department and across the federal government, including because I know what you can do.
“I want to thank in particular some really smart scientists, President Biden, and the staff and volunteers at Howard University, where tomorrow I will get my second dose of the COVID vaccine.
“That vaccine is good for the body, but it’s also good for the mind and the soul, because it inspires hope in the future. And our job is to shape that future.
“I fought some viruses in the past, and I’ve learned two lessons. The first is that if the virus is moving faster than we are, it’s winning. The second is that with unity of purpose, science, vigilance, and leadership, we can outpace any virus.
“America’s done it before. Eighteen years ago, a Republican president launched a bold initiative to take on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A Democratic president went on to expand that mission in scope. In 2014, the Obama-Biden administration, with the strong and generous support of Congress, defeated the world’s first Ebola epidemic.
“Our challenges now are two: first, to shorten the lifespan of a borderless pandemic that is destroying lives and livelihoods all over the world, and the second is to ensure that we can prevent, detect, and respond to those future global health threats we know are coming.
“American leadership is desperately needed, and I’m extremely confident we can rise to the occasion. I’m honored to be here, and thank you very, very much.”
This is an important week with both the IMF and World Bank Spring meetings and important agenda items on the continued global response to the pandemic and helping countries build back better. The IMF April World Economic Outlook has good news about the direction of global activity although the pace of recoveries will vary significantly among countries and regions. While global production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has ramped up enormously in the few months that vaccines have been approved and while there are many additional potential vaccines under development or in trials, the early months have seen some production challenges and distribution skewed to a handful of countries. Many of those countries with the most vaccine doses (U.S., UK, EU, India) have been countries or regions with many of the largest number of infections and deaths. Even so, the effort at equitable and affordable access to all needs additional work.
An article in the New York Times reviews an exciting potential development of a low-cost, easy to produce vaccine that could dramatically expand the ability of developing countries to produce their own vaccines. See New York Times, Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Coronavirus Vaccine , April 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/05/health/hexapro-mclellan-vaccine.html (“A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make. Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.”).
Production is ramping up for the various vaccines that have been approved in various countries. Producers continue to explore adding capacity or licensing production to other producers. Governments – like the United States, Japan, India and Australia – are finding creative ways for nations to work together to build up additional capacity to reach countries with needs. COVAX has proven to be an important vehicle for distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. As capacities expand and additional funding is available, COVAX will continue to be a critical part of the solution.
The IMF and World Bank have the ability to address many of the challenges facing developing countries with the support of its member governments. Hopefully, this week’s meetings will make a difference. And individual countries can and are doing more. Secretary Blinken’s remarks show the U.S. will be increasing its role and working with others to ensure global success. For a world fatigued from the pandemic, a path to resolution is needed now. Hopefully, we are close.
The IMF in its April 2020 update of the global economy modified its projection to show global GDP contraction of 3.0% for 2020 with a 6.1% contraction by advanced economies (U.S., -5.9%; Euro Area, -7.9%; Japan, -5.2) and a 1.0% contraction for emerging markets and developing economies. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020.
Developments in global trade and the national economy for the United States and the rising severity of the pandemic in some of the emerging and developing countries will likely cause future downward revisions to the global trade and economic fallout occurring in 2020 and reemphasize the importance of global cooperation both in responding to the pandemic but also in posturing the world for an economic recovery in the second half of 2020 and beyond.
With more than 40 million people filing for unemployment benefits between mid-March and the end of May, the projection for second quarter GDP from at least one source on June 1, 2020 is an extraordinary contraction of 52.8%. Seehttps://www.frbatlanta.org/cqer/research/gdpnow. This compares to the Congressional Budget Office’s projection of a 39.6% decline in the second quarter. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56335. The CBO estimate uses a 3.5% decline in GDP for the first quarter and an annual projected decline of 5.6% for 2020.
With the current first quarter data GDP contraction in the U.S. at 5.0% and the most recent data from a model similar to that used by the Bureau of Economic Analysis projecting a 52.8% contraction in the second quarter, it is highly likely that the U.S. contraction in 2020 will exceed the 5.9% projected in the April IMF data.
Indeed, with the number of bankruptcies being reported in the U.S. and the large number of small and medium sized companies that may not be able to return to operation as reopening occurs, the economic rebound may not be as strong as current projections estimate either. The continued large number of new cases in the United States may be a contributing cause as some states either delay the speed of reopening or face larger resurgence of cases once reopening occurs because of the continued high level of COVID-19 in the population.
While the number of cases in the United States has at least stabilized and has been trending down, the rate of decline is far lower than that experienced in western Europe. For example, the United States continues to have the largest number of new confirmed cases of any country in the world, many weeks after the U.S. peak. Indeed in today’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control report on the COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of 2 June 2020, the U.S. has 302,679 cases reported in the last fourteen days of the continuing to grow global total of 1,477,362 new cases in the last fourteen days. European countries have relatively few (7,973 for Spain; 7,311 for Italy, 9,188 for France and 6,818 for Germany). https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases. In a prior post, data were shown for various countries over the period December 31, 2019 – May 24, 2020. Most European countries show reductions from their peak two week period of 80-90% while the United States has shown declines of only 23.5% through May 24 (slightly more through June 2, 26.0%). See COVID-19 – new hot spots amidst continued growing number of confirmed cases, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/25/covid-19-new-hotspots-amidst-continued-growing-number-of-confirmed-cases/. To the extent that IMF projections are based on infection rates that decline more rapidly than the actual U.S. experience with COVID-19, that would be another reason to believe the IMF projected contractions for the U.S. are too low.
On the trade front, the United States was doing well until mid-March. But the COVID-19 challenges that resulted in government actions led to 1st quarter 2020 exports from the U.S. of goods being down 1.2%, services exports down 21.5% for a total contraction of U.S. exports of 6.7%. U.S. imports of goods were down 11.5%, led by contraction of imports from China due to various additional duties imposed on Chinese goods. U.S. imports of services were down 29.9% for total imports being down 15.5%. See Bureau of Economic Analysis, News Release BEA 20-23, May 28, 2020 at 7, https://www.bea.gov/news/2020/gross-domestic-product-1st-quarter-2020-second-estimate-corporate-profits-1st-quarter.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau puts out a “Monthly Advance Economic Indicators Report”. The April 2020 report was released on May 29th and showed estimated data for imports and exports of goods (seasonally adjusted). April exports for the U.S. were down 29.9% with individual sectors being down 5.3% (food, feeds and beverages) to 70.8% (automotive vehicles). Similarly, U.S. imports were down 20.6% for April with sectors varying from being down 5.6% (foods, feeds and beverages) to 57.0% (automotive vehicles). https://www.census.gov/econ/indicators/advance_report.pdf.
Thus, U.S. trade contractions in April suggest that the range put forward by the WTO (13-32% for the year) is probably the correct range.
Rising Number of COVID-19 cases in South America and in India
The IMF revised 2020 projections from April likely understate the negative effects that emerging and developing countries are experiencing. Specifically, Latin America and the Caribbean are seeing major outbreaks of COVID-19 cases with the peak not yet reached in a number of important countries like Brazil, Peru, Chile and Colombia and also in Mexico. Depending on developments in these major countries and the spread in others, the likely economic contraction in the region could be significantly higher than the 5.2% contained in the April 2020 projections by the IMF. Brazil was estimated to experience a GDP contraction of 5.3% by the IMF, but recent estimates show a steadily growing projected contraction, latest figures showing 6.25%. Seehttps://www.statista.com/statistics/1105065/impact-coronavirus-gdp-brazil/. With the COVID-19 cases still growing in Brazil, the contraction in GDP for 2020 will likely continue to worsen.
Other countries are also seeing increasing case numbers and the global totals of new cases have not peaked as yet which likely mean greater numbers of cases than most models have anticipated. If so global contraction could be significantly worse than the April estimates of the IMF.
High national debt levels are growing higher
The collapse of economic activity even for a few months is reducing tax revenues, increasing government spending in many jurisdictions and worsening national debt levels. For example, in the United States the Congressional Budget Office blog from April 24 estimated that the U.S. budget deficit in 2020 and 2021 will be $2.7 billion and $1.1 billion higher than earlier estimates and that federal debt held by the public is likely to grow from 79% of GDP in 2019 to 101% of GDP in 2020 and 108% of GDP in 2021. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56335. The actual deficits and federal debt are likely to be significantly higher as the CBO estimates are based on forecasts for GDP contraction that already understates the severity experienced through the first quarter and assumes no further federal assistance will be required to pull the economy out of the steep contraction being experienced in the second quarter. As governors across the country have made clear, the serious budget shortfalls being experienced by the states because of closed businesses, reduced revenues and increased expenditures are not sustainable. If these 2020 shortfalls are not addressed through federal legislation, the outcome will be large reductions in state and local services and massive layoffs of state and municipal employees including police, fire, health care and teachers. So either the budget shortfall of the federal government is understated because of additional stimulus funding needs or the expected recovery of the economy (and hence government revenues) is overstated because of the challenges for many states.
Budget shortfalls, the need to borrow more money and the pressure to reduce national, regional and local services all affect the ability of nations to contribute to international institutions, to provide financial assistance to the poorest countries and to facilitate short-, medium- and longer-term growth.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is creating economic havoc in addition to the heavy health toll on countries around the world. A global challenge of this magnitude hasn’t been faced since World War II. The projections that have been made by multilateral and national organizations have been for huge contractions in world trade and in global economic growth. Unfortunately, the estimates at least on global GDP contraction are likely too optimistic both in terms of the severity of the second quarter 2020 contraction and the anticipated level of second half 2020 recovery. Moreover, there is likely to be significantly more national stimulus programs needed to help economies recover increasing already huge national debts for many countries and the likely greater need for trade financing and debt support for many developing and least developed countries because of the severity of the global trade and GDP contraction.
The challenges being faced affect the health and livelihood of billions of people but are occurring at a time of reduced trust in multilateral institutions, increased trade frictions between major nations and groups of nations and a lack of strong leadership within and among nations.
How severe the damage to the world turns out to be from the pandemic will depend on –
(1) whether countries come together to ensure open markets;
(2) whether countries both coordinate information about and promote expanded production of essential medical goods to ensure adequate and equitable availability to all at affordable prices,
(3) whether countries support efforts of both public and private players on the development of effective vaccines and therapeutics and facilitate the sharing of information while ensuring equitable availability to all at affordable prices where breakthroughs occur,
(4) whether countries support multilateral organizations’ efforts and individually support the bolstering of health care infrastructure of least developed countries and some developing countries where COVID-19 cases could easily overwhelm internal capabilities;
(5) whether countries cooperate for a strong global recovery by pursuing stimulus programs that don’t distort markets and create other challenges to global participation, and by providing multilateral organizations with the resources to address debt and trade financing needs of the poorest among us.
There are some efforts to address each of the five items above although the U.S. announced withdrawal from the World Health Organization handicaps efforts reviewed in (3).
More needs to be done and could be done with greater cooperation among the top 50 countries in the world. However, we may be at the maximum of what is the art of the possible at the moment. For the 7.8 billion people living on earth in 2020, let us hope that more is possible quickly.
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.
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.
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.