With the COVID-19 pandemic ramping up its reach and severity in many parts of the world and with the global economy reeling as a result, there is an understandable hope for a coordinated response from the major countries in the world to minimize the effect of the pandemic, ensure availability of medical supplies and equipment, and chart a path back to growth for all.
In the last week there has been both a virtual Extraordinary Meeting of the G20 leaders (March 26) and a virtual meeting of trade ministers (March 30). Both meetings issued joint communiques intended to express the commitment of the G20 countries to keep markets open, minimize trade restrictions, share information and work to defeat COVID-19. See https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Extraordinary%20G20%20Leaders%E2%80%99%20Summit_Statement_EN%20(3).pdf; https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_30mar20_e.pdf. The two joint communiques are embedded below. They were followed by a joint meeting of finance ministers today (March 31).
However, each of the leaders’ and trade ministers’communiques has been criticized by some analysts for not having specific commitments (e.g., agreeing to a standstill on export restraints or agreeing to temporarily reduce tariffs on certain medical supplies and equipment). Indeed, such concrete actions have been urged by not only various analysts but also by the World Bank. See https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/statement/2020/03/30/statement-by-mari-pangestu-managing-director-for-development-policy-and-partnerships-the-world-bank-at-the-virtual-meeting-of-g20-trade-ministers. The specifics urged by the World Bank at the G20 trade ministers meeting included the following:
“We suggest G20 Trade Ministers decide on concrete actions to mitigate the pandemic and speed up recovery. G20 Members could immediately undertake the following actions whilst advocating parallel action by all World Trade Organization Members.
“Refrain from new export restrictions on critical medical supplies, food or other key products. Where such emergency measures are applied, they should be targeted, transparent, proportionate with the emergency needs, and time-bound.
“Eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports of COVID-19 products, as well as lower or temporarily suspend tariffs and export taxes on food and other basic goods to safeguard household incomes and business activity.
“Ensure that vital products can cross borders safely, by ensuring continuity of border agency clearance for critical supplies and essential transport and logistics.
“Secure continued access to capital and trade financing to medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs).”
For some analysts, the failure to provide specific action steps reflects a claimed lack of leadership among the G20 leaders (in particular to a lack of leadership by the U.S.). Those raising concerns compare the communiques to those that came out from the financial crisis in 2008-2009 which contained some specific commitments including a standstill on trade restrictive measures.
Differences between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008-2009 financial crisis
While both events, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008-2009 financial crisis, can be described as major crisis moments for the global community, there is the very real difference of the COVID-19 pandemic threatening human life directly. WTO commitments have understandable carveouts for Members to address public health crises through deviations from their WTO commitments.
Politically, it is hard to imagine countries suffering major outbreaks of COVID-19 not having an initial primary commitment to address the internal needs of their citizens. This has led to many countries seeking at least temporarily to secure critical medical supplies and equipment to address the surge in illness that has followed the spread of the virus in individual countries. This includes both major developed countries like the members of the EU and major countries like China (in the early stages of the outbreak there). The daily pleas from governors and mayors across the United States for more supplies and equipment show the internal pressures for governments to secure supplies and equipment critical to the short-term needs.
This does not mean that proposals for joint action aren’t meritorious or that some actions by individual countries can be harmful to overall global welfare as well as their own short-term interests. Rather the internal challenges will differ for different countries or territories and may make joint actions at a given point in time less doable. In such situations, individual country actions can be important with joint actions undertaken where possible. For example, in the U.S. and in other countries, there is an effort to ramp up production of critical supplies and equipment. Such individual action can have important positive effects on the global response to COVID-19.
While many countries sent supplies to China back in January-February when China was going through its peak needs and ramping up its production, China has been exporting supplies to various countries as its internal needs recede and external demand ramps up. Press accounts, for example, indicate that the U.S. has procured 10 plane loads of medical supplies from China, the first of which arrived in the last several days in New York.
Similarly, the U.S. has been working with companies in the United States to increase production of medical personal protection equipment and of ventilators as part of its effort to address the surge in demand that is occurring in individual U.S. hot spots. Ramp up of production is also important in light of the global shortage of some of the items during periods of heightened demand. President Trump in a recent press conference indicated that it was likely that as production increased on ventilators in the U.S., there would be excess volume at some point that could be shared with other countries without sufficient supplies.
Thus, individual country actions can have important longer term benefits for other countries around the world.
Actions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to Assist Developing and Least Developed Countries Are Supported by G20 Members
G20 members are important players in both the World Bank and the IMF. As reviewed in statements by each organization in yesterday’s trade ministers meeting (World Bank) and today’s finance minister’s meeting (IMF), each organization is taking aggressive actions to provide assistance to developing and least developed countries to help in addressing COVID-19 and the recovery of economies after the pandemic. Such action is possible because of the support of the major economies in those organizations.
For example, the World Bank reviewed the following actions it is taking to respond to COVID-19 at yesterday’s trade ministers meeting:
“The WBG is providing fast, flexible responses to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on developing countries. The $14 billion Fast Track Facility approved on March 17 assists countries and companies in their efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. We have emergency operations for 60 countries already underway and more to come.
“We are entering into the next phase of our response to further address the broader economic and social impact. The WBG will deploy $160 billion over 15 months to:
“Protect the poor and vulnerable through social safety net programs.
Oer World Bank facilitated procurement to help clients access needed medical supplies and equipment, for no fee, to address the significant disrutption in supply chains.
“Support businesses and their employees, especially MSMEs, through IFC trade and credit lines.
“Strengthen economic resilience and speed of recovery through budget support and sectoral interventions, including in trade and investment.
“We and the IMF are also calling on all official bilateral creditors to suspend debt payments from IDA countries that request forbearance.”
Similarly, below is the statement by the IMF from today’s finance ministers meeting:
“March 31, 2020
“Washington, DC – International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva made the following remarks today during an extraordinary conference call of G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors:
“Thank you to the Saudi G20 presidency for calling this extraordinary meeting.
“‘We welcome the decisive actions many of you have taken to shield people and the economy from COVID-19, that led to a decline in volatility in major financial markets in recent days. Nonetheless we remain very concerned about the negative outlook for global growth in 2020 and in particular about the strain a downturn would have on emerging markets and low- income countries.
“Our forecast of a recovery next year hinges on how we manage to contain the virus and reduce the level of uncertainty.
“Thus, we support an ambitious G20 action plan to strengthen the capacity of health systems to cope with the epidemic; to stabilize the world economy through timely, targeted and coordinated measures; and to pave the way towards recovery.
“And we will do our part. In fact, we got a strong mandate last Friday from our governing body, the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), on reforms to strengthen our crisis response.
“In particular, it endorsed initiatives to:
“· Enhance access to our emergency facilities, as now some 85 countries indicate they rely on them for financial support;
“· Build up our capacity to serve our poorest members; and
“· Help countries experiencing foreign exchange shortages, including possibly by short-term liquidity line.
“We also have good news on IMF resources.
“The U.S. recently approved (https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/03/26/pr20109-usa-statement-on-the-unitedstates-congress-move-to-strengthen-the-imfs-resources) the doubling of the New Arrangements to Borrow, and our Executive Board yesterday agreed https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/03/31/pr20123-imf-executive-boardapproves-framework-for-new-bilateral-borrowing-agreements) on a new round of bilateral borrowing to secure the IMF’s
$1 trillion lending capacity.
“Lastly, I would like to direct your attention to the issue of debt of low-income countries.
“Starting with their debt obligations to the IMF, I am pleased to report that our Executive Board last Thursday approved (https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/03/27/pr20116-imf-enhances-debt-relief-trust-to-enable-support-foreligible-lic-in-wake-of-covid-19) a reform of the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT) that allows our poorest member countries to invest in crisis response rather than repay the Fund. I want to thank G20 members who have pledged financial support for the CCRT and call on others to join.
“And I support the G20 to urgently work on further easing the debt burden of our poorest members.
“At a time the world economy is at a standstill, official bilateral creditors could make a major contribution by offering a debt standstill to IDA-eligible countries, as World Bank Group President David Malpass and I proposed
(https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/03/25/pr20103-joint-statement-world-bank-group-and-imf-call-to-actionon-debt-of-ida-countries) during our last meeting.
“It will also be important for other creditors to do their part, and I count on the G20 to help build consensus on a way forward for our poorest members.”
Thus, the G20 through their involvement in multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the IMF are taking collective action to address various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and global recovery whether or not there are specific G20 actions taken outside of those organizations.
Additional Challenges and Opportunities For G20 Members
- access for transport moving goods
One of the unusual challenges flowing from COVID-19 is dealing with concerns about movement of people with the need for the movement of goods across borders. For example, many countries have imposed travel restrictions from certain offshore locations to try and control the spread of COVID-19. Even where there is not an outright ban on entry from certain foreign countries, there may be requirements for mandatory quarantine of people travelling from certain countries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has a webpage following measures taken by governments related to COVID-19. As of today, IATA shows 179 measures having been taken by countries around the world. See https://www.iata.org/en/programs/safety/health/diseases/government-measures-related-to-coronavirus/. IATA has urged countries to develop approaches that permit international transport to access countries without staff being quarantined. The consequences for the rapid movement of medical supplies and equipment if transport personnel can’t enter and exit in ways that are acceptable to receiving countries should be obvious. But the solution will potentially differ by each importing country’s risk profile compared to each exporting country’s risk profile. It is unclear what actions G20 countries are taking to address these concerns/needs. Transparency and a task force to identify current and best practices could be helpful in the short term on this critical issue.
2. transparency issues
G20 countries have agreed to support transparency of measures taken to address COVID-19, and the WTO has a webpage which is tracking notices provided by WTO Members. To date relatively few notices have been provided to the WTO (just 18 as of March 31, 2020). See https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm.
But transparency goes beyond WTO notifications and deals with issues such as transparency on developments in individual countries on the spread of the disease, research into possible vaccines, best practices in reducing the spread of the virus, information on potential medical supplies and equipment and on potential demand among countries (including efforts at expanding production).
While there is seemingly reasonably good information on the spread of the disease in many countries and at least basic information on research ongoing around the world, it is not clear that there is a clearinghouse for information on supplies or on anticipated demand. If not, this could be an area where business associations and governments could work collectively to develop information that could be useful in maximizing availability of products where and when needed, to identify likely bottlenecks in supply and permitting governments to incentivize expanded production. There is also the question of surges in needs for medical personnel that outstrip availability even in developed countries. Transparency on availability of personnel (active, retired, etc.) willing to move intracountry and internationally would be an extraordinarily important data base and could help countries with needs determine ability to handle temporary medical help.
3. Research and Development of Vaccines and Intellectual Property Issues
There are many businesses, government entities and research groups looking for a vaccine for the COVID-19. The greater the exchange of information, the greater the likelihood of an early breakthrough. Many issues arise around any bteakthrough in terms of intellectual property rights, global needs and affordability. How those issues are addressed will be an important part of any longterm global recovery and the human costs that will be incurred going into the future from the virus. A recent Congressional Research Service paper looks at certain possible TRIPs and subsidy issues. While the discussion in the paper isn’t necessarily accurate in terms of WTO implications in all instances, it provides a list of questions that G20 members and the broader global community will need to consider.
COVID-19 is an extraordinary challenge to the global community with the ability to overwhelm health systems in advanced economies in a matter of weeks to say nothing of the potential for harm to less advanced economies.
The G20 has called for coordinated action and stated the objectives of keeping markets open, limiting restrictions on trade, exchanging information and assisting developing and least developed countries. The individual countries who are part of the G20 have also been taking action through the World Bank and IMF to help other countries address challenges from COVID-19.
At the same time, major G20 players — US, EU countries, China — have faced major challenges in their territories which have required a focus on how to address national challenges effectively and quickly. Other countries and territories have also faced various levels of spread of COVID-19 and have focused on actions they have needed to minimize the spread and help their citizens. More countries are likely to be hot spots in the coming months.
The WTO and the GATT before it have recognized that obligations undertaken must have escape clauses when there are emergencies involving human health.
Thus, the art of the possible with COVID-19 may be the articulation of aspirational objectives by leaders or international organizations or by outside analysts, the exchange of information to permit better decisions, and individual or group action where possible within the context of domestic political realities.