WHO

Transparency on trade actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance of transparency in times of crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.