United Kingdom

The COVID-19 Pandemic – An Update on Shifting Patterns of Infections and Implications for Medical Goods Needs

Since late March there have been significant shifts in the number of COVID-19 cases being reported by countries and within countries. Many countries where the virus hit hardest in the first months of the year have been seeing steady progress in the reduction of cases. Some in Asia, Oceania and in Europe are close to no new cases. Others in Europe and some in Asia have seen significant contractions in the number of new cases. Other countries have seen a flattening of new cases and the beginnings of reductions (e.g., the U.S. and Canada). And, of course, other countries are caught up in a rapid increase of cases (e.g., Russia, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia).

As reviewed in a prior post, the shifting pattern of infections has implications for the needs for medical goods and open trade on those products. https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/28/shifting-trade-needs-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/. As the growth in number of cases is seen in developing and least developed countries, it is important that countries who have gotten past the worst part of Phase 1 of the pandemic eliminate or reduce export restraints, if any, that were imposed to address medical needs in country during the crush of the pandemic in country. It is also critical that the global efforts to increase production of medical goods including test kits and personal protective equipment continue to eliminate the imbalance between global demand and global supply and to permit the restoration and/or creation of national and regional buffer stocks needed now and to address any second phase to the pandemic. And as tests for therapeutics and vaccines advance, it is critical that there be coordinated efforts to see that products are available to all populations with needs at affordable prices.

While there is some effort at greater coordination on research and development as reviewed in a post last week (https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/06/covid-19-the-race-for-diagnostics-therapeutics-and-vaccines-and-availability-for-all/), concerns exist that as nations get past the first phase of the pandemic, countries will turn their focus to other needs and not in fact address the severe gaps between pandemic supply needs and existing capacity and inventories. Such an outcome would exacerbate the challenges the world is facing from the current pandemic and its likely phase 2 later this year.

The following table shows total cases as of May 11 and the number of cases over fourteen day periods ending April 11, April 27 and May 11 as reported by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. The data are self-explanatory but show generally sharply reduced rates of new infections in Europe and in a number of Asian countries, though there are increases in a few, including in India and Pakistan and in a number of countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. North America has seen a flattening of the number of new infections in the U.S. and Canada with some small reductions in numbers while Mexico is seeing growth from currently relatively low levels. Central and South America have some countries with rapid increases (e.g., Brazil, Chile, Peru). The Russian Federation is going through a period of huge increases. While there are still relatively few cases in Africa, there are countries who are showing significant increases, albeit from small bases.

Countrycases
through 5-11
14 days
to 4-11
14 days
to 4-27
14 days
to 5-11
Austria15,7875,8631,252598
Belgium53,08119,38316,4876,947
Bulgaria1,965342625665
Croatia2,187909430157
Cyprus89843318481
Czechia8,1233,4531,413719
Denmark10,4293,7732,4011,854
Estonia1,73968333496
Finland5,9621,7441,6021,386
France139,06357,71229,17214,488
Germany169,57569,07632,17714,382
Greece2,7161,045392210
Hungary3,2849671,125701
Ireland22,9965,9689,6073,734
Italy219,07061,07941,31221,395
Latvia939332161127
Lithuania1,47964138730
Luxembourg3,8861,618442163
Malta4962117048
Netherlands42,62714,49412,2584,782
Poland15,9964,5664,9434,379
Portugal27,58111,2047,2793,717
Romania15,3624,1754,7364,326
Slovakia1,45742063778
Slovenia1,45752820250
Spain224,39092,96343,04516,756
Sweden26,3226,6398,1577,682
EU271,018,867370,221220,830109,551
United Kingdom219,18355,72968,56166,343
EU27 + UK1,238,050425,950289,391175,894
United States1,329,799396,874408,339363,889
Canada68,84817,45822,51921,964
Mexico35,0223,12710,01620,345
North America1,433,669417,459440,874406,198
Japan15,7983,8486,1302,413
South Korea10,909972201171
Singapore23,3361,17711,0929,712
Australia6,9412,860391228
New Zealand 1,1476195825
Subtotal58,1319,47617,87212,549
China84,0101,058990-189
India67,1526,57418,74039,260
Indonesia14,0322,4664,6415,150
Iran107,60335,86018,79517,122
Turkey138,65741,33153,17428,527
Israel16,4777,3734,2531,079
Bangladesh14,6573764,7959,241
Kazakhstan5,1266471,7562,409
Krygyzstan1,016281276321
Malaysia6,6562,1851,097876
Pakistan30,9413,5917,95417,613
Saudi Arabia39,0482,54713,06021,526
Taiwan4401134111
Thailand3,0151,38234393
Vietnam2888660
Sri Lanka86391313340
Subtotal529,981105,961130,234143,397
Russian Federation209,68810,88165,179128,739
Ukraine15,2321,9856,2326,223
Belarus22,9731,8877,88512,510
Georgia635153229149
Subtotal248,52814,90679,525147,621
South Africa10,0158332,3735,469
Egypt9,4001,2992,2545,081
Morocco6,0631,1032,4041,998
Algeria5,7231,4561,4682,341
Burkina Faso751302135119
Cameroon2,579715801958
Cote d’Ivoire1,700379576550
D.R. of the Congo1,024165225565
Djibouti1,280137809187
Ghana4,2632419842,713
Guinea2,1462078441,052
Kenya672158158317
Mali70483273315
Mauritius33222480
Niger821428167125
Nigeria4,3992249503,126
Senegal1,7091463911,038
Somalia1,05418411618
Sudan1,363122181,126
Tunisia1,03244424283
U.R. of Tanzania50919268209
subtotal57,4698,59315,95927,990
Switzerland30,22212,1243,7581,244
Liechtenstein832030
Norway8,0992,6631,090594
Iceland1,801785919
Subtotal40,20515,5924,9421,847
Argentina5,7761,2851,5642,009
Brazil162,69916,22139,719100,811
Chile28,8661,9346,11815,535
Colombia11,0631,9342,6035,684
Dominican Republic10,3472,0393,1684,212
Ecuador29,5595,53415,2536,840
Panama8,4482,1882,3792,669
Peru67,3075,26219,99839,790
Costa Rica79229510097
El Salvador958105173660
Subtotal325,81536,79791,075178,307
All Other Countries131,67726,78038,80955,215
Total of all countries4,063,5251,061,5141,108,6811,149,018

The WTO maintains a data base of actions by WTO members in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which either restrict medical goods exports or which liberalize and expedite imports of such products. As of May 8, the WTO showed 173 measures that the WTO Secretariat had been able to confirm, with many countries having temporary export restrictions on medical goods, some restraints on exports of food products, and a variety of measures to reduce tariffs on imported medical goods or expedite their entry. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm. Some WTO Members other than those included in the list have had and may still have informal restrictions.

The EU and its member states are presumably in a position now or should be soon to eliminate any export restrictions based on the sharp contraction of cases in the EU as a whole over the last six weeks – last 14 days are roughly 59% lower than the 14 days ending on April 11. Similarly, countries with small numbers of cases and rates of growth which seem small may be candidates for eliminating export restrictions. Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Georgia, Norway and Switzerland would appear to fit into this latter category. Most other countries with restrictions notified to the WTO appear to be either in stages where cases continue at very high levels (e.g., United States) or where the number of cases is growing rapidly (e.g., Russia, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan). Time will tell whether the WTO obligation of such measures being “temporary” is honored by those who have imposed restrictions. Failure to do so will complicate the efforts to see that medical goods including medicines are available to all on an equitable basis and at affordable prices.

COVID-19 — US International Trade Commission report on U.S. imports and tariffs on COVID-19 related goods

In a post from April 6th, I reviewed a WTO document on medical goods relevant to COVID-19. https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/06/covid-19-wto-report-on-medical-goods-fao-report-on-food-security/. As reviewed in that post, the data compiled by the WTO were useful but both over- and underinclusive. Because tariffs are harmonized for most countries at the 6-digit HS level, comparable data was only available at that level for the WTO’s analysis even though virtually every category included many products that are not relevant to treating COVID-19. The list also doesn’t include input materials as recognized by the WTO. I had suggested that it would be useful to have WTO Members supply information at their most disaggregated level of detail to see if a tighter fit of at least finished products could be identified in terms of trade.

The United States has now provided a report that provides its data at the 10-digit HTS level of detail for imports into the United States. It would be helpful if other major trading nations similarly provided their detail data to the WTO and for public release. Hopefully, the U.S. will provide similar data for its exports in the coming months.

Development of U.S. import data

USTR has been exploring possible elimination of duties on medical goods needed for the U.S. response to COVID-19 and is accepting comments through late June. The U.S. International Trade Commission (“USITC”) was asked by the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and the Chairman of U.S. Senate Committee on Finance to conduct “a factfinding investigation to identify imported goods related to the response to COVID-19, their source countries, tariff classifications, and applicable rates of duty.”. The report from the USITC’s Investigation 332-576 was completed in late April and is now available from the USITC webpage. USITC, COVID-19 Related Goods: U.S. Imports and Tariffs, Publication 5047 (April 2020). Updates to the report may be made through June 2020. See https://www.usitc.gov/press_room/news_release/2020/er0504ll1540.htm

In the report, the USITC compiled data on 112 10-digit HTS categories but noted that many of these categories which are generally more detailed than the 6-digit categories used in the WTO paper still contain large quantities of goods that are not relevant to the COVID-19 response. Thus, the U.S. data, while more refined that the 6-digit data used by the WTO are still overinclusive. To the extent major input data for products needed to address COVID-19 are not included in the USITC investigation, the results are underinclusive as well.

The USITC Executive Summary notes that of the 112 HTS categories:

6 cover COVID-19 test kits/testing instruments,

9 cover disinfectants ad sterilization products,

22 cover medical imagining, diagnostic, oxygen therapy, pulse oximeters, and other equipment,

20 cover medicines (pharmaceuticals),

19 cover non-PPE medical consumables and hospital supplies,

27 cover personal protective equipment, and

9 covered other products.

Looking at what tariffs were applied, the ITC looked both at ordinary customs duties (Column 1 rates) and also whether additional duties on products from China were owed because of the 301 investigation and subsequent actions by the Administration. The USITC indicated that 76 products (68%) were duty-free for ordinary customs purposes and that 36 products (32%) were subject to duties, though one or more countries’ goods entered duty free for each of the 36 products.

For goods from China, 59 categories were not subject to additional 301 duties, 55 products were subject to additional duties (39 products at 25% additional duties; 16 products at 7.5% additional duties) although 28 of the 55 categories were subject to exclusions (total exclusions for 13 product categories; partial exclusions for the remaining 15 categories).

The Commission pulled import data for 2017-2019 (including for several categories which expired before 2020 for completeness of the underlying data). The data show US imports by HTS category and then show the top 5 source countries by HTS and the all other country customs value.

The data from the investigation will be used by USTR and Congress to inform Administration decisions on which products should receive tariff reductions/eliminations.

Using the ITC’s list, the trade data can presently be updated through March 2020 as March 2020 data are now publicly available.. The total for the 112 categories for 2019 was U.S. imports for consumption of $105.3 billion up from $81.3 billion in 2017 and $93.7 billion in 2018. Imports in the first quarter of 2020 were $28.6 billion up from $24.6 billion in the first quarter of 2019.

The top 15 sources of imports into the U.S. in 2019 are the following. Data also show the percentage change in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2019.

Top sources of imports Customs Value 2019 % change 2019-2020

Ireland $14.173 billion +12.77%

China $12.313 billion -14.13%

Germany $12.228 billion +20.35%

Mexico $ 8.791 billion + 4.44%

Canada $ 6.026 billion +19.57%

Belgium $ 5.952 billion +63.21%

Switzerland $ 5.082 billion +39.80%

Japan $ 4.144 billion +28.38%

United Kingdom $ 3.409 billion +11.42%

India $ 2.816 billion +16.71%

South Korea $ 2.694 billion -30.68%

Netherlands $ 2.545 billion +94.16%

Italy $ 2.177 billion +75.66%

Malaysia $ 2.163 billion + 7.65%

Costa Rica $ 1.693 billion +22.50%

All Other $16.574 billion +15.13%

Total $105.267 billion +16.16%

Different supplying countries focus on different parts of the medical goods needs of the United States. For example, the top four HTS categories imports from Ireland accounted for more than $10 billion of the $14.173 billion from the country in 2019 and all were medicines. In comparison, the top two HTS categories of imports into the U.S. from China were basket categories (other articles of plastic; other made up articles) which are presumably personal protective equipment (“PPE”) products and were $5 billion of the $12.313 billion. While ventilators were also a significant item, most other major items appear to fit within the PPE category.

Conclusion

The purpose of the USITC investigation and report are to provide information to the Congress and Administration to help identify which imported products relevant to the COVID-19 response by the United States are dutiable and which products from China are also subject to additional tariffs from the 301 investigation. The Administration and Congress will use the information as part of the Administration’s review of which imported products should face a reduction or elimination of tariffs at least during the pandemic.

However, the data also provide useful information for broader use in understanding the extent of trade in goods actually relevant to the global response to COVID-19. Hopefully, the U.S. will compile comparable data on the country’s exports and other major trading nations will supply comparable data to the WTO and to the public.

Shifting Trade Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As of April 28, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world is over three million. The EU/UK and U.S. have dominated the number of cases and number of deaths to the present time after the start of the pandemic in China. The EU and UK have more than one million cases and more than 120,000 deaths. The United States will likely surpass one million cases by the end of April 28th with deaths above 55,000. . Together they accounted for roughly 70% of cases through April 27 and 84% of deaths.

But the rate of growth is expanding in other parts of the world while number of new cases is shrinking in Europe and flatlining in the United States. The data below look at the number of cases on April 27 and the percent growth of new cases measuring a fourteen day period ending on April 27 compared to a fourteen day period ending on April 11. What the table makes clear is that Europe has been going through a period of declining numbers (percentage less than 100%), North America (based on the US) is close to zero growth (though Mexico’s 14 day numbers more than tripled) , while parts of Africa, Central and South America and some countries in Asia are experiencing rapid growth, albeit generally from low levels. China has largely gotten through the first wave and so numbers for both fourteen day periods are quite low even though the ratio is close to 100%.

Country/Area Number of cases April 27 ratio 14 day cases 4-27/4-11

EU27 908,316 59.65%

UK 152,840 123.03%

4 (Switz., Nrwy, Icel, Lich) 38,358 31.70%

United States 965,910 102.89%

Canada 46,884 128.99%

Mexico 14,677 320.31%

Japan 13,385 159.30%

South Korea 10,738 20.68%

Singapore 13,624 942.40%

China 84,199 93.57%

India 27,892 285.06%

Iran 90,481 52.41%

Turkey 110,130 128.65%

Russia 80,949 599.02%

21 African countries 29,479 185.71%

8 South & Central America 146,515 249.48%

World Total 2,914,507 104.44%

Source; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, situation update worldwide, as of 27 April 2020 and 11 April 2020.

As the growth in the number of new cases slows in many developed countries while ramping up in other countries, there will be increasing needs for medical supplies (medicines, equipment, personal protective equipment and other supplies) in countries or territories that heretofore have not had large supply needs.

At the same time, needs for some types of equipment may be reduced in countries that have gotten past the worst of the first wave. Ventilators would be a case in point. In the United States, as hard hit areas like New York see lower hospitalization rates, the state has been able to forward some ventilators to other states with growing case loads. Similarly, the United States has moved from a situation of buying ventilators abroad to being able to send ventilators abroad. That ability is presumably increasing as expanded U.S. production of ventilators kicks into higher gear as we get to the end of April.

Countries like China that have largely gotten through the first wave of COVID-19 have moved from being large importers of medical supplies to being able to export significant quantities of various supplies, including personal protective equipment. They have also ramped up production of some medical supplies and so should be able to both handle any internal needs and continue to expand exports to the world.

However, for countries that have gotten into a period of declining new cases or even flat growth, needs for personal protective equipment, disenfectant, testing equipment and supplies will continue to grow as these countries deal with both ongoing needs for hospital care and the significant increase in testing and tracing needed for a safe reopening of countries and the likely change in protective gear needed for citizens freed from stay at home orders.

Prior posts have reviewed efforts by the multilateral organizations like the WHO, IMF, World Bank, FAO, WCO and WTO to facilitate transparency, financial and other needs of the world during the pandemic as well as efforts at coordinated actions by the G20.

Faced with the worst pandemic in more than a century, the world was generally caught flat footed and without adequate supplies to address the needs of individual countries or the world as a whole.

Transparency and efforts to keep markets open are two of the trade focuses of governments and the WTO. However, a health crisis during a time of grossly inadequate medical supplies has resulted in many countries taking at least temporary actions to secure medical supplies needed for domestic demand. This has occurred through export restraints, commandeering domestic production, using laws aimed for national emergencies and other actions which favor the large and wealthy over other parties.

There appears to be little or no international efforts to coordinate expansion of critical supplies or to monitor demand vs. supply availability to maximize utilization of the scarce supplies that are available in areas hardest hit. If in fact, the pandemic is gaining steam in developing and least developed countries, there is an increasing need for coordinated action in supporting these countries in the weeks and months ahead.

In that regard, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided virtual remarks on April 20th to an event hosted by the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing on the role of the WTO in assisting in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The link to the presentation is here and the materials off of the WTO webpage are embedded below. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_20apr20_e.htm.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff_-Policy-coordina

While DDG Wolff recognizes that any action by the WTO is based upon initiatives from Members, he includes a series of “[a]genda items for a WTO COVID 19 Response”. Some of the agenda items have been pursued by individual WTO members as well as being part of an agreement between Singapore and New Zealand. These would include tariff suspensions on relevant medical supplies and enhanced trade facilitation for medical supplies. The WTO membership has already authorized transparency on actions taken, although Members have at best a spotty performance in providing the transparency agreed to.

The proposed agenda includes items that appear to be more aspirational in nature, at least during the current pandemic, including an agreement on codes of conduct on topics such as “guidelines on allocating scarcity”, “an accord on export controls and equivalent measures (including, e.g., pre-emptive purchasing in whatever form)”. Such issues will likely have greater likelihood of success after the pandemic has passed.

Of great interest to me is the last posting under “Codes of conduct, best practices and international understandings resulting in” which is “Coordinated efforts to enhance manufacturing of medical equipment and supplies”. It is possible that there are efforts within the WTO or the OECD or other groups to gather information on current capacities and planned expansions. Such an effort if not currently occurring should be made a priority during the pandemic and going forward. As China’s experience demonstrated (where demand in China for masks exceeded China production by ten-to-one during the peak increase in cases), supply is unlikely to meet demand in individual countries without better coordination amongst countries and without a greater global inventory buffer to address extraordinary demand surges.

The last agenda item proposed by DDG Wolff is the “Formation of a WTO Member Emergency Covid 19 Response Committee (ERC) or Task Force”. One would hope that an ERC could be quickly created within the WTO although many Members have shown reluctance during the pandemic (at least during the time where in-person meetings are not possible) to agree to any substantive decisions, although being open to collect information. It is also unclear how quickly an ERC, if created, would be able to advance proposals of interest to Members. But it could certainly be a group focused on gathering greater information relevant to supplies and demand as well as restrictions and liberalizations.

Finally, DDG Wolff in looking at planning for the future advances the idea of creating a WTO Committee for Policy Planning. “It is necessary to assure that there is dedicated policy planning capacity within the WTO Secretariat and networked with Members, including experts in capitals who would be able to participate remotely.” Such a Committee could hopefully, inter alia, help WTO Members come up with policies and rules that would better prepare the world for any future pandemics. While much of what is required to minimize the effects of future pandemics is not within the WTO’s jurisdiction, there are certainly areas that are. Many of those include the items DDG Wolff has included in his suggested agenda for the WTO in response to COVID-19. Hopefully, if not doable during the pandemic, such agenda items will be addressed aggressively after the pandemic, perhaps through a Committee for Policy Planning.

Conclusion

The current health pandemic is continuing at a high level but with growing infections starting to shift geographical areas of interest. As developing countries and least developed countries become areas of increased cases, the challenges of ensuring adequate medical supplies to those in need will become greater and be complicated by health infrastructure in many countries, financial resources, and continued supply/demand imbalances. The best hope for positive outcomes is greater coordination of activity and expanded financial resources available to those in need. The seemingly largest gap in coordinated activity is in the area of current supply abilities, growth in capacity and shifting demand needs. Hopefully international organizations like the WTO can help fill the gap.

COVID-19 – OECD first policy brief on trade issues related to the pandemic

As the world moves towards two million confirmed COVID-19 cases later this week (week of April 13) and global deaths near 125,000, the EU and the United States continue to hold center stage with the largest number of cases and deaths. As of April 11th, the EU represented 39.29% of confirmed cases and 57.9% of deaths. The UK (now not part of the EU) was 4.25% of confirmed cases and 8.77% of deaths. The United States had 30.34% of confirmed cases and 18.39% of deaths. Collectively, the EU, UK and US have had 73.88% of confirmed cases, 85.07% of deaths despite having just 10.86% of the world’s population. See attached table.

Situation-update-worldwide-as-of-11-April-2020

The rate of infection is picking up in a wide range of countries, including in areas with larger populations and often lower per capita incomes. Prior posts have looked at a range of issues surrounding COVID-19 and trade policy responses, including proposals from business groups, intergovernmental organizations and the actual response of countries and territories attempting to deal with the global health pandemic.

On Friday, April 10, the OECD released the first in a series of policy briefs on trade issues related to COVID-19, The title of the policy brief is simply, COVID19 and International Trade: Issues and Actions. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=128_128542-3ijg8kfswh&title=COVID-19-and-international-trade-issues-and-actions.

The policy brief starts with the statement that “In a challenging and uncertain situation, trade is essential to save lives – and livelihoods”. Going beyond the March 2020 OECD Interim Economic Outlook estimate of the impact of global growth (halved to 1.5%), the policy brief estimates that each month extension of containment measures will further reduce global growth by 2 percentage points. The brief then reviews the wide range of challenges to nations and the world in both coping with the health dimensions of the pandemic and the extraordinary challenges to economies, national and private sector debt, employment and other issues. The estimated “initial impact on activity of partial or complete shutdowns on activity in a range of economies” shows GDP declines of 15-35% (page 2, figure 1).

The policy brief then identifies four actions that can be taken by governments to improve trade flows and reduce the negative effects on economies:

“First boost confidence in trade and global market by improving transparency”

“Second, keep global supply chains going, especially for essentials”

“Third, avoid making things worse”

“Fourth, look beyond the immediate: Policy actions now could have a long life”

Improved transparency

The policy brief supports the need for governments to notify trade-related measures that are taken in response to the pandemic to the WTO. The WTO website contains a page on COVID-19 which lists notices provided to the WTO from governments (both trade restricting and trade liberalizing) in response to COVID-19. As of April 9th, 41 notifications had been received. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm.

The OECD also shares information it receives with the WTO. In addition, the OECD provides information on agriculture production and trade to the Agricultural Market Information System “to ensure accurate, up-to-date information on market developments and country policies in critical commodities for the global food system.” Page 3.

With more than 60 trade restrictive measures flagged by observers, the efforts at improved transparency are a work in progress obviously dependent upon the actions of WTO Members.

Keeping supply chains going

The OECD policy brief reviews a range of developments since the start of the pandemic which have raised costs and complicated the flow of trade:

  1. Loss of air cargo as part of reduction in passenger flights;

2. Drop in ship traffic and increased procedures and documentation requirements; vs. establishment of some “green lanes” at ports and border crossing points;

3. Location of shipping containers in China at time of pandemic, creating shortages and raising costs;

4. Labor availability at ports reduced in many cases or increased costs from additional protective measures;

5. Limits on mobility of people affecting various trade processes (inspections, etc.);

6. Higher costs throughout supply chains from increased protective measures for workers.

For essential medical supplies, the OECD policy brief calls for removing tariffs, expediting certification procedures and enhancing trade facilitation..

While the policy brief recognizes the need for expanded production in a later section, it doesn’t address the need for increased transparency on or coordination of such efforts to expand production despite the obvious fact that a pandemic which moves around the globe creates temporary acute shortages of medical supplies where trade could minimize harm to populations going through surges in infections.

As reviewed in my post of April 10 on scarcity, a significant part of the health challenge in medical goods in the current COVID-19 pandemic flows from the rapid demand expansion exceeding global supply availability. This contrasts with food security issues in 2020 where there are adequate supplies of key agriculture products but there are concerns because of border closures, mobility issues and the like.

Avoid making things worse

The OECD policy brief has avoiding export restrictions on essential goods as the chief action countries can take to avoid making things worse. The brief reviews the 2007-2008 food price spikes that flowed from large scale export restraints on agriculture products and the harm done to many countries as a result.

In discussing food security, the brief states, “While there is not an immediate threat to global supplies of basic foodstuffs, there is the potential for specific food supply chains to be severely disrupted, including from lack of seasonal workers for planting or harvesting key crops, logistics constraints, and additional SPS and technical measures. Vigilance will be required to ensure that crisis- or policy-induced risk factors do not cause disruptions in supply, in particular if the containment measures related to COVID-19 are long-lived. ” Pages 5-6

For essential medical goods, there is a critical need for expanded production which some governments are pursuing often in connection with their private sectors. Trade challenges on essential medical goods include the use of export restraints, guaranteed purchases and requisitioning of goods. More than 60 countries have imposed export restraints, and, with the US and EU the current centers of COVID-19 infections, many other countries are having great difficulties obtaining adequate or any supplies.

OECD recommendations, such as limiting future export restraints, reducing tariffs and not imposing new tariffs or trade restrictive measures, are similar to those recommended by other groups. However, nothing in the recommendations deals with the very real need for better information on supply availability and expansions vs. current and projected demand, or for the possible role of international organizations or others in coordinating shifting of supplies from countries that have gotten past the worst of the pandemic to others with limited capacities and resources.

Look beyond the immediate: Policy actions now could have a long life

The OECD policy brief examines three sets of issues in terms of future implications — the massive financial assistance being provided, the examination of the shape of global supply chains, and preparing for future pandemics. These are taken up in turn below.

A. Governmental financial assistance

Because of the massive support governments are pumping into their economies to avoid collapse (some $8 trillion based on some recent estimates), there are obvious questions about how such support is structured, how governments will modify their conduct once the pandemic is past or economies have reopened. As the policy brief states,

“The scale of public investments needed during and after the crisis – from health systems and social protection, to access to education and digital networks – underscores the need for support to firms and sectors to be as efficient as possible to maximise available public resources. Well-designed support will also be less market-distorting and give rise to fewer concerns about the impact on international competition. Fairness – in both the national-level distribution of benefits ad in global competition – is essential for maintaining public support for trade and the open markets need to get through and emerge from the crisis.” Page 8.

Key principles for support granted include the following, according to the policy brief:

  1. Support should be transparent (including terms of support);
  2. non-discriminatory and not used to rescue companies that would have failed absent the pandemic;
  3. time limited and reviewed for continued relevance/need;
  4. targeted at consumers vs. tied to consumption of specific goods and services.

B. Global supply chains

An issue important to a number of governments has been the structure of existing supply chains and whether supply chains should be reshored or at least shortened. The OECD policy brief focus on rethinking the “resilience” in global supply chains but cautions against quick answers or simply reshoring.

C. Being ready for the next pandemic

The OECD policy brief also reviews actions the global community should take to be ready for the next pandemic. Five elements of a possible agreement among countries are suggested for consideration:

  1. “Ensuring transparency”;
  2. “Cutting tariffs on essential medical products”;
  3. “Disciplines on export restrictions” (essentially G20 language);
  4. “Upfront investments in co-operative solutions” (including creation of stockpiles at national or regional level);
  5. “addressing the needs of the most vulnerable countries”.

Conclusion

The first OECD policy brief is a useful contribution to the discussion of trade issues that can and should be addressed to reduce the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic both in the short-term and in the recovery phase. The proposals are not surprising and reflect underlying views of the member countries. As is true of other papers and proposals for action, collective action depends on leadership and willingness of like-minded countries to act for the common good. With a serious pandemic with dimensions not experienced in 100 years, large and advanced economies have talked the talk of cooperation and keeping markets open but haven’t always walked the walk of greater global cooperation or avoiding trade restrictive measures.

The actions of major governments are not surprising considering the pressing needs for supplies within countries that have been at the epicenter of the pandemic in the early months of its existence or the reaction of others worried about supplies or about food security. Political leaders obviously respond to the needs of their citizens first, particularly where needs are about life and death.

Unfortunately, such local focus doesn’t help smaller and/or economically weaker countries, many of whom may find themselves part of the epicenter of the pandemic in coming months.

Moreover, governments around the world generally have shown a poor ability to spend the money to prepare for future events which are uncertain as to timing or severity. It seems unlikely that the pandemic of 2020 will result in greater collective action and preparation for the future.

Indeed, the extraordinary sums that are being needed to avoid total collapse of economies in 2020 will create additional challenges for the global trading system going forward and will likely limit actual efforts to avoid a repeat in the future.

End note

The OECD has indicated that they have four additional policy briefs in the series under preparation. The future briefs deal with trade facilitation, government support, global value chains for essential goods and services trade (page 11), in addition to a paper looking at COVID-19 and Food and Agriculture: Issues and Actions.