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COVID-19 – WTO report on medical goods; FAO report on food security

The World Trade Organization has a page on its website that is dedicated to COVID-19 including references to statements from various governments, international organizations, business groups, information from the WTO itself including a compilation of notifications by Members of actions (whether trade limiting or trade expanding) taken in response to COVID-19, and links to a range of websites providing important information on the pandemic. Joint statements are also included. See today’s joint statement between the WTO and the World Customs Organization, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_06apr20_e.htm.

Last Friday, April 3rd, the WTO released a sixteen page note entitled “Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling COVID-19”. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/rese_03apr20_e.pdf. The note is very useful in terms of providing some definition to a range of products relevant to handling the COVID-19 crisis, identifying major importers and exporters of various product types and providing information on tariffs on the product categories for all WTO Members. The note identifies the following “key points”:

“• Germany, the United States (US), and Switzerland supply 35% of medical products;

“• China, Germany and the US export 40% of personal protective products;

“• Imports and exports of medical products totalled about $2 trillion, including intra-EU trade, which represented approximately 5% of total world merchandise trade in 2019;

“• Trade of products described as critical and in severe shortage in COVID-19 crisis totalled about $597 billion, or 1.7% of total world trade in 2019;

“• Tariffs on some products remain very high. For example, the average applied tariff for hand soap is 17% and some WTO Members apply tariffs as high as 65%;

“• Protective supplies used in the fight against COVID-19 attract an average tariff of 11.5% and goes as high as 27% in some countries;

“• The WTO has contributed to the liberalization of trade medical products in three main ways:

“➢ The results of tariff negotiations scheduled at the inception of the WTO in 1995;

“➢ Conclusion of the plurilateral sectoral Agreement on Pharmaceutical Products (“Pharma Agreement”) in the Uruguay Round and its four subsequent reviews;

“➢ The Expansion of the Information Technology Agreement in 2015.”

As is true with any analysis of data, the reader needs to understand what is covered and what is not and how good a fit the data provided have with the topic being discussed.

For example, the note reviews four categories of products relevant to the world addressing the COVID-19 pandemic (page 1):

  • “medicines (pharmaceuticals) – including both dosified and bulk medicines;
  • “medical supplies – refers to consumables for hospital and laboratory use (e.g., alcohol, syringes, gauze, reagents, etc.);
  • “medical equipment and technology; and
  • “personal protective products -hand soap and sanitizer, face masks, protective spectacles.”

While the four categories are, of course, relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the products covered by the tariff schedule categories are both over- and underinclusive if one is trying to understand the size of global trade in medical products directly relevant to the global efforts to address COVID-19.

The report’s data are overinclusive because the Harmonized System of Tariffs used by most nations is only harmonized to the six-digit level of specificity. The categories included in the WTO note cover both COVID-19 related products and many others. Stated differently, nearly all of the product categories identified in Annex 1 to the note include at least some items that are not germane to the current pandemic. This is a limitation on the usefulness of the data flowing from the lack of more specific classifications that all countries adhere to. As the six-digit data are all that are available with a consistent definition around the world, it is not surprising that the WTO relied on the data. Arguably better, but not uniform data could have been derived by reviewing the 8-, 9- or 10-digit statistical data for imports and exports of at least major Members, but that was not done.

Similarly, the product coverage is underinclusive as recognized in the WTO note (page 2). “It should be noted that this note focuses solely on the final form of these products and does not extent to the different intermediate products that are used by global value chains in their production. The protective garments for surgical/medical use are not included in the analysis, because it is impossible to distinguish them from general clothing product in the HS classification.”

As governments and companies have articulated over the last several months, many of the key final products (e.g., ventilators) require a large number of inputs which are often sourced from a variety of suppliers around the globe. For example, one ventilator company which assembles the ventilators in the United States is reliant on circuit boards from its facility in China to maintain or increase production. Other companies bring various inputs in from Canada or Mexico or other countries as well as shipping U.S. components to other countries for final assembly. The same reality is obviously true for producers of medical goods in other countries as well. Thus, an inability to cover inputs significantly understates global trade volumes of products relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, there are shortages in many countries of the protective garments for which no data are included. These are important products traded that are directly relevant to the world’s ability to respond to COVID-19. The lack of coverage of those products understates the importance of personal protective products to the total and understates global trade.

The above is simply to say, the sections of the WTO note that look at trade patterns (imports, exports, leading players) are helpful in identifying possible breaks between products and possible major players but the data may be significantly off from the actual split among products or role of major players if complete data limited to products relevant for addressing COVID-19 were available. It may also understate the importance of keeping markets open even if there are relatively few imports of finished products.

To explore how overstated data may be, if one looks at the HS categories shown in Annex 1 for personal protective products and looks at the United States U.S. imports for consumption for 2019 at the 10-digit HTS level of detail, the top seven 10-digit categories by customs value accounted for more than 72% of the $17 billion in imports. Yet each of the categories would contain many products not actually relevant to efforts to address COVID-19. In fact five of the seven categories are basket categories.

3926.90.9990OTHER ARTICLES OF PLASTIC, NESOI
6307.90.9889OTHER MADE-UP ARTICLES NESOI
3824.99.9297CHEMICAL PRODUCTS AND PREPARATIONS AND RESIDUAL PRODUCTS OF THE CHEMICAL OR ALLIED INDUSTRIES, NESOI
9004.90.0000SPECTACLES, GOGGLES AND THE LIKE, CORRECTIVE, PROTECTIVE, NESOI
3926.90.7500PNEUMATIC MATTRESSES & OTHR INFLATABLE ARTICLES,NESOI
3824.99.3900MIXTURES OF TWO OR MORE INORGANIC COMPOUNDS
3926.90.4590OTHER GASKETS AND WASHERS & OTHER SEALS

Similarly, the analysis of applied tariff rates is useful in showing rates for product groupings and the rates for individual countries for those product groupings but may be less useful in identifying the assistance tariff reductions would have in the present time of the pandemic. Obviously, tariff reductions by any Member that imposes them on imported products relevant to the pandemic would reduce the cost for the importing country of the needed materials. But the extent of assistance varies significantly depending on the Member as the data in Annex 2 show.

As the EU/EEA/United Kingdom and the United States account for 73.9% of the confirmed cases in the world as of April 6, 2020, a review of the applied rates for those countries would identify likely benefit from tariff reductions by the countries with the major outbreaks at the moment. The EU has an average applied rate of 1.5%, the U.S. an average applied rate of 0.9%, Norway 0.6% and Switzerland 0.7%. These rates don’t include any special duties, such as US duties on China flowing from the Section 301 investigation (with some products being subject to potential waiver of additional duties). Thus, for the vast majority of current cases, the importing countries’ applied rates are very low and hence not a significant barrier to trade.

https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2kistan019-ncov-cases; https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/cases-2019-ncov-eueea

Other countries where the reach of the pandemic may intensify typically have much higher applied tariffs. As case loads intensify in other countries or in anticipation of such potential eventualities, countries with higher tariffs should be exploring autonomous duty reductions to make imported products more affordable. India has an average applied tariff of 11.6%; Pakistan an average rate of 10.0% and Malaysia a rate of 11.7% to flag just three Members with rates at or above 10%.

The WTO note is embedded below.

rese_03apr20_e

Food security and the FAO analysis of current agricultural product availability

In a prior post, I reviewed the compounding problems during the COVID-19 pandemic of some countries starting to impost export restraints on selected products (e.g., rice, wheat) to protect food supplies. Countries reported to be imposing export restraints on food had been Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. A series of articles in Asian and European press have noted that Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia have also introduced various restraints as well. Major agricultural groups in Asia are warning that disrupting movement of food (including movement of workers to help harvest, etc.) could lead to food shortages in Asia and have reviewed that Asian countries import some 220 million tons of agricultural products which underlines the need to keep markets open. See, e.g., https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3078376/coronavirus-food-security-asias-next-battle-post-covid-world; https://www.dairyreporter.com/Article/2020/03/30/Major-food-shortages-possible-in-Asia-says-FIA#.

While fear can lead to panic and various border measures, the actual situation globally as laid out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (“FAO”) in a recent paper is that there are more than sufficient supplies of food. The key is minimizing disruptions to production and distribution. This is not a period where major disruptions from drought or floods have caused shortages of products. Specifically, the FAO’s Chief Economist prepared a document entitled “COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond?” which was released on March 29. http://www.fao.org/3/ca8388en/CA8388EN.pdf. The paper starts with a section entitled “What we know”:

“Countries have shut down the economy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now. But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more. The shipping industry is already reporting slowdowns because of port closures, and logistics hurdles could disrupt the supply chains in coming weeks.

“In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going. Unlike the 2007-2008 global food crisis, scarcity is not an issue this time. The supply of staple commodities is functioning well, and the crops need to be transported to where they are needed most. Restricting trade is not only unnecessary, it would hurt producers and consumers and even create panic in the markets. For high-value commodities that require workers (instead of machines) for production, countries must strike a balance between the need to keep production going and the need to protect the workers.

“As countries combat the coronavirus pandemic, they must also make every effort to keep the gears of their food supply chains moving.”

The paper then goes on to identify five actions needed to minimize the likelihood of food shortages arising during the pandemic. These actions are:

“Expand and improve emergency food assistance and social protection programs

“Give smallholder farmers support to both enhance their productivity and market the food they produce, also through e-commerce channels

“Keep the food value chain alive by focusing on key logistics bottlenecks

“Address trade and tax policies to keep the global trade open

“Manage the macroeconomic ramifications”.

With the number of countries already taking actions that are inconsistent with keeping global markets open for the movement of food supplies, the world is at risk of having a major complication added to the extrordinary economic shocks already being felt to address the health needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a major complication would, as it did in 2007-2008, directly harm developing and least developed countries, countries least able to absorb additional shocks.

The report and a powerpoint from FAO are embedded below.

COVID-19-and-the-risk-to-food-supply-chains_-How-to-respond_

ca8308en

Food security – export restraints and border controls during the COVID-19 pandemic

While COVID-19 is first and foremost a health crisis, efforts to control the fallout from the virus have led to border controls on farm workers and encouraged some countries to impose export restraints on particular agricultural products. While the border control dimension to the problem is new, the world has in recent years gone through a number of situations where large numbers of countries have imposed export restraints on core agricultural products in an effort to ensure adequate supplies at home. The results are never positive for the global community and particularly harm the least developed countries and those dependent on imported food products.

For example, in 2007-2008, there were dozens of countries that imposed export restraints on specific items such as rice or wheat leading to massive price spikes and shortages of product available to countries dependent on imports. The nature and extent of the problem was outlined in a paper I prepared back in 2008 which is embedded below.

GDP

The crisis led to coordinated efforts by the various UN organizations to find solutions and ways of avoiding repeats moving forward. A policy report from multiple UN agencies was released on 2 June 2011, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses.

igo_10jun11_report_e

Unfortunately, a number of countries in reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic have introduced export restraints on certain food products. Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam are some of the countries identified so far as introducing export restraints on selected agricultural products. In the past, export restraints by some have led to export restraints by many. The possibility of rapidly expanding restraints by trading nations is obviously a major concern and major complication to the global response to COVID-19.

Equally troubling are the potential challenges to agricultural product availability in countries that rely to some extent on temporary foreign labor to harvest produce and other products where border measures are restricting access of foreigners to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. Coupled to that are concerns about whether imported agricultural products meet health and quality needs and any changes in approach to those issues during the pandemic.

As one example of the farm labor concern, the United States is a country that relies on temporary farm workers from outside of the country and has significant restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals from many areas at present. U.S. farmers have raised concerns about the availability of sufficient migrant labor to harvest the fields when product is ready. How the issue gets resolved in the United States is not yet clear. But the same or similar challenges will apply in any country where imported farm labor is important to the harvesting, processing or transporting of agricultural products.

That these multiple potential issues on agricultural goods trade are escalating can be seen in yesterday’s joint statement from the WTO, WHO and FAO. The joint statement is available on the WTO webpage, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_26mar20_e.htm, and is reproduced below:

“Joint Statement by QU Dongyu, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Roberto Azevêdo, Directors-General of FAO, WHO and WTO

“Millions of people around the world depend on international trade for
their food security and livelihoods. As countries move to enact measures
aiming to halt the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic, care must be taken
to minimise potential impacts on the food supply or unintended
consequences on global trade and food security.

“When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens,
countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt
the food supply chain. Such disruptions including hampering the
movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending
border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste. Food trade restrictions could also be linked
to unjustified concerns on food safety. If such a scenario were to
materialize, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly
pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food insecure
populations.

“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export
restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions can
alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price
spikes and increased price volatility. We learned from previous crises
that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit
countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure food for those in desperate need.

“We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage. Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements.   

“We must also ensure that information on food-related trade measures, levels of food production, consumption and stocks, as well as on food prices, is available to all in real time. This reduces uncertainty and allows producers, consumers and traders to make informed decisions. Above all, it helps contain ‘panic buying’ and the hoarding of food and other essential items.

“Now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world.  We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”

Conclusion

There is little doubt that COVID-19 is placing extraordinary strains on countries, their peoples, their economies and the ability and willingness to act globally as opposed to locally. The strains and how the world reacts will shape the world going forward and determine the magnitude of the devastation that occurs in specific markets and the broader global community.

The UN report released yesterday, Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, and the statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres outline the enormity of the global challenges and a potential path to a better future. See https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1060702; https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/sg_report_socio-economic_impact_of_covid19.pdf.

The global health emergency is significantly worsened by the introduction of food security issues. Despite a better understanding of the causes and necessary approaches to minimize food security issues, the world has a poor track record on working for the collective good in agriculture when fears of food availability arise. An eruption of export restraints at the time of the global COVID-19 health crisis could indeed undermine societal stability.

Export restraints vs. trade liberalization during a global pandemic — the reality so far with COVID-19

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases (COVID-19) as of March 26, 2020 was approaching 500,000 globally, with the rate of increase in cases continuing to surge in a number of important countries or regions (e.g., Europe and the United States) with the locations facing the greatest strains shifting over time.

In an era of global supply chains, few countries are self-sufficient in all medical supplies and equipment needed to address a pandemic. Capacity constraints can occur in a variety of ways, including from overall demand exceeding the supply (production and inventories), from an inability or unwillingness to manage supplies on a national or global basis in an efficient and time responsive manner, by the reduction of production of components in one or more countries reducing the ability of downstream producers to complete products, by restrictions on modes of transport to move goods internationally or nationally, from the lack of availability of sufficient medical personnel or physical facilities to handle the increased work load and lack of facilities.

The reality of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over weeks within a given country or region can overwhelm the ability of the local health care system to handle the skyrocketing demand. When that happens, it is a nightmare for all involved as patients can’t be handled properly or at all in some instances, death rates will increase, and health care providers and others are put at risk from a lack of adequate supplies and protective gear. Not surprisingly, shortages of supplies and equipment have been identified in a number of countries over the last three months where the growth in cases has been large. While it is understandable for national governments to seek to safeguard supplies of medical goods and equipment to care for their citizens, studies over time have shown that such inward looking actions can be short sighted, reduce the global ability to handle the crisis, increase the number of deaths and prevent the level of private sector response that open markets would support.

As we approach the end of March, the global community receives mixed grades on their efforts to work jointly and to avoid beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Many countries have imposed one or more restraints on exports of medical supplies and equipment with the number growing rapidly as the spread of COVID-19 outside of China has escalated particularly in March. Indeed, when one or more countries impose export restraints, it often creates a domino effect as countries who may depend in part on supplies from one or more of those countries, decides to impose restraints as well to limit shortages in country.

At the same time, the G-7, G-20 and others have issued statements or other documents indicating their political desire to minimize export restraints and keep trade moving. The WTO is collecting information from Members on actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 to improve transparency and to enable WTO Members to identify actions where self-restraint or roll back would be useful. And some countries have engaged in unilateral tariff reductions on critical medical supplies and equipment.

Imposition of Export Restraints

The World Customs Organization has developed a list of countries that have imposed some form of export restraint in 2020 on critical medical supplies. In reviewing the WCO website today, the following countries were listed: Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, European Union, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. Today’s listing is copied below.

List-of-Countries-having-adopted-temporary-export-control-measures-Worl.._

While China is not listed on the WCO webpage, it is understood that they have had some restrictions in fact at least during the January-February period of rapid spread of COVID-19 in China.

While it is surprising to see the European Union on the list, the Official Journal notice of the action indicates that the action is both temprary (six weeks – will end around the end of April) and flows in part from the fact that sources of product used by the EU had been restricting exports. The March 15, 2020 Official Journal notice is attached below.

EC-Implementing-Regulation-EU-2020-402-of-14-March-2020-making-the-exportation-of-certain-products-subject-to-the-production-of-an-export-authorisation

Professor Simon Evenett, in a March 19, 2020 posting on VOX, “Sickening thy neighbor: Export restraints on medical supplies during a pandemic,” https://voxeu.org/article/export-restraints-medical-supplies-during-pandemic, reviews the challenges posed and provides examples of European countries preventing exports to neighbors — Germany preventing a shipment of masks to Switzerland and France preventing a shipment to the U.K.

In a webinar today hosted by the Washington International Trade Association and the Asia Society Policy Institute entitled “COVID-19 and Trade – A WTO Agenda,” Prof. Evenett reviewed his analysis and noted that the rate of increase for export restraints was growing with 48 of 63 actions occurring in March and 8 of those occurring in the last forty-eight hours. A total of 57 countries are apparently involved in one or more restraints. And restraints have started to expand from medical supplies and equipment to food with four countries mentioned by Prof. Evenett – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam.

Efforts to keep markets open and liberalize critical medical supplies

Some countries have reduced tariffs on critical medical goods during the pandemic and some countries have also implemented green lane approaches for customs clearance on medical supplies and goods. Such actions are clearly permissible under the WTO, can be undertaken unilaterally and obviously reduce the cost of medical supplies and speed up the delivery of goods that enter from offshore. So it is surprising that more countries don’t help themselves by reducing tariffs temporarily (or permanently) on critical medical supplies and equipment during a pandemic.

Papers generated by others show that there are a large number of countries that apply customs duties on medical supplies, equipment and soaps and disinfectants. See, e.g., Jennifer Hillman, Six Proactive Steps in a Smart Trade Approach to Fighting COVID-19 (graphic from paper reproduced below), https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/six-proactive-steps-smart-trade-approach-fighting-covid-19

Groups of countries have staked out positions of agreeing to work together to handle the pandemic and to keep trade open. For example, the G20 countries had a virtual emergency meeting today to explore the growing pandemic. Their joint statement can be found here and is embedded below, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.pdf.

dgra_26mar20_e

There is one section of the joint statement that specifically addresses international trade disruptions during the pandemic. That language is repeated below:

“Addressing International Trade Disruptions

“Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well-being of all people.

“We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. We task our Trade Ministers to assess the impact of the pandemic on trade.

“We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

The WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo participated in the virtual meeting with the G20 leaders and expressed strong support for the commitment of the G20 to working on the trade related aspects of the pandemic. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.htm.

Separately, New Zealand and Singapore on March 21st issued a Joint Ministerial Statement which stated in part,

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious global crisis.

“As part of our collective response to combat the virus, Singapore and New Zealand are committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains. We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities,”

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/21/new-zealand-works-closely-with-singapore-to-maintain-key-supply.

The Joint Ministerial Statement was expanded to seven countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore), on March 25th and is reportedly open to additional countries joining. See https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2020/03/updated-joint-ministerial-statement-25-mar.pdf

Conclusion

When a pandemic strikes, many countries have trouble maintaining open trade policies on critical materials in short supply and/or in working collaboratively to address important supply chain challenges or in taking unilateral actions to make critical supplies available more efficiently and at lower costs.

The current global response to COVID-19 presents the challenges one would expect to see – many countries imposing temporary restrictions on exports — while positive actions in the trade arena are more limited to date with some hopeful signs of a potential effort to act collectively going forward.

Time will tell whether governments handling of the trade dimension of the pandemic contributes to the equitable solution of the pandemic or exacerbates the challenges and harm happening to countries around the world.