The World Trade Organization has 164 Members at present with 23 more countries or territories in the process of accession. Nearly all international trade in goods and services is handled by WTO Members and those seeking accession.
At the beginning of 2020, the WTO officially turned 25 years old. Despite some successes in the first 25 years in terms of negotiated improvements, the WTO set of agreements are largely reflective of the world in the 1980s. Advances in technology, manufacturing make-up and importance of certain service sectors (e.g., e-commerce) are not covered by the existing agreements.
The WTO’s negotiating function has been nearly moribund on a multilateral level for more than a decade, with most successes at the WTO keyed to actions by plurilateral groups of Members (action by the willing). A system built on consensus decision making has been the hallmark of activity during the GATT and now during the WTO years but has proven unworkable in moving many topics forward amongst an expanded membership.
Similarly, the dispute settlement function of the WTO, long referred to as the “jewel” of the WTO, has been in a state of crisis for the last several years and now has a nonfunctioning Appellate Body (“AB”) as longstanding systemic concerns of the United States about the Appellate Body’s operation and adherence to the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”) have led to the United States blocking appointments of Appellate Body members until the system is corrected consistent with the DSU. With only one of seven AB members still in place as of December 11, 2019, the AB is unable to hear appeals (as all appeals must be heard by three AB members).
At the same time, many WTO Members have not kept current with notification requirements contained in each Agreement and intended to help Members understand actions of trading partners and their likely compliance with WTO Agreement obligations. This lack of full transparency limits the ability of Members to address issues and seek compliance with underlying obligations.
With the increased importance of China and other countries with economic systems not consistent with the GATT’s and now WTO’s architecture, there have also grown concerns by some Members on the ability of the WTO to handle different economic systems under the existing rules with the U.S., EU and Japan seeking new rules addressing some of the major elements flowing from the different systems.
The WTO, unlike other multilateral institutions, has a process of self-selection of developing country status. Least developed countries do have a clear definition consistent with other organizations. As there has been substantial economic development of many countries describing themselves as “developing” during the first 25 years of the WTO’s existence, there is conflict on the need to change current classification and/or the need for special and differential treatment.
On top of all of these ongoing concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in WTO Members acting first for their own domestic interests, particularly in light of huge shortfalls in global supplies and capacity for medical supplies versus the needs of countries facing spikes in the number of cases. The result has been dozens of export restraints (styled as temporary) and dozens of unilateral actions by countries to reduce duties, simplify or prioritize entry procedures for medical supplies. While the WTO has established a webpage for COVID-19 information and provides information on actions taken by Members (either export restraints or import liberalizing), the WTO Members have not agreed on a course of action for all Members to pursue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted the functioning of the WTO as in-person meetings have been cancelled for the last several months, and many developing countries have insisted that virtual meetings not be used for decision making, essentially halting the negotiations on areas like fisheries subsidies.
The challenges reviewed above raise the question about the WTO’s continued relevance and as importantly what reforms are needed to restore the WTO’s relevance going forward. The short-term challenges for the WTO are compounded by the decision by Director-General Azevedo to step down at the end of August which will divert much energy at the WTO into the process for finding a replacement Director-General.
Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff’s virtual presentation at a webinar hosted by the Korean International Trade Association
Earlier today, the WTO’s Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff made a virtual presentation in a webinar that was hosted by the Korean International Trade Association. The title of the presentation was “COVID-19 and the Future of World Trade. A link to the presentation can be found here. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_27may20_e.htm.
Everyone interested in the future of the multilateral trading system should take the time to read DDG Wolff’s presentation. The presentation reviews actions needed by WTO Members to respond to COVID-19, measures WTO Members can take to assist with the economic recovery from the pandemic, and systemic reform that WTO Members should consider. It is the last of these that takes up the bulk of the presentation.
In talking about reform, DDG Wolff states that —
“It is necessary to understand what values the multilateral trading system is designed to promote before it can be reformed.
“A serious inquiry into this subject would serve three purposes:
“(1) to know the value of what we have in the current system,
“(2) to determine if the values of the current system enjoy the support of all WTO Members, and
“(3) to address the degree to which the WTO is of sufficient continuing relevance as it is at present or whether it needs fundamental change.
“My list of the underlying values of the WTO has 16 entries. They include a number of basic principles.
“The first two, not obvious to all of us today, are supporting peace and stability. This was the key concern of the founders of the multilateral trading system in 1948 and the central objective of conflict-affected and fragile acceding members today.
“Other values, such as nondiscrimination, transparency, reciprocity, international cooperation and the rule of law are more obvious. Still others are more nuanced, less obvious perhaps, and emerge only upon reflection. They include well-being, equality, sovereignty, universality, development, market forces, convergence and morality.
“A recent addition to the list is sustainability.
“A serious discussion of WTO reform is long overdue. The pandemic simply adds to the urgency of it taking place.”
Not surprising, DDG Wolff’s review of the sixteen entries is well done and presents a much broader understanding of the importance and value of a global trading system than trade negotiators, businesses, workers, and governments generally bring to the table.
I won’t review the presentation in detail as the value of the presentation in my view is in reviewing the entirety. While DDG Wolff presents the detailed analysis as a possible road to a better future, there are issues identified which similarly suggest the need for a new set of agreements. Consider his discussion of “convergence”:
“A corollary of the principle that market forces are to dictate competitive outcomes is that the rules of the WTO are based implicitly, but without doubt, on convergence and not coexistence. If the desire is to have systems where market forces are not allowed to operate and deliver results, an underlying unstated assumption of the multilateral trading system would not be valid.
“Coexistence would require a different WTO. Where there is no agreement on convergence, a new modus vivendi will inevitably be sought. The arrangement is likely to settle at a lower level of trade than the WTO rules would otherwise provide.”
The United States has in fact raised this exact issue with the WTO Membership in reviewing the market economy basis of the WTO and the incompatibility of state-directed/controlled economies like that of the People’s Republic of China (and others).
Will WTO Members be able to rise to the current needs to engage in reform that supports the 16 principles reviewed in DDG Wolff’s paper? The future relevance of the WTO and the future dynamism of the global trading system depend on it.
In my post from May 15, I reviewed the procedures the General Council uses for selecting a new Director-General (“DG”). May 15, 2020: World Trade Organization – Search for a new Director-General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/15/world-trade-organization-search-for-a-new-director-general/. With the current DG Roberto Azevedo having announced his intention to depart at the end of August this year, the WTO’s Chairman of the General Council, Amb. David Walker (NZ) is exploring with the Members whether the nine month normal selection process can be expedited to reduce or eliminate any gap period between DG Azevedo and the next DG. It is expected that with DG Azevedo having been from a developing country (Brazil), the next DG will be from a developed country. If true and if few or no developing countries put forward candidates, the WTO may face a smaller number of candidates put forward during the one month nominating process than was true in 2012-2013.
Amb. Walker today via email to the Members has suggested May 25th as the start date for the selection of a new DG. After that date, candidates can be put forward by their Member governments with a one month deadline (June 25). [UPDATE from May 20, start date will be June 8 will all candidates to be put forward by July 8. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_20may20_e.htm].
As noted in my prior post on the subject, there was one developed country candidate who was put forward in 2012/2013. If that individual, former New Zealand Minister of Trade, Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs and former New Zealand Ambassador to the WTO Tim Groser is put forward by New Zealand when the nominating process commences, Members could decide on expedited procedures because of their familiarity with the Honorable Tim Groser, his proven strengths, his knowledge of the WTO and his ability to work with all governments and the review of him by the Members that took place in 2013. While such an approach will likely not be followed by the WTO Membership, if followed, there could be a relatively seamless transition with a very strong candidate taking over from the current DG at the end of August. For an organization facing the challenges the WTO is at the present time, such a smooth transition should be viewed as highly desirable.
The Hon. Tim Groser’s Curriculum Vitae in 2012 and later developments
When New Zealand put Groser forward as a candidate in 2012, he was in the middle of his service as New Zealand’s Minister of Trade, Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs. He also had extended service in Geneva both during the Uruguay Round and in early years of the Doha Development Agenda negotiations. While in Geneva he served as Chair of the Rules negotiations for a period of time and later served as the Chair for the Agriculture negotiations. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news12_e/biography_timgroser_newzealand_e.pdf .
He continued in his capacity as New Zealand’s Minister of Trade and Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs through 2015. From 2016 through 2018, Groser was New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States and also served as a Special Envoy to the Pacific Alliance. Since 2019 he has headed up Groser & Associates, a trade consultancy. So the Honorable Tim Groser has a lifetime of commitment to trade expansion and the multilateral trading system.
January 30, 2013 Statement to the General Council
In early 2013, the problems facing the global trading system started with the inability of the WTO Members to conclude negotiations, a situation which has continued and, with few but important exceptions, worsened to the present time. The concerns that candidate Groser reviewed in his statement to the General Council on January 30, 2013 as part of the selection process included challenges to the dispute settlement system in terms of timeliness of decisions and the fundamental challenge of the breakdown in the negotiating function. The threat to the WTO at the time was perceived by candidate Groser to be to the continued relevance of the organization. He also believed that while there is an important political element to negotiations, the key is for progress at the technical and Geneva level before turning to senior trade officials for resolution of remaining issues.
The opening statement of candidate Groser from 2013 has continued relevance in 2020, although the challenges facing the WTO and its Members have gotten more complicated since 2012 with the impasse on the Appellate Body, the need to update the WTO rule book to make it relevant to technological developments, the changing makeup of membership with differing economic systems, and the changing economic capabilities of Members — all issues subsumed under the term “WTO reform”. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably occupied the energies of many countries and the work of much of the WTO to help the global economy keep markets open and support economic recovery.
The 2012 statement of the Honorable Tim Groser is embedded below.
WTO Members were also able to raise questions to the candidates, though the time limitations meant that during the General Council meeting only selected countries could raise questions to a given candidate. The Q&A session for candidate Groser is included in the minutes of the General Council meeting held on January 29-31, 2013. See, e.g., WT/GC/M/142 at Annex D, Questions and Answers, pages 46-55. During the 75 minutes of questioning, twenty-four WTO Members were able to ask candidate Groser questions — Singapore, Czech Republic, Italy, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, Chile, the United States, Uruguay, Croatia, China, Spain, Nepal, Thailand, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Haiti, Malaysia, Saint Lucia, Brunei Darussalem, Ecuador, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Japan.
Finally, all candidates were given the opportunity to have a press conference following their meeting with the General Council. The link to candidate Groser’s press conference is here. His comments to the media summarized his main points from his direct presentation and then responded to media questions. https://www.wto.org/audio/2013_01_30_dg_sel_groser.mp3.
Over the last thirty years, I have spent a great deal of time in Geneva meeting with government officials from many Members and with many GATT and now WTO Secretariat staff. I have been privileged to know many of the Ambassadors and other Mission staff over that thirty year time period, including Amb. Groser. I know of no one that I met with who did not have a very high opinion of the capabilities of Amb. Groser when he was in Geneva. The Secretariat staff who worked with Amb. Groser on the Rules negotiations or the Agriculture negotiations are similarly personally familiar with his leadership ability and ability to find paths forward on seemingly impossible issues.
As one friend from Geneva recently said to me, “I have seen literally thousands of officials, Trade Ministers and experts pass through the GATT and WTO in the decades I worked for the system. If I had to pick one person who I think has the capacity and integrity to address these systemic issues it would be the Honourable Tim Groser – New Zealand’s Trade Minister for seven years and prior to that a legendary official in Geneva from the moment he arrived in the mid-1980s as his country’s senior negotiator at the start of the Uruguay Round.”
As DG Azevedo has made clear, the WTO faces enormous challenges going forward. With his departure in a little over three months, the WTO needs a new Director-General who will oversee the member-driven effort to address the challenges. Specifically, the new Director-General will need to help the Membership approach the postponed 12th Ministerial Conference sometime in 2021, hopefully conclude ongoing multilateral negotiations on fisheries subsidies and plurilateral talks on e-commerce. The new Director-Gernal will also need to help the Membership deal with the complex issues of WTO dispute settlement reform and the restart of the Appellate Body, the pressing need to modernize the WTO’s rule book to cover new technologies and current issues, revitalize the negotiating function, and reflect the changing makeup of the Membership and the relevance of existing rules to different economic systems of Members.
While there are likely many potential candidates who would be “well qualified”, the normal selection process could take to the end of the year with implementation possibly delayed until sometime in 2021, requiring use of an acting Director-General. That process could be significantly reduced if (1) New Zealand chose to renominate the Honorable Tim Groser and (2) the major Members of the WTO viewed his strong credentials as a basis for reducing the number of candidates to permit expedited selection of a new Director-General. One can always hope.
On May 14, 2020, the G20 trade and investment ministers held a virtual meeting to consider proposals for joint action pulled together by the Trade and Investment Working Group (“TIWG”) on the topic of “G20 Actions to Support World Trade and Investment Through the COVID-19 Pandemic”.
The WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevêdo welcomed the Ministerial statement and provided the following characterization of its content:
“DG Azevêdo hails G20 pledges on trade cooperation in COVID-19 response
“WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo welcomed G20 ministers’ endorsement of collective action measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trade and investment and help foster global economic recovery. The initiatives were endorsed at a virtual meeting of the G20 trade and investment ministers on 14 May.
“The actions include short-term responses designed to prevent trade logjams and facilitate trade in products needed to contain COVID-19, as well as longer-term support to reform the multilateral trading system, build resilience in global supply chains, and strengthen international investment.
“The G20 ministers pledged to promote WTO reform and ‘support the role of the multilateral trading system in promoting stability and predictability of international trade flows’. They agreed to ‘explore COVID-19 related WTO initiatives’ to promote more open and resilient supply chains, and expand production capacity and trade in pharmaceuticals, medical and other health-related products
“’These commitments by G20 ministers represent an important collective response to the trade-related challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic,’ said DG Azevêdo. ‘Maintaining stability and predictability in trade relations is critical to ensuring that essential medical supplies are available to save lives, and that global food security and nutrition do not become a casualty of this pandemic.’
“Echoing language from their first crisis meeting in late March, G20 ministers said that any emergency restrictions on trade in vital medical supplies and services should be targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and should not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disrupt global supply chains. They also agreed to strengthen transparency and notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken. They urged governments to refrain from excessive food stockpiling and export restrictions on agricultural products.
“In addition, the G20 ministers endorsed trade facilitation initiatives, including accelerated implementation of provisions in the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, such as pre-arrival processing and expedited shipment, which could speed up access to essential goods during the pandemic. They also called for streamlining customs procedures and encouraging greater use of international standards to reduce sanitary and technical barriers to trade.
“Ministers also agreed to work together to identify key areas where investment is needed, in particular for critical medical supplies and sustainable agriculture production, and to encourage investment in new production capacity for medical supplies.
“The extraordinary meeting of G20 trade and investment ministers was organized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which currently holds the group’s rotating presidency.”
Because the G20 member countries have differing views on flexibilities needed, already taken, and potential space that may be needed in the future, much of the “actions” agreed to are more aspirational than commitments to avoid trade restrictive actions.
ANNEX to Ministerial Statement of May 14, 2020, G20 Actions to Support World Trade and Investment in Response to COVID-19
The Annex to the Ministerial Statement contains 19 “short-term collective actions” broken into five areas — “trade regulation”; “trade facilitation”; “transparency”; “operation of logistics networks”; and “support for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)”.
On trade regulation, the three specific actions don’t ban export restraints for medical goods or agricultural products but rather provide avenues for such actions to be taken.
On medical goods, the action taken merely repeats the prior statement from the trade and investment ministers that any such actions are “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary” and “do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains, and are consistent with WTO rules”. Para. 1.1.1.
Similarly, on agricultural restrictions, G20 countries agree to “refrain from introducing export restrictions” “avoid unnecessary food-stockpiling” but “without prejudice to domestic food security, consistent with national requirements.” Para. 1.1.2.
Finally, there is an aspirational action to “Consider exempting humanitarian aid related to COVID-19 from any export restrictions on exports of essential medical supples, medical equipment and personal protective equipment, consistent with national requirements.” Para. 1.1.3.
Considering the number of G20 countries who have had in place or continue to have in place export restraints on medical goods and the history of export restraints on agricultural goods and/or buildup of food stockpiling by some G20 countries, it is not surprising that more ambitious objectives have not been possible. For example, information compiled by the WTO Secretariat shows that nearly all G20 countries have had or continue to have export restraints on medical goods flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the US, EU, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey and the United Kingdom are in the WTO data. While China is not included, their export restrictions on medical goods likely predated the data collection done by the WTO Secretariat. See https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm. Similarly, Russia has agricultural export restraints in place and China, India and Indonesia have used them in the 2007-2008 food shortage challenge.
The Annex includes eight agreed “actions” under the heading of trade facilitation. Most of these actions are similarly not binding but are aspirational or encouraged. In fact five of the eight include the word “encourage”. Others include language like “to the extent possible” or “as appropriate and according with applicable national legislation”.
That said, many of the G20 countries and others have been taking actions to streamline the release of imported medical goods and other actions that are consistent with the objectives of the Trade Facilitation Agreement.
Two of the provisions under trade facilitation really go to the issue medical goods capacity, product availability and capacity expansions and are noteworthy as encouraging sharing of information on producers of product and also encouraging expansion of medical goods capacity. Paras. 1.2.4 and 1.2.5. As I have noted in prior posts, there has been and continues to be an imbalance between global capacity to produce the medical goods needed to fight COVID-19 and the demand for countries experiencing outbreaks. See, e.g., Shifting Trade Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/28/shifting-trade-needs-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/. If the world doesn’t address the supply/demand imbalance, it is highly improbable that most countries won’t enact export restraints to prevent the loss of needed goods that are in country during surging demand. While neither G20 agreed action is binding, both are helpful to improve knowledge of available supplies and hopefully to expand that supply.
The last trade facilitation action merely calls for G20 countries to “Support the efforts of international organizations (WTO, FAO, WFP, etc.) to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on global agricultural supplies, distribution chains and agri-food production and trade.” Para. 1.2.8. Many of the G20 are signatories to statements indicating they will not impose export restraints on agricultural goods or urge restraint on the use of such restraints. There has not been a food shortage in 2020, and mechanisms put in place after the 2007-2008 food shortages to monitor food supplies have helped to provide governments with better information on likely problems. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges in getting agricultural products harvested, processed and distributed. If these challenges are not properly handled, the world could find local or regional food shortages not because of lack of product but from an inability to get the product harvested, processed and distributed. With COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in various countries (United States, Canada, Germany to name just three) and with travel restrictions limiting movement of temporary farm workers, the challenges are real. Work of the international organizations is important for information gathering and dissemination.
There are two action items under transparency — to share experiences and best practices; to notify trade-related measures to the WTO as required by obligations to the WTO.
The first should be helpful depending on openness of governments and willingness of governments to share experiences in fact. The latter action reflects the fact that countries (whether G20 or otherwise) have in some cases been slow to provide notifications or have taken limited views of their obligations to report certain trade related activities.
Operation of logistics networks
The four agreed actions under this title all involve trade ministers encouraging G20 Transport Ministers to take actions that will speed the movement of medical goods, increasing air cargo capacity, improve transparency on enforcement measures and “to abide by international practices and guidelines to ensure the movement of goods through maritime channels.” Paras. 1.4.1 – 1.4.4.
Support for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)
There are two action items for this topic — calling for reports from international organizations that would look at the “disruption of global value chains caused by the pandemic on MSMEs”; and encouraging enhancement of communication channels and networks for MSMEs, including through deepened collaboration with the private sector.” Paras. 1.5.1 and 1.5.2.
MSMEs are important engines of economic growth for all countries and are significantly adversely affected by the governmental actions needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. For many countries, the bulk of the response for MSMEs will be through financial support legislation as can be seen by summaries of actions taken compiled by one or more of the international organizations. See, e.g., IMF, Policy Responses to COVID-19, https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/imf-and-covid19/Policy-Responses-to-COVID-19 Thus, the two actions contained in the G20 trade and investment ministers statement are helpful for considering future actions but don’t address the core immediate needs which are handled by other ministers.
Longer-term collective actions
The Annex also contains nineteen specific agreed actions for the longer term. The actions are broken into three topics — supporting the mutilateral trading system; building resilience in global supply chains; and strengthening international investment.
Like the short-term actions, the agreed list reflects the limitations on achieving G20 consensus because of different perspectives of G20 members. Some members like the EU have an interest in pursuing tariff eliminations on medical goods, an issue that the U.S. is not willing to explore until the pandemic has passed. Thus, there is no action item to achieve tariff elimination on such products in the longer-term actions.
Supporting the multilateral trading system
There are seven action items which include WTO reform (para 2.1.1), how the G20 can support work at the WTO (para 2.1.2), strengthening transparency and WTO notifications (para. 2.1.3), working “together to deliver a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment and to keep our markets open” (para. 2.1.4), “work to ensure a level playing field” (para. 2.1.5), importance of interface between trade and digital economy and need for e-commerce agreement (para. 2.1.6), and exploring “COVID-19 related WTO initiative to promote open and more resilient supply chains, and expand production capacity and trade” in medical goods (para. 2.1.7).
These action items will have very different meanings depending on the G20 member who is interpreting them. Thus, the EU, Japan and the U.S. would have very different interpretations of ensuring a level playing field than would China and possibly others. India and South Africa have different views on e-commerce and making permanent no tariffs on digital trade than would the U.S., Japan and others
Still support for WTO reform, global rules on e-commerce, increased transparency and the other issues should help provide some focus in the ongoing efforts at the WTO for a future agenda and reform.
As noted in the short-term actions, greater focus by G20 countries on the supply/demand imbalance in medical goods is critical to avoid many of the same shortage issues in future pandemics or future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the support for para. 2.1.7 is potentially important.
Building resilience in global supply chains
There are five action items included under this topic which are positive. These include sharing best practices, strengthening cooperation on regulation of trade (including customs and electronic document management), ensuring transparency of trade-related information useful to MSMEs, encouraging cooperation between multinationals and MSMEs, and establishing voluntary guidelines that would permit essential cross-border travel during a health crisis. Paras. 2.2.1 – 2.2.5.
The last seven long-term collective actions focus on the obvious need for improved investment in medical goods to reduce the stress on the global system that has flowed from the imbalance in supply versus demand and the lack of adequate national, regional and global inventories.
Collective actions include sharing best practices on promoting investments in sectors where there have been shortages (para. 2.3.2), working together to identify key areas where additional investment is needed in both medical goods and agriculture (para. 2.3.3), and four paragraphs (2.3.4 – 2.3.7) encouraging investment in new capacity, working with the private sector to identify opportunities, and other items. The last action item calls on G20 governments to “Encourage cooperation on technical assistance and capacity building provided to developing and least developed countries on investment promotion.” Para. 2.3.7.
Because many countries have been encouraging expanded production of medical goods since the outbreak of the pandemic, there is a great deal of investment that has been happening, including converting (at least short term) production lines to medical goods in short supply. Missing from the collective actions is any encouragement to the Finance Ministers to ensure the international organizations work with developing and least developed countries to ensure adequate regional inventories of medical goods to help such countries address outbreaks of COVID-19.
The G20 Trade and Investment Ministers Statement of May 14 is embedded below.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect millions of people around the world and has resulted in massive economic dislocations and the loss of tens of millions of jobs just in the United States. The G20 has been doing a reasonable job of providing leadership in how to address the pandemic and how to help the world recover as the pandemic recedes. The significant differences between G20 members on some issues have resulted in actions being taken that are either aspirational or simply encouraged, as stronger action was not possible absent consensus. But the May 14 Ministerial Statement is another positive step and provides ongoing recognition of needing to address the supply/demand imbalance to permit all countries to be able to obtain medical goods needed when the pandemic creates hot spots in their countries.
On May 14, 2020, the WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevedo announced during a virtual meeting of all WTO Members that he would be stepping down from his position on August 31st, one year ahead of the end of his second four year term which ends August 31, 2021. His message to the membership was that the decision was personal and was intended to permit the WTO to choose a new Director-General hopefully before his departure and to avoid a dilution of effort needed for the next Ministerial Conference which has been postponed from June 2020 to either summer or winter of 2021. The current Chair of the WTO General Council, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, indicated that he would be notifying Members shortly of the start of the selection process and would be consulting to see if the process could be expedited in light of DG Azevedo’s departure in three and a half months. Both statements are linked here and reproduced below. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_14may20_e.htm.
Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General
Since 2003, there have been procedures for the appointment of directors-general adopted by the General Council of the WTO (10 December 2002), The procedures are included in WT/L/509.
The timeline laid out in the procedures calls for the process to start nine months prior to the “expiry of the term of an incumbent Director-General.” WT/L/509, para. 7. So the current situation will either run over beyond DG Azevedo’s departure (indeed potentially to as late as sometime in February 2021) or will have to be seriously expedited (as potentially permitted under para. 23).
While expediting the process is possible, the various steps required by the process suggest that it is highly unlikely a new WTO Director-General will have been agreed to by the time DG Azevedo steps down. Thus, the WTO will likely face a vacancy for some period of time. Para. 23 of the procedures agreed to would then require the General Council to designate one of the four Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the selection process for a new Director-General is completed. Thus, if there is a vacancy beginning September 1st, the General Council will be selecting an Acting Director-General from among these individuals — Yonov Frederick Agah (Nigeria), Karl Brauner (Germany), Alan Wolff (US) and Yi Xiaozhun (China).
Timing of Steps Absent Expedition
The procedures (WT/L/509) provide for the following timeline if a selection process occurs within the nine months outlined:
“Members shall have one month after the start of the appointment process to nominate candidates. Nominations shall be submitted by Members only, and in respect of their own nationals.” Para. 8.
Chair of the General Council has materials distributed to members as received and sends a consolidated list of candidates after the close of the one month period. Para. 10.
“The candidates nominated shall then have three months to make themselves known to Members and to engage in discussions on the pertinent issues facing the Organization.” Para. 8.
“As early as possible after the close of the one-month nomination period, candidates shall be invited to meet with Members at a formal General Council meeting. Candidates will be invited to make a brief presentation, including their vision for the WTO, to be followed by a question- and-answer period.” Para. 14.
Months 5 and 6 after initiation, “the General Council shall proceed, through a process of consultations, to narrow the field of candidates and ultimately to arrive at its choice for appointment.” Para. 15.
The process which is led by the Chair of the General Council and several facilitators, looks to find the candidate “around whom consensus can be built.” Para. 17. Depending on the number of candidates, there can be successive rounds to find candidates least likely to attract consensus who are then expected to withdraw. Para. 18.
If successful, the Chair of the General Council with the support of the facilitators will “submit the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment by the General Council.” Para. 19.
“The process shall conclude with a meeting of the General Council convened not later than three months prior to the expiry of an incumbent’s term, at which a decision to appoint a new Director-General shall be taken.” Para. 7
If General Council can’t take a decision by consensus, Members can “consider the possibility of recourse to a vote as a last resort.” Para. 20.
The full list of procedures is embedded below (WT/L/509).
Assuming Amb. Walker sends out a notification in the next day or so, a normal process would result in a General Council decision in the second half of November. If there is a vacancy, the new Director-General should be able to assume responsibilities as soon thereafter as his/her schedule permits, even if not three months after the decision.
Process in 2012-2013
The selection process in 2012 started in December with nine applications received by December 31. The WTO press release showing the candidates and linking to their statements, CVs and other materials is linked here. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news13_e/dgsel_03jan13_e.htm. There was interest by many developing countries in seeing that the selection process kept in mind paragraph 13 of the procedures dealing with representativeness of candidates which states,
“13. In order to ensure that the best possible candidate is selected to head the WTO at any given time, candidatures representing the diversity of Members across all regions shall be invited in the nominations process. Where Members are faced in the final selection with equally meritorious candidates, they shall take into consideration as one of the factors the desirability of reflecting the diversity of the WTO’s membership in successive appointments to the post of Director-General.”
Because the DG slot at the WTO had been filled by three Europeans, one New Zealander and one from Thailand (with Pascal Lamy of France the last DG), many developing countries sought a developing country candidate assuming there were well qualified candidates from many countries. See WT/GC/M/139 at 13-15 (paras. 50 – 60).
Of the nine candidates, eight were from countries that classify themselves as developing countries within the WTO (Ghana, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Kenya, Jordan, Mexico, the Republic of Korea and Brazil). The sole developed country candidate was from New Zealand. All candidates had solid credentials.
Meetings with the candidates by the General Council occurred in late January (29-31) where each candidate was given 15 minutes for an opening statement and then participated in a question and answer session of an hour and fifteen minutes. See, e.g., WT/GC/M/142 (minutes of meeting held on Jan. 29-31) posted 16 May 2013.
Three rounds of consultations were held beginning in early April, with the result that at a General Council meeting on May 14, the Chair of the General Council put forward Roberto Azevedo from Brazil as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus and the General Council agreed. WT/GC/M/144 (minutes of meeting held on May 14) posted 4 July 2013.
Mr. Azevedo then assumed the role of Director-General as of September 1, 2013 and was reappointed for a second four years in 2017.
Prognosis for 2020
One would expect that there will be a number of developed country Members who put forward candidates in the next thirty days on the assumption that the pattern will be developed, developing, developed, developing and Brazil has just completed seven years with their candidate as DG.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, the United Kingdom and one or more member countries from the EU would seem to be possibilities. The U.S. is not included in the list simply because of its prior lack of putting forward candidates and current Administration and Congressional concerns with the WTO, although the U.S. concern with the need for reforms could result in a surprise. The Republic of Korea is not included as it has considered itself a developing country, though it may still put forward a candidate and note that it is not seeking special and differential treatment on current or future negotiations in light of its development. I would be surprised if the United Kingdom puts forward a candidate just based on the serious trade negotiations that the U.K. is engaged in with the EU and the United States and their recent resumption of trade policy responsibilities following Brexit.
Developing countries are not prevented from putting forward candidates, and I assume that there will be some candidates put forward. Singapore would fit a profile similar to Korea in that it has indicated it will not seek special and differential treatment on current or future negotiations. Africa has not had a Director-General selected from among its candidates, and there has been only one Asian candidate selected previously.
What isn’t known is the willingness of the Members to streamline the nomination and selection process to permit a resolution while DG Azevedo is still active. If there are very few candidates, it may be easier for Members to agree to expedited procedures.
With the serious issues facing the world economy and the global trading system, maximum cooperation in selecting a new Director-General would be very important to helping focus a global response and updating of the WTO. Let’s hope that this is an issue on which the membership can agree to act quickly.
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.
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.
cases through 5-11
14 days to 4-11
14 days to 4-27
14 days to 5-11
EU27 + UK
D.R. of the Congo
U.R. of Tanzania
All Other Countries
Total of all countries
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.
With the mounting global death toll, with confirmed infections of over 3.6 million and continuing to climb, with no known effective vaccine and just the beginnings of finding possible therapies to reduce the severity or length of illness from the infection, it is clear to most that there is no full return to normalcy until effective vaccines are developed and made available to all in the world community. Because the costs to the global economy from the pandemic are measured in trillions of dollars and job losses in the hundreds of millions, there is a global urgency to advance medical solutions, despite a history with prior infectious disease outbreaks which would suggest that solutions could be years away.
The severity of the pandemic has led to some extraordinary efforts to have international organizations, pharmaceutical companies, universities and government labs work collaboratively and share data. There have also been a wide range of statements made by international organizations such as the World Health Organization, governments, NGOs, and the pharmaceutical industry that diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines developed to address the COVID-19 pandemic must be developed on an expedited basis, be available equitably and be affordable. The phrase “no one is safe until everyone is safe” sums up what many leaders are saying is the goal.
Many countries with a pharmaceutical industry, university research center invloved in medical research, government agency that addresses disease control and prevention or the safety of medical supplies are engaged in research that may be company specific, university or lab specific or collaborative within the country and across countries. Governments are providing substantial financial assistance to spur research and development.
With the various infectious disease outbreaks of the last few decades, there are also groups which focus on improving the healthcare infrastructure in developing countries and least developed countries and in working to get needed tests, medicines and vaccines to countries unable to address such needs on their own. Groups like CEPI, GAVI, FIND, UNITAID are involved and are supported by the generosity of various governments and other organizations. They are all actively engaged in the response to COVID-19.
The G20 countries issued a statement on COVID-19 after an Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit on March 26, 2020 which stated in part,
“We further commit to work together to increase research and development funding for vaccines and medicines, leverage digital technologies, and strengthen scientific international cooperation. We will bolster our coordination, including with the private sector, towards rapid development, manufacturing and distribution of diagnostics, antiviral medicines, and vaccines, adhering to the objectives of efficacy, safety, equity, accessibility, and affordability.”
The G20 presidency on April 24, 2020 noted its support of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (“ACT”) Accelerator whose purpose is to speed development, production and equitable distribution of new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The initial cost estimate for the early research and development efforts was estimated at $8 billion. The statement is embedded below
European Union led initiative to obtain pledges for $8 billion
The European Union and a number of individual countries co-led an international pledging event, the Coronavirus Global Response, on May 4 which developed pledges of 7.4 billion Euros ($8 billion) The countries co-leading with the EU were France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Canada, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen moderated the event. Her opening statement is below and reflects the reality that “we will have to learn to live with the virus – until and unless we develop a vaccine”. Collaboration is critical and the objective is to see that vaccines, diagnostics and treatments against coronavirus are deployed “to every single corner of the world. And we must ensure that they are available and affordable for all.” https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_20_804.
Besides comments from the EC’s president, other speakers included leaders from the European Council; the United Nations; the UN World Health Organization; France; Germany; Japan; Norway; Canada; Spain; United Kingdom; Saudi Arabia (2020 G20 Presidency); Jordan; South Africa (on behalf of African Union); Monaco; Turkey; Italy; Switzerland; Israel; the Netherlands; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Luxembourg; Sweden; Portugal; Croatia; Estonia; the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board; Bulgaria; Ireland; Serbia; Czechia (for itself, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland); Poland; Australia; Denmark; Greece; Austria; Malta; Belgium; Wellcome Trust; Latvia; South Korea; Mexico (for Latin America); Kuwait; Slovenia; Lithuania; Oman; Romania; Finland; United Arab Emirates; China; World Economic Forum; European Investment Bank; World Bank; CEPI (Coalition for Epedemic Preparedness Innovations); GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics); UNITAID; IFPMA (International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations), and the DCVMN (Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network).
The pledging event goes on through the month of May. The kick-off event lasted just under three hours. The list of speakers was impressive covering international organizations, countries (from Europe; parts of Asia, North America and the Middle East; and South Africa), NGOs, philanthropic groups, pharmaceutical companies.
The message from all was fairly uniform – collaboration is crucial to speed the findings of solutions; solutions must be available to all on an equitable basis that is affordable. The $8 billion is simply the first step in a much larger endeavor once new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are found and one turns to the need for broad production and distribution.
Press accounts have raised questions about some of the countries which did not participate in the May 4th event – the United States, Russian Federation, India, Brazil to name four countries with active pharmaceutical industries — and with whether the pledges largely reflect expenditures already made or committed versus new commitments. For many of the no shows (and for China which was apparently a late addition and only from the Ambassador to the European Union), important pharmaceutical companies were represented by either IFPMA or by DCVMN. Moreover, there is yet time to join. And these countries all have their own research underway which is generally being done in a collaborative effort within country or with others and are making data available to other players.
There is little doubt that the pharmaceutical companies, the university research centers, and the government labs will be important players in the research and development stage. Consider the following document from IFPMA which reviews how major pharmaceutical companies are engaged in various segments of the R&D effort. IFPMA reviews how its member companies are engaged in (1) repurposing existing and testing new treatments, (2) sharing real-time trial data with governments and other companies; (3) speeding up R&D on safe and effective vaccines; (4) developing diagnostic testing and securing supply; (5) securing essential supplies for medicines and vaccines; (6) increasing and sharing capacity for medicines and vaccines; and (7) supporting global health care systems. See https://www.ifpma.org/print/?url=covid19-print&options=–viewport-size%20%221200×50%22%20–zoom%201.5%20–orientation%20%22Landscape%22.
Will a global solution available to all present challenges for holders of intellectual property?
There are billions of dollars being spent by private companies, by research universities, government labs, and various NGOs, philanthropic groups and others in the global race to develop new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Much of the money spent will not result in effective solutions. Some, hopefully, will. Patent rights will arise for those developing the new products and there will thus be questions about how the new products can be made available to all at affordable prices.
Some individuals and companies may make any breakthroughs they are responsible for available to all at no cost (we have seen some of that in the past on medicines and recently on PPE products).
It is also the case, that governments can invoke exceptions to patent rights under certain circumstances and subject to certain limitations. See TRIPS Art. 31 (compulsory licensing).
Some governments (e.g., France) at the pledging event recognized the need to see that the innovators received a fair return on their investment, but also characterized COVID-19 products as “public goods”. The IFPMA in its activities has joined collaborative undertakings and has recognized the need for new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to be available to all at affordable prices. But it is unclear what that means to the company or companies who develop a breakthrough product in terms of patent rights and revenues.
With possible breakthroughs in the next six months or so, how this important trade aspect of rewarding innovation in the fight against COVID-19 plays out could complicate or simplify the core desire of getting effective solutions to all at affordable prices.
Other trade issues
There are already efforts underway to get WTO Members to eliminate customs duties on medical supplies needed to address COVID-19. If not already covered by that effort, one would think it would be doable to get WTO Members to agree to trade any new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for treating COVID-19 as duty-free articles (and presumably add the inputs to such new products).
As any of us knows all too well, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting government efforts to control the spread of the virus has led to sharp reductions in the use of various services, including restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and travel. This has been true domestically in many countries and has been even more obvious when one looks at international travel and tourism.
“100% OF GLOBAL DESTINATIONS NOW HAVE COVID-19 TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS, UNWTO REPORTS
“Madrid, Spain, 28 April 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted all destinations worldwide to introduce restrictions on travel, research by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has found. This represents the most severe restriction on international travel in history and no country has so far lifted restrictions introduced in response to the crisis.
“Following up on previous research, the latest data from the United Nations specialized agency for tourism shows that 100% of destinations now have restrictions in place, of these, 83% have had COVID-19-related restrictions in place already for four or more weeks and, as of 20 April, so far no destination has lifted them.
“UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: ‘Tourism has shown its commitment to putting people first. Our sector can also lead the way in driving recovery. This research on global travel restrictions will help support the timely and responsible implementation of exit strategies, allowing destinations to ease or lift travel restrictions when it is safe to do so. This way, the social and economic benefits that tourism offers can return, providing a path to sustainable recovery for both individuals and whole countries.’
“Tracking Restrictions by Time and Severity
“As well as a general overview, the UNWTO research breaks down the type of travel restrictions that have been introduced by destinations in all of the global regions, while also plotting the evolution of these restrictions since 30 January – when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The latest analysis shows that, of 217 destinations worldwide:
“• 45% have totally or partially closed their borders for tourists – ‘Passengers are not allowed to enter’
“• 30% have suspended totally or partially international flights – ‘all flights are suspended’
“• 18% are banning the entry for passengers from specific countries of origin or passengers who have transited through specific destinations
“• 7% are applying different measures, such as quarantine or self-isolation for 14 days and visa measures.
“Against this backdrop, UNWTO has been leading calls for governments worldwide to commit to supporting tourism through this unprecedented challenge. According to Secretary-General Pololikashvili, the sudden and unexpected fall in tourism demand caused by COVID-19 places millions of jobs and livelihoods at risk while at the same time jeopardising the advances made in sustainable development and equality over recent years.” (emphasis and italics in the original)
UNWTO data show roughly 1.5 billion arrivals of travelers around the world in 2019 following a long-term growth record in arrivals, accounting for 10% of global jobs and $1.5 trillion of international tourism receipts. See https://www.unwto.org/healing-solutions-tourism-challenge. The UNWTO in late March projected a decline in international tourism receipts for 2020 of 20-30% from 2019 (or $300-450 billion). Seehttps://webunwto.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2020-03/200327%20-%20COVID-19%20Impact%20Assessment%20EN.pdf. The situation is likely more precarious as we enter May with the continued global economic harm flowing from government actions to address the continued strong expansion of number of confirmed cases worldwide and deaths. As noted, every government with international tourism has introduced and continues to maintain travel restrictions. Stay at home orders have closed restaurants (other than take out or delivery), hotels, entertainment venues and more.
While all countries and territories are adversely affected by the toll on international tourism from the pandemic, the harm is greater to island nations and poorer countries where tourism is a high percentage of total GDP. Even for advanced countries, the importance of tourism can be critical to a functioning economy. In the EU, a recent article indicates that 10% of GDP is from tourism with some countries (Greece and Malta) having much higher percentages (20-25%). Seehttps://www.dw.com/en/when-and-how-post-coronavirus-travel-in-the-eu-is-up-in-the-air/a-53273416
Commitments for tourism and travel services under the World Trade Organization
Many World Trade Organization Members have undertaken tourism and travel-related service commitments. As noted on the WTO webpage on Tourism and travel-related services, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/serv_e/tourism_e/tourism_e.htm, more than 125 WTO members have made services commitments in the tourism area (hotels, restaurants (including catering), travel agencies, tour operator services tourist guide services, etc.). A note from the WTO Secretariat in 2009 provides information on commitments undertaken by Member (at that time, more countries have joined the WTO in the decade since the note) as well as providing other information on travelers by country and receipts. See S/C/W/298 (8 June 2009) embedded below.
But, as with trade in goods, trade in services has general exceptions which permit Members to adopt or enforce measures “necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health” as long as such measures “are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where like conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on trade in services”. GATS Article XIV(b). Measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic restricting travel (and resulting effects on other services) have not been challenged at the WTO and would be likely found permissible even if challenged.
Many of the actions governments are taking to keep supplies of medical goods and food moving are only tangentially relevant to tourism in the broad sense, though of assistance to those needing to travel or moving goods. Removal of restrictions will likely occur over time and tourism’s return will also depend on confidence of consumers in the safety of travel, of dining out, of staying in hotels and of attending entertainment events. That confidence is likely going to flow primarily from the adequacy of testing, tracking and quarantining of those found to be infected, and ultimately with the development and widespread availability of a vaccine.
UNWTO recommendations for actions to address the pandemic and accelerate recovery
In a publication released on April 1, 2020, the UNWTO identifies 23 actions they seek governments to embrace broken into three topics:
1, “Managing the crisis and mitigating the impact” (1-7);
2. “Providing stimulus and accelerating recovery” (8-16)’
3. “Preparing for tomorrow” (17-23).
The 23 action recommendations are listed below. The full UNWTO document is embedded after that. As the list of action recommendations reveals, some of the action recommendations are included in actions already taken by major countries including China, the EU and its members, the United States and others. Actions reviewed in earlier posts by the IMF and others may permit some of these action recommendations to be implemented by some of the developing and least developed countries. Many of the recommendations will likely not be addressable in the near term but may encourage collective activity post pandemic.
“1. Incentivize job retention, sustain the self-employed and protect the most vulnerable groups
“2. Support companies’ liquidity
“3. Review taxes, charges, levies and regulations impacting transport and tourism
“4. Ensure consumer protection and confidence
“5. Promote skills development, especially digital skills
“6. Include tourism in national, regional and global economic emergency packages
“7. Create crisis management mechanisms and strategies
“8. Provide financial stimulus for tourism investment and operations
“9. Review taxes, charges and regulations impacting travel and tourism
“10. Advance travel facilitation
“11. Promote new jobs and skills development, particularly digital ones
“12. Mainstream environmental sustainability in stimulus and recovery packages
“13. Understand the market and act quickly to restore confidence and stimulate demand
“14. Boost marketing, events and meetings
“15. Invest in partnerships
“16. Mainstream tourism in national, regional and international recovery programmes and in Development Assistance
“17. Diversify markets, products and services
“18. Invest in market intelligence systems and digital transformation
“19. Reinforce tourism governance at all levels
“20. Prepare for crisis, build resilience and ensure tourism is part of national emergency mechanism and systems
“21. Invest in human capital and talent development
“22. Place sustainable tourism firmly on the national agenda
“23. Transition to the circular economy and embrace the SDGs.” (Sustainable Development Goals).
As the world is exploring ways to reopen individual economies as the worst of COVID-19 (at least phase 1) passes, governments will be under enormous pressure to reopen as quickly as is responsible to do. As data from the UNWTO demonstrate, travel and tourism is a labor intensive sector which has outgrown overall economic growth in the last decade and which can help facilitate recovery when economies are able to reopen.
There are huge challenges in the short- and medium-term for the sector including the depth of the decline, the fragility of many of the businesses financially and the challenges to restoration of consumer confidence. With the United States alone having recorded nearly 30 million people filing for unemployment over the last six weeks, the size of the economic challenge globally is obviously massive. The UNWTO recommended actions address an array of certain needs for many players. For those businesses that survive the pandemic, restoring consumer confidence and having governments withdraw restrictions safely will become the biggest challenges to forward movement. Government actions during the pandemic to provide safety nets for businesses and workers will influence how many businesses and jobs remain when markets do reopen.
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.
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.
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.
With the global health crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the world is also facing the specter of mass starvation flowing from a combination of ongoing armed conflicts, weather events, export restraints on food and potential disruptions in food supply. Export restraints and disruptions in food supply are increasing based on actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments of the world are understandably focused on the health pandemic where known deaths since December are approaching 200,000 with confirmed cases over 2.5 million and continuing to increase. To date Europe and the United States and a few other countries account for the vast majority of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, though nearly all countries have some cases and many other countries could see rapidly growing cases in the weeks and months ahead.
“Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic.
“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.
“Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.
“So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.
“This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers: 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows, there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.
“On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.
“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.
“At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.
“But this is only in my opinion only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.
“This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic. It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”
“Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have an impact significantly, where oil accounts for 98.8% of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on life saving foreign aid.
“The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.
“WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.
“Right now, as you may now 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.
“As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors, nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.
“But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way. First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.
“Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need in a very general sense humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.
“WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.
“Third, we need coordinated action to support life-saving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to preposition three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the (US) $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these life-saving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.
“We are also requesting a further USD350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.
“Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.
“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.
“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.
Fifty-six countries or territories are listed as at various levels of concern for hunger in 2019 and potentially for 2020 and are summarized on pages 214-215 of the report. Eleven of the fifty-six countries or territories are categorized as at a phase 4 level (emergency) for the country as a whole or for particular parts. These include Afghanistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Twenty-one others are categorized as phase 3 (crisis). These include Burkino Faso, Cameron, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Uganada, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Eight countries or territories were ranked phase 2 (stressed). These included Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya and Nicaragua. Two countries or territories were listed as phase 1 (minimal)(Burundi and Rwanda). The remaining fourteen countries or territories had not been given a specific phase, some because the problem related to the presence of large numbers of refugees and what might happen during the year; for others the descriptions of the hunger challenges would suggest serious problems. These countries or territories include Bangladesh, Colombia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
While the bulk of the concerns raised in the report go to ongoing conflicts and weather problems, trade restrictions are potentially important contributors. As reviewed in an earlier post, a number of countries have imposed export restraints on certain agricultural goods. With the exception of Myanmar and Ukraine who are listed in the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, the other countries reviewed in my earlier post are not included in the report. These countries include Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonsia and Cambodia. The earlier post is linked below.
G20 Agriculture Ministers Communique
Following a virtual meeting on April 21, G20 Agriculture Ministers released a Ministerial Statement that reaffirmed “the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agircultural and food production”. The Statement can be found here. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Agriculture%20Ministers%20Meeting_Statement_EN.pdf. The statement covers a fair amount of ground but doesn’t prohibit export restraints per se in agriculture but rather repeats the limitations (reflecting existing WTO flexibilities) that trade ministers articulated for medical supplies – any restraints should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. The full statement is reproduced below.
“We, the G20 Agriculture Ministers, are deeply saddened by the devastating human losses and suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19. We commit to cooperating closely and taking concrete actions to safeguard global food security and nutrition.
‘We reaffirm the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products, and inputs essential for agricultural and food production across borders in line with our Leaders’ Statement on COVID-19 of March 26, 2020. We acknowledge the challenges of minimizing the risk of COVID-19 while keeping food supply chains functioning. We will continue to work to ensure the health, safety, welfare, and mobility of workers in agriculture and throughout the food supply chain.
“We will guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population, especially the most vulnerable living in environments of low food security. We agree that emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains, and are consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. We recognise the importance of transparency and commend the Trade and Investment Ministers’ commitment to notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken, including those related to agriculture and essential foodstuffs. We reaffirm our agreement not to impose export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on food and agricultural products purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies.
“We emphasize the work of the G20 Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and take note of AMIS’ assessment that at present global food supplies are adequate and food markets remain well balanced. As members, we commit and call on other members to continue providing timely and reliable information on global food market fundamentals to help markets, countries, and consumers make informed choices. Where appropriate, we will coordinate policy responses, supported by the AMIS Global Food Market Information Group and the AMIS Rapid Response Forum. We call for continued support for AMIS, including through voluntary financial contributions.
“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people in a timely, safe, and organized manner, consistent with national requirements. Acknowledging the critical role of the private sector in food systems, we call for enhanced cooperation between the public and private sectors to help mobilize rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors.
“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss. We stress the need to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of food systems globally, including to future shocks from disease and pest outbreaks, and to the global challenges that drive these shocks. In line with the One Health approach, we call for strengthened mechanisms for monitoring, early warning, preparedness, prevention, detection, response, and control of zoonotic diseases, and developing science-based international guidelines on stricter safety and hygienic measures for zoonosis control.
“We deeply thank farmers and workers, and small, medium and large scale agri-food businesses for their continuous efforts to ensure our food supply. We will intensify our efforts, in line with WTO rules and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to support them to sustain their activities and livelihoods during the crisis and to assist their recovery afterwards. Our efforts will support rural communities, especially small-scale farmers and family farms, to be more economically prosperous, resilient and sustainable, and to have improved food security and nutrition, giving special attention to the needs of developing and low-income countries. We will continue our cooperation with relevant international organizations and within their mandates work to: reinforce international cooperation; identify additional actions to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition; share best practices and lessons learned, such as addressing barriers to supply chains; promote evidence and science-based information and combat misinformation; provide capacity building and technical assistance; and promote research, responsible investments, innovations and reforms that will improve the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and food systems. This work could build on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) evolving response to COVID-19, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) evolving efforts to support a strong recovery from the effects of COVID-19, policy monitoring and analysis by the OECD, and other relevant initiatives, such as the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.
“We will continue our close cooperation and as necessary update our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our broader G20 agriculture and food agenda. We stand ready to reconvene as required.” (Emphasis added)
The Ministerial Statement is helpful in encouraging nations to maintain open markets, to not tax humanitarian food aid and to provide transparency in actions taken. But the Ministerial Statement does not commit the G20 members to avoid trade restrictions where such restrictions are temporary, targeted, transparent and proportionate. Based on actions taken by China and India during the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is not surprising that the G20 could not get hard commitments to avoid agriculture export restrictions from all G20 members.
As international organizations are serving as transparency fora and are encouraging joint action, it is not surprising that the Ministerial Statement was warmly received by the WTO as the statement supports transparency and WTO consistency of any actions taken.. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_21apr20_e.htm.
Communique from Various WTO Members
On July 22, twenty-three WTO Members (including the EU) submitted a joint statement to the WTO entitled RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30. The statement is embedded below.
The statement cautions countries to avoid actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic that would adversely affect trade in agricultural goods. Absent from the joint statement are important Members who have in the past used or who at present are using export restraints on certain agricultural products including China and India (past export restraints) and Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia (current export restraints).
The joint statement has strong language on keeping markets open (including the negative effects of export restrictions on agriculture and agri-food products), avoiding waste, maintaining effective transport and logistical services, the importance of transparency in actions taken as well as food production and stocks. Nonetheless, because of existing WTO flexibilities provided to Members, the commitments made by the 23 Members include one which maintains the right to emergency measures that are “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains”.
The joint statement is certainly a positive step with eight specific commitments taken by WTO Members who account for 63% of global agricultural exports and 55% of global agricultural imports. Time will tell if the list of supporters of the commitments expands to other major Members.
Based on current and projected food supplies, there should be no crisis in food supplies to the world if there is collective efforts to keep markets open, provide food aid for populations experiencing severe shortages due to conflict, adverse weather events and any adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what the UN and its World Food Programme seek (cease fires; access to people regardless of conflicts or sanctions) is not likely to happen based on actions by certain major countries. But keeping world markets open and food aid funded hopefully will occur. The consequences of failure in this regard would greatly exacerbate the health and economic costs already experienced from COVID-19.
Global confirmed cases of COVID-19 will reach two million today, April 15, with the actual number likely much higher and with deaths over 125,000. Nearly every country on earth has at least some confirmed cases.
Different countries and territories are at different stages in dealing with COVID-19 infections, with China, South Korea and Singapore seemingly well past the worst of the first wave of infections. Countries in Europe and various states within the United States are also seeing the rate of infection flatten or even decline following weeks of stay-at-home orders, social distancing and drastic changes to daily life. Hot spots are shifting both within countries (e.g., the United States) and to different countries.
The economic cost of closing down portions of economies has been unprecedented with the IMF characterizing the hit on global GDP to be the worst since the great depression of the 1930s. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020. To avoid even worse economic fallout, countries are pouring huge sums into their economies to prevent massive bankruptcies, limit unemployment and provide expanded social safety nets. Press reports suggest at least $8 trillion has been committed with more being considered in various countries.
For countries who are witnessing likely GDP reductions of as much as 35% in one of the first two quarters of 2020, governments are mapping out scenarios for reopening closed portions of their economies if they have been recent epicenters or engaged in phased reopening if apparently largely past the first phase. Such planning is occurring at the subnational, national or trading bloc level (EU) with little apparent effort to coordinate efforts around the world. Where plans are being discussed publicly, common elements appear to be expanded and harmonized testing (both for the infection and for antibodies), ability to do tracing of individuals who have been in contact with individuals found to have the virus to secure quarantining, capacity of the healthcare system to handle cases, and adequacy of supplies. Concerns about privacy interests are also part of the discussion/needs for democracies. See, e.g., European Commission roadmap released April 15, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_652; https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication_-_a_european_roadmap_to_lifting_coronavirus_containment_measures_0.pdf
For most of the developing and least developed countries, the pandemic has yet to show its full force. Many of these countries have inadequate healthcare infrastructure and don’t have the internal manufacturing capabilities or financial resources to handle the pandemic without assistance if they become an epicenter.
The world has seen limited actual coordination of efforts by major players despite commitments by G20 countries although funding for multilateral institutions like the IMF have been increased to facilitate expanded efforts for the weakest countries. There also seems to be an exchange of information and some cooperation in the research efforts underway to find a vaccine.
Many countries who have been hard hit by the pandemic were slow to recognize the extent of the challenge and often slow in implementing comprehensive actions which has exacerbated the challenges, the loss of life and the harm to their economies. This has led to some lack of transparency at least in the early days and perhaps a reluctance for greater cooperation.
The pandemic’s spread has led to extraordinary gaps in supply availability versus short term demand requirements. For example, the OECD indicated that China, which manufactures half of the world supply of masks, found demand for masks at the peak of the crisis in China at ten times the beginning manufacturing capability of the country. Even after ramp up of production, demand in China was twice as large as the dramatically expanded manufacturing capabilities until the country’s infection rate declined. With both the EU and the US going through huge expansions of COVID-19 cases in March and into April, the global shortage problem has been continued and magnified despite additional capacity expansions occurring in other countries.
With no current vaccine to deal with the infections, countries faced with expanding case loads have often shifted to imposing export restraints to prevent loss of scarce supplies, encouraging expanded production, and using other tactics to address domestic demand even if reducing supply to other countries or even if local actions are counterproductive because of global supply chains and similar actions by others. Export restraints have been imposed by close to 70 countries or territories and include actions by China, the EU, the United States and many others, though restraints are arguably temporary and may have exceptions depending on the country applying the restraints. And countries who had export restraints at one point, may be significant exporters later (China) or had been exporters to hard hit countries prior to ramp up of internal demand (e.g., U.S. to China).
Importance of transparency in times of crisis
Each government attempts to provide some level of transparency to its citizens and businesses on actions it is taking. Members of the WTO have committed to providing information on trade measures taken to respond to COVID-19 and groups of countries (G20) have supported that effort. As of April 14th, WTO Members had provided 49 notifications of trade actions related to COVID-19 that either restricted goods or liberalized movement of goods https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm. While this is a start, there are likely dozens or hundreds of other actions that have not been notified as yet (including actions that may have been withdrawn after a period of time). The lack of full transparency by WTO Members is unfortunate and prevents other Members to understand the reality around the world or to understand potential best practices by other trading partners.
It does not appear that there are readily accessible data on all suppliers globally of essential medical goods, capacity expansions, current bottlenecks, product availability, etc. It is not clear if such data could be compiled by industry associations or by governments. Presumably such information would be important for a global effort to maximize availability of products to all countries during the pandemic, identify ongoing shortages, prioritize where additional products are needed and so forth. The lack of such information has to be a major shortfall in the transparency needs to effectively deal with the pandemic.
Individual governments, of course, address internal needs on an ongoing basis through notices, regulations, etc. Many of these actions could be notified to international organizations (e.g., to the WTO) in addition to being available domestically. Expanding notifications would improve transparency and potentially encourage other governments to adopt best practices of other countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the health of the world’s peoples and has imposed unimaginable costs to the global and national economies. As countries work through their individual challenges, there are a spectrum of options to pursue that will reduce or expand the human and economic costs of the pandemic. International organizations are only as strong as their member governments permit them to be. Many observers have lamented the lack of global leadership. Such lack of leadership handicaps the ability and likelihood of countries to minimize the damage from the pandemic and to prepare better for future challenges. Transparency should be the bare minimum we receive from the world’s governments. While there is certainly some transparency on COVID-19 and trade actions being taken (better in some countries than others), we are not maximizing the benefits that broad-based transparency would make available for countries individually or acting collectively. There is still time for a better effort. There are real costs for failing to do all that can be done on this issue.
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.
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.
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”
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:
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:
Support should be transparent (including terms of support);
non-discriminatory and not used to rescue companies that would have failed absent the pandemic;
time limited and reviewed for continued relevance/need;
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:
“Cutting tariffs on essential medical products”;
“Disciplines on export restrictions” (essentially G20 language);
“Upfront investments in co-operative solutions” (including creation of stockpiles at national or regional level);
“addressing the needs of the most vulnerable countries”.
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.
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.
The global trading system has built in flexibilities for nations and customs territories to address scarcity or threatened scarcity at home in the trade rules. Specifically, while GATT 1994 Article XI:2 provides for the general elimination of quantitative restrictions on imports or exports, there are exceptions provided in XI:2. The first permits “Export prohibitions or restrictions temporarily applied to prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products essential to the exporting contracting party.” GATT 1994 Art. XI:2(a). There are also general exceptions to WTO obligations contained in GATT 1994 Article XX including measures “necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health” (Art. XX(b)) although such general exceptions have certain conditions to prevent discrimination in application.
These WTO rules go back to original GATT provisions from 1947/48 and reflect the understandable desire of governments to maintain the ability to look out for their own people in times of crisis particularly to avoid threats from food scarcity or to human health.
Over the last seventy plus years, global trade flows have dramatically expanded in both agricultural and non-agricultural products. Indeed, many countries and customs territories are import dependent on food products. Moreover, with the development of global supply chains for medicines, medical equipment, medical supplies and personal protective gear, few, if any, countries are self-sufficient for medical goods.
The question arises whether in a much more interdependent world, global trade rules need review and modification to deal with actual or perceived shortages of agricultural, medical or other goods.
The 2007-2008 food shortages on critical agricultural products led to dozens of countries imposing export restraints on core products like rice and wheat resulting in expanded shortages, price volatility and social unrest in many countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in nearly 70 countries imposing export restraints on certain medical goods and in a number of countries imposing export restraints on agricultural goods in anticipation of potential shortages. The breadth and depth of the pandemic has resulted in a global severe shortage of a wide range of medical products, equipment and protective gear with countries (and within some countries, provinces, states, regions and even individual hospitals and medical facilities) competing against each other for limited supplies, bidding up prices, resulting in price gouging and hording of goods. It has also resulted in efforts by individual countries and companies (whether local or multinational) to ramp up production to meet the surge in demand. Press reports indicate that many smaller countries find themselves shut out of the market for supplies as large countries or groupings (US and EU) lock up available supplies for months going forward.
The two types of shortages are different in type. Food shortages, if real, flow (1) from some form of crop failure and inadequate inventories, (2) from the failure to keep markets open so goods go to markets where there are needs, or (3) from conflicts. That is, the shortage flows from a temporary supply problem. The shortage is not from a sudden upward change in global demand.
Medical pandemics create severe shortages because of the extraordinary growth in demand for medicines, supplies, equipment and personal protective equipment in a very limited time frame. While arguably countries could build up inventories of potentially needed supplies to address any magnitude of surge in demand, few countries effectively do so and long term demand for the products/supplies of interest don’t support massive capacity outside of a pandemic. Supply can be disrupted as it has been in the COVID-19 pandemic through border measures aimed primarily at limiting movement of people potentially infected but affecting the movement of goods as well, through export restraints imposed to ensure some supplies in country, through disruptions of supply chains, and through aggressive purchasing by large and/or rich countries reducing supplies available for other countries. Supply can also be increased through expanded investment (whether permanent or temporary), through diversion of existing manufacturing from other goods to needed goods, or through reducing inventories. Countries, to offset some of the upward pricing pressures, can reduce the cost of supplies by reducing customs duties, by reducing value added taxes or sales taxes on domestic and imported product, by streamlining and greenlaning import entry, by having the central government coordinate purchasing and distribution during the pandemic, by encouraging expanded production and by keeping markets open.
The COVID-19 pandemic has the added dimension that efforts to address the health crisis have resulted in massive unemployment, collapsing GDPs around the world, sharp contraction in global trade and the need to pump huge sums into economies to prevent greater collapse. Such actions by governments to permit economies to rebound in the future both involve much greater state involvement in economies at least temporarily and issues of how WTO rules on subsidies can or should be applied. The WTO, as the US and others have pointed out frequently, is designed for market economies and wasn’t designed to address the consequences of a pandemic of the magnitude of COVID-19. The extraordinary consequences of the current pandemic will challenge WTO members to determine if current rules remain applicable or need modifications.
Possible solutions for food security and for the availability of medical goods
Food security should, in my view, have different solutions in the trade arena than what may be needed for medical pandemics.
For food security, banning export restraints should be theoretically possible if coupled with (1) national, regional or global inventory reserves of key products to address the periodic droughts and other challenges to supply, (2) market access liberalization of the key agricultural products, and (3) rapid resolution if WTO Members violate their commitments. Even though theoretically possible, the global history of famines and the critical role of food security to governments around the world suggests that meaningful change to trade rules to reduce the flexibilities that presently exist to address food shortages is highly unlikely as part of WTO reform.
On medical pandemics, there are theoretically possible steps that countries could take to reduce the personal and economic toll of future pandemics and the damage to global trade flows. Countries historically have done a poor job of investing in research to address future diseases or viruses until a crisis has occurred. Countries could expand R&D efforts before pandemics. Similarly, national, regional, state/province, local inventories of many critical medical goods could be maintained to address pandemic-level needs. But the reality has been that governments, hospitals and medical businesses have generally not invested in the inventory needed for the historically infrequent pandemic level demand. Supply chains can be modified to provide more sources for all inputs versus reliance on suppliers from one or just a few countries. Governments could develop with companies a game plan for where additional capacity could be generated and how quickly if a pandemic arose and update those game plans periodically. Tariffs could be eliminated on all medical goods, supplies, equipment, and personal protective goods. Governments could ensure priority access of imports of such goods that meet international standards. Governments could provide information to the WHO and WTO on capacities of key medical goods on an annual basis to improve the transparency for countries on supplies. Governments could agree to ban export restraints during a pandemic. Governments could authorize international institutions to build regional inventories for access by countries without the financial resources to build inventories on their own.
While only some of the above actions would come within the WTO’s area of competence, it is hard to imagine WTO Members agreeing to the elimination of discretion they currently enjoy for medical emergencies. It is similarly difficult to imagine countries taking actions longer term to address a problem that could be dismissed as a once-in-a-century crisis.
The broader issues flowing from the need for massive government infusions of funds to prevent the global economy from collapsing are certainly important. If not addressed in a way that allows Members to do what they individually believe they need to do in this crisis, the broader issues will further impede forward movement on broad WTO reform.
Challenging times reveal important structural issues for consideration by WTO Members. Let’s hope there is sufficient recognition of the need for addressing the issues to lead to meaningful progress in reforming the WTO. But don’t hold your breath.
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.
OTHER ARTICLES OF PLASTIC, NESOI
OTHER MADE-UP ARTICLES NESOI
CHEMICAL PRODUCTS AND PREPARATIONS AND RESIDUAL PRODUCTS OF THE CHEMICAL OR ALLIED INDUSTRIES, NESOI
SPECTACLES, GOGGLES AND THE LIKE, CORRECTIVE, PROTECTIVE, NESOI
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.
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%.
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.
With the COVID-19 pandemic ramping up its reach and severity in many parts of the world and with the global economy reeling as a result, there is an understandable hope for a coordinated response from the major countries in the world to minimize the effect of the pandemic, ensure availability of medical supplies and equipment, and chart a path back to growth for all.
“We suggest G20 Trade Ministers decide on concrete actions to mitigate the pandemic and speed up recovery. G20 Members could immediately undertake the following actions whilst advocating parallel action by all World Trade Organization Members.
“Refrain from new export restrictions on critical medical supplies, food or other key products. Where such emergency measures are applied, they should be targeted, transparent, proportionate with the emergency needs, and time-bound.
“Eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports of COVID-19 products, as well as lower or temporarily suspend tariffs and export taxes on food and other basic goods to safeguard household incomes and business activity.
“Ensure that vital products can cross borders safely, by ensuring continuity of border agency clearance for critical supplies and essential transport and logistics.
“Secure continued access to capital and trade financing to medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs).”
For some analysts, the failure to provide specific action steps reflects a claimed lack of leadership among the G20 leaders (in particular to a lack of leadership by the U.S.). Those raising concerns compare the communiques to those that came out from the financial crisis in 2008-2009 which contained some specific commitments including a standstill on trade restrictive measures.
Differences between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008-2009 financial crisis
While both events, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008-2009 financial crisis, can be described as major crisis moments for the global community, there is the very real difference of the COVID-19 pandemic threatening human life directly. WTO commitments have understandable carveouts for Members to address public health crises through deviations from their WTO commitments.
Politically, it is hard to imagine countries suffering major outbreaks of COVID-19 not having an initial primary commitment to address the internal needs of their citizens. This has led to many countries seeking at least temporarily to secure critical medical supplies and equipment to address the surge in illness that has followed the spread of the virus in individual countries. This includes both major developed countries like the members of the EU and major countries like China (in the early stages of the outbreak there). The daily pleas from governors and mayors across the United States for more supplies and equipment show the internal pressures for governments to secure supplies and equipment critical to the short-term needs.
This does not mean that proposals for joint action aren’t meritorious or that some actions by individual countries can be harmful to overall global welfare as well as their own short-term interests. Rather the internal challenges will differ for different countries or territories and may make joint actions at a given point in time less doable. In such situations, individual country actions can be important with joint actions undertaken where possible. For example, in the U.S. and in other countries, there is an effort to ramp up production of critical supplies and equipment. Such individual action can have important positive effects on the global response to COVID-19.
While many countries sent supplies to China back in January-February when China was going through its peak needs and ramping up its production, China has been exporting supplies to various countries as its internal needs recede and external demand ramps up. Press accounts, for example, indicate that the U.S. has procured 10 plane loads of medical supplies from China, the first of which arrived in the last several days in New York.
Similarly, the U.S. has been working with companies in the United States to increase production of medical personal protection equipment and of ventilators as part of its effort to address the surge in demand that is occurring in individual U.S. hot spots. Ramp up of production is also important in light of the global shortage of some of the items during periods of heightened demand. President Trump in a recent press conference indicated that it was likely that as production increased on ventilators in the U.S., there would be excess volume at some point that could be shared with other countries without sufficient supplies.
Thus, individual country actions can have important longer term benefits for other countries around the world.
Actions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to Assist Developing and Least Developed Countries Are Supported by G20 Members
G20 members are important players in both the World Bank and the IMF. As reviewed in statements by each organization in yesterday’s trade ministers meeting (World Bank) and today’s finance minister’s meeting (IMF), each organization is taking aggressive actions to provide assistance to developing and least developed countries to help in addressing COVID-19 and the recovery of economies after the pandemic. Such action is possible because of the support of the major economies in those organizations.
For example, the World Bank reviewed the following actions it is taking to respond to COVID-19 at yesterday’s trade ministers meeting:
“The WBG is providing fast, flexible responses to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on developing countries. The $14 billion Fast Track Facility approved on March 17 assists countries and companies in their efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. We have emergency operations for 60 countries already underway and more to come.
“We are entering into the next phase of our response to further address the broader economic and social impact. The WBG will deploy $160 billion over 15 months to:
“Protect the poor and vulnerable through social safety net programs. Oer World Bank facilitated procurement to help clients access needed medical supplies and equipment, for no fee, to address the significant disrutption in supply chains.
“Support businesses and their employees, especially MSMEs, through IFC trade and credit lines.
“Strengthen economic resilience and speed of recovery through budget support and sectoral interventions, including in trade and investment.
“We and the IMF are also calling on all official bilateral creditors to suspend debt payments from IDA countries that request forbearance.”
Similarly, below is the statement by the IMF from today’s finance ministers meeting:
“March 31, 2020
“Washington, DC – International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva made the following remarks today during an extraordinary conference call of G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors:
“Thank you to the Saudi G20 presidency for calling this extraordinary meeting.
“‘We welcome the decisive actions many of you have taken to shield people and the economy from COVID-19, that led to a decline in volatility in major financial markets in recent days. Nonetheless we remain very concerned about the negative outlook for global growth in 2020 and in particular about the strain a downturn would have on emerging markets and low- income countries.
“Our forecast of a recovery next year hinges on how we manage to contain the virus and reduce the level of uncertainty.
“Thus, we support an ambitious G20 action plan to strengthen the capacity of health systems to cope with the epidemic; to stabilize the world economy through timely, targeted and coordinated measures; and to pave the way towards recovery.
“And we will do our part. In fact, we got a strong mandate last Friday from our governing body, the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), on reforms to strengthen our crisis response.
“In particular, it endorsed initiatives to:
“· Enhance access to our emergency facilities, as now some 85 countries indicate they rely on them for financial support;
“· Build up our capacity to serve our poorest members; and
“· Help countries experiencing foreign exchange shortages, including possibly by short-term liquidity line.
Thus, the G20 through their involvement in multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the IMF are taking collective action to address various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and global recovery whether or not there are specific G20 actions taken outside of those organizations.
Additional Challenges and Opportunities For G20 Members
access for transport moving goods
One of the unusual challenges flowing from COVID-19 is dealing with concerns about movement of people with the need for the movement of goods across borders. For example, many countries have imposed travel restrictions from certain offshore locations to try and control the spread of COVID-19. Even where there is not an outright ban on entry from certain foreign countries, there may be requirements for mandatory quarantine of people travelling from certain countries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has a webpage following measures taken by governments related to COVID-19. As of today, IATA shows 179 measures having been taken by countries around the world. See https://www.iata.org/en/programs/safety/health/diseases/government-measures-related-to-coronavirus/. IATA has urged countries to develop approaches that permit international transport to access countries without staff being quarantined. The consequences for the rapid movement of medical supplies and equipment if transport personnel can’t enter and exit in ways that are acceptable to receiving countries should be obvious. But the solution will potentially differ by each importing country’s risk profile compared to each exporting country’s risk profile. It is unclear what actions G20 countries are taking to address these concerns/needs. Transparency and a task force to identify current and best practices could be helpful in the short term on this critical issue.
2. transparency issues
G20 countries have agreed to support transparency of measures taken to address COVID-19, and the WTO has a webpage which is tracking notices provided by WTO Members. To date relatively few notices have been provided to the WTO (just 18 as of March 31, 2020). Seehttps://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm.
But transparency goes beyond WTO notifications and deals with issues such as transparency on developments in individual countries on the spread of the disease, research into possible vaccines, best practices in reducing the spread of the virus, information on potential medical supplies and equipment and on potential demand among countries (including efforts at expanding production).
While there is seemingly reasonably good information on the spread of the disease in many countries and at least basic information on research ongoing around the world, it is not clear that there is a clearinghouse for information on supplies or on anticipated demand. If not, this could be an area where business associations and governments could work collectively to develop information that could be useful in maximizing availability of products where and when needed, to identify likely bottlenecks in supply and permitting governments to incentivize expanded production. There is also the question of surges in needs for medical personnel that outstrip availability even in developed countries. Transparency on availability of personnel (active, retired, etc.) willing to move intracountry and internationally would be an extraordinarily important data base and could help countries with needs determine ability to handle temporary medical help.
3. Research and Development of Vaccines and Intellectual Property Issues
There are many businesses, government entities and research groups looking for a vaccine for the COVID-19. The greater the exchange of information, the greater the likelihood of an early breakthrough. Many issues arise around any bteakthrough in terms of intellectual property rights, global needs and affordability. How those issues are addressed will be an important part of any longterm global recovery and the human costs that will be incurred going into the future from the virus. A recent Congressional Research Service paper looks at certain possible TRIPs and subsidy issues. While the discussion in the paper isn’t necessarily accurate in terms of WTO implications in all instances, it provides a list of questions that G20 members and the broader global community will need to consider.
COVID-19 is an extraordinary challenge to the global community with the ability to overwhelm health systems in advanced economies in a matter of weeks to say nothing of the potential for harm to less advanced economies.
The G20 has called for coordinated action and stated the objectives of keeping markets open, limiting restrictions on trade, exchanging information and assisting developing and least developed countries. The individual countries who are part of the G20 have also been taking action through the World Bank and IMF to help other countries address challenges from COVID-19.
At the same time, major G20 players — US, EU countries, China — have faced major challenges in their territories which have required a focus on how to address national challenges effectively and quickly. Other countries and territories have also faced various levels of spread of COVID-19 and have focused on actions they have needed to minimize the spread and help their citizens. More countries are likely to be hot spots in the coming months.
The WTO and the GATT before it have recognized that obligations undertaken must have escape clauses when there are emergencies involving human health.
Thus, the art of the possible with COVID-19 may be the articulation of aspirational objectives by leaders or international organizations or by outside analysts, the exchange of information to permit better decisions, and individual or group action where possible within the context of domestic political realities.
With the reduction in members of the Appellate Body from three to one after December 10, 2019, the WTO’s Appellate Body has not been in a position to handle new appeals nor to complete a range of other appeals that were pending where no hearing had occurred. The United States has blocked consideration of replacements while solutions to its substantive and procedural concerns with the actions of the Appellate Body are developed. As it is unlikely that U.S. concerns will be resolved in the near term, a number of WTO Members have been searching for alternative approaches to maintain a second stage review in disputes where one or more parties desires that second stage review.
Specifically, a number of WTO Members have wanted to establish an arbitration framework for disputes between Members willing to abide by such a framework. The European Union has been one of the most outspoken on the topic and had completed agreements with Canada and Norway ahead of Davos this year.
On the sidelines of Davos, a significant number of countries indicated a desire to find a common approach on arbitration to address the lack of Appellate Body review until such time as the operation of the Appellate Body was restored.
On March 27, 2020, a Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement Pursuant to Article 25 of the DSU was agreed to by to the following WTO Members — Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland and Uruguay. The text of the arrangement is here, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/march/tradoc_158685.pdf. The arrangement is open to other Members should they opt to join at a future date.
“Further to the Davos statement of 24 January 2020, we, the Ministers of Australia; Brazil; Canada; China; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; European Union; Guatemala; Hong Kong, China; Mexico; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; and Uruguay, have decided  to put in place a Multi-party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA) on the basis of the attached document. This arrangement ensures, pursuant to Article 25 of the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding, that any disputes among us will continue benefitting from a functioning dispute settlement system at the WTO, including the availability of an independent and impartial appeal stage.
“We believe that such WTO dispute settlement system is of the utmost importance for a rules-based trading system. The arrangement is open to any WTO Member, and we welcome any WTO Member to join.
“We wish to underscore the interim nature of this arrangement. We remain firmly and actively committed to resolving the impasse of the Appellate Body appointments as a matter of priority and urgency, including through necessary reforms. The arrangement therefore will remain in effect only until the Appellate Body is again fully functional.
“We intend for the arrangement to be officially communicated to the WTO in the coming weeks.
“1/ Subject to the completion of respective domestic procedures, where applicable.”
The European Commission reviewed the significance of yesterday’s group decision in a press release:
“The EU and 15 other members of the WTO today decided on an arrangement that will allow them to bring appeals and solve trade disputes among them despite the current paralysis of the WTO Appellate Body. Given its strong and unwavering support for a rules-based trading system, the EU has been a leading force in the process to establish this contingency measure in the WTO.
“Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan said: ‘ Today’s agreement delivers on the political commitment taken at ministerial level in Davos in January. This is a stop-gap measure to reflect the temporary paralysis of the WTO’s appeal function for trade disputes. This agreement bears testimony to the conviction held by the EU and many other countries that in times of crisis working together is the best option. We will continue our efforts to restore the appeal function of the WTO dispute settlement system as a matter of priority. In the meantime, I invite other WTO Members to join this open arrangement, crucial for the respect and enforcement of international trade rules.’
“The Multiparty Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement mirrors the usual WTO appeal rules and can be used between any members of the Organisation willing to join, as long as the WTO Appellate Body is not fully functional.
“Today’s agreement underscores the importance that the participating WTO members – Australia; Brazil; Canada; China; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; the European Union; Guatemala; Hong Kong, China; Mexico; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; and Uruguay – attach to a functioning two-step dispute settlement system at the WTO. Such a system guarantees that trade disputes can be resolved through an impartial and independent adjudication, which is essential for the multilateral trading system based on rules.
“We expect the Multiparty Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement to be officially notified to the WTO in the coming weeks, once the respective WTO Members complete their internal procedures, after which it will become operational.”
Led by the European Union, the interim appeal arrangement looks a lot like an appeal to the Appellate Body and that is by design. As stated in paragraph 3 of the arrangement, “3. The appeal arbitration procedure will be based on the substantive and procedural aspects of Appellate Review pursuant to Article 17 of the DSU, in order to keep its core features, including independence and impartiality, while enhancing the procedural efficiency of appeal proceedings.” Many parts of practice and procedure of the Appellate Body are incorporated into the appeal arbitration procedures (Annex 1) and included in the text of the arrangement itself.
Arbitrations will be heard by three members of a standing pool of 10 appeal arbitrators who may be current or former Appellate Body members or other qualified individuals. See Annex 2. Such current and former AB members are not subject to any additional vetting if nominated by one of the signatories. Selection for serving on an appeal arbitration, similar to the Appellate Body, will be subject to rotation.
The participating Members are looking to the WTO Secretariat to provide “appropriate administrative and legal support”, that such support “will be entirely separate from the WTO Secretariat staff”. Stated differently, the participating Members are seeking the maintenance of something like the Appellate Body Secretariat but as an interim appellate arbitration group or secretariat.
The participating Members are permitting arbitration to be completed in 90 days (subject to extension approved by the parties) and give arbitrators authority to streamline proceedings to accomplish the 90 day timeline (page limits, time limits, etc.).
The full text of the interim arrangement and two appendices is embedded below.
Time will tell the success of the interim appeal arbitration arrangement both among the existing participants and on any future participants.
The United States and many other Members are not presently participants in the interim agreement though that could, of course change as the arrangement is open to additional Members joining. Existing Members not participating in the arrangement include Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ukraine and many others.
Where a Member does not participate in the interim agreement, there are a wide range of options for the resolution of disputes including a bilateral agreement between the parties either during consultations or during the panel process, agreement to adopt the panel report without appeal or separate arbitration procedures agreed by the parties to a dispute. The U.S. and India in a pending dispute have also simply agreed to hold up any appellate review until such time as the Appellate Body is functioning again. Time will also reveal how well alternative dispute resolution approaches work for WTO Members.
What is certain is that absent a resolution of the underlying concerns raised by the United States over the last several years, the WTO dispute settlement system will be in a period of uncertainty with various approaches possible to resolve disputes but no clarification of the proper role of dispute settlement within the WTO.
Will the Interim Arrangement Promote Resolution of Long-Standing Problems with WTO Dispute Settlement?
While the participating Members to the interim agreement all state a commitment to pursue the prompt resolution to the WTO dispute settlement system challenges, the reality on the ground does not appear to match the rhetoric. While the U.S. has presented detailed information on its concerns and asked for engagement by Members to understand the “why” of the current situation, many Members have limited their engagement to suggesting modifications of the existing Dispute Settlement Understanding that do little more than repeat existing requirements – requirements which have been routinely flouted by the Appellate Body. Nor have Members advanced either an understanding or approaches for resolving the large number of instances where the Appellate Body has created rights or obligations not agreed to by Members. Thus, there has not been meaningful forward movement in recent months on the long-standing problems identified with the WTO dispute settlement system. Nothing in the interim arrangement augurs for an improved likelihood of resolution.
Moreover, the adoption of an interim arrangement that cloaks itself in much of the Appellate Body rules and procedures and is likely to have a number of former Appellate Body members in its pool of arbitrators is likely to create additional challenges as time goes by particularly in terms of the relevance of arbitral awards other than to the parties to the arbitration, whether existing problems are perpetuated through the interim appeal arbitration process, etc. There may also be short term challenges to the propriety of arbitrators being supported by a separate group of staff and who will pay for such services.
For WTO Members liking the past operation of the Appellate Body and wanting a second phase review of disputes that approximates the Appellate Body approach under the DSU, the interim appeal arbitration agreement will provide an approach while the Appellate Body itself is not functional. The WTO Members who are participating are significant users of the WTO dispute settlement system. More may join in the months ahead.
At the same time, other approaches to resolving disputes continue to be available to WTO Members and used by various Members.
There is nothing wrong with multiple approaches for handling resolution of disputes.
At the same time, nothing in the interim agreement or the actions of the participants to that agreement in the first quarter of 2020 provides any reason to believe the participants are working any harder to reach a resolution on the longstanding concerns of the United States on the actual operation of the Appellate Body.
Rule of law issues include seeing that the dispute settlement system operates within the confines of the authority defined by the Dispute Settlement Understanding. That has not been the case for many actions by the Appellate Body as well documented by the United States.
There won’t be meaningful forward movement in WTO reform or restoration of the two-step dispute settlement system until Members are able to both understand why the Appellate Body has deviated so widely from its limited role and fashion solutions that will ensure a properly functioning dispute settlement system that supports the other functions of the WTO and doesn’t replace or handicap them. Yesterday’s announcement of the interim agreement does nothing to advance those underlying needs.
What started as a novel coronavirus in China at the end of 2019/beginning of 2020 has transformed into a global pandemic. Data compiled as of this morning (March 20, 2020) shows a tripling of confirmed cases globally in the last fifteen days from 102,123 cases to 305,225. The number of countries and territories reporting at least one confirmed case now stands at 177 — -41 in Africa, 36 in the Americas, 39 in Asia, 55 in Europe and 7 in Oceania. See European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Situation update worldwide, as of 22 March 2020, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases
The spread of COVID-19 in China has dramatically slowed in the last fifteen days. While there had been 80,759 confirmed cases of COVID-19 fifteen days ago in China (79.1% of the global totals), in the last fifteen days, China has reported only 731 additional confirmed case (0.36% of the new cases over the last fifteen days) with China’s share of global cases to date dropping sharply to 26.7% as of March 22. The European Union has shot into the number one slot for most confirmed cases and highest number of deaths. Data for the EU/EEA and UK show confirmed cases as of March 22nd at 141,858 (46.48% of global total) and with deaths at 7,319 (56.55% of the global total of 12,942). See European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Situation update for the EU/EEA and the UK, as of 22 March 2020, https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/cases-2019-ncov-eueea The United States is also finding a rapidly growing number of confirmed cases, numbers that are likely to grow dramatically higher as widespread testing abilities become available in the coming days and weeks. As of March 22, US confirmed cases were 26,747, 98.7% of which were identified in the last fifteen days.
With the rate of growth of the number of people infected with COVID-19 still accelerating in many parts of the world and with no currently available vaccine, a number of countries have taken increasingly stringent measures to try to control the spread of the virus. Moreover, many countries are facing growing challenges in terms of availability of testing supplies and ventilators, protective equipment (gloves, masks, etc.), medical facilities capable of handling severe cases, and simple workload for medical providers. Lockdowns of countries or cities or states/provinces for other than essential personnel has grown in an effort to flatten the number of cases and prevent medical systems from being overwhelmed. The wholesale closure of schools, restaurants, sports facilities and other venues is having high economic costs and obvious major challenges for significant parts of the populations in some countries. So too, travel restrictions first internationally and even in country have expanded. Social distancing is being mandated. Quarantining of individuals returning from foreign travel or who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive has disrupted lives for hundreds of thousands of people.
As reviewed in a recent Congressional Research paper entitled “COVID-19: An Overview of Trade-Related Measures to Address Access to Medical Goods,” some countries have implemented export restraints on medical supplies. Others have been reducing or eliminating tariffs on specific products in short supply in country. See, e.g.,https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/march/ustr-response-coronavirus-crisis. Some countries have also been modifying import procedures to permit expedited clearance of critical medical goods. And some countries have been prioritizing domestic production of items deemed critical. The March 20, 2020 CRS paper is enclosed below.
While there may be questions of WTO-compatibility of some of the actions being taken, the severity of the problem of the spread of coronavirus is leading to a wide range of actions by those nations hard hit by the virus as they attempt to safeguard the health and safety of their citizens.
International organizations like the World Trade Organization, businesses and governments are all having to rethink what can be done remotely, postponed or cancelled while efforts are ongoing to address the pandemic. The 12th Ministerial Conference that was to be held in Kazakhstan in June 2020 has been postponed for an unknown period of time. Meetings in the WTO have been cancelled for several weeks and efforts at virtual meetings are facing challenges. While efforts continue to make progress on fisheries subsidies talks, the challenges flowing from the pandemic may subconciously reduce the collective will to achieve a meaningful result (or any result) in the remainder of 2020.
Because of the severity of the virus on large portions of the population and the lack of a vaccine (with likely availability still a year or more away), efforts to estimate the effect of the virus on national or global economies has been an exercise in chasing a moving target. A March 4 release from UNCTAD looked at likely reductions in global trade from COVID-19 where the major disruption was in China and to supply chains dependent on Chinese inputs. A reduction in trade of $50 billion was estimated. https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcinf2020d1.pdf?user=1653. The March 4 estimate is dwarfed when one includes the collapse of the global airline industry, the harm to tourism in China, Europe and the US (and other countries) and the shuttering of sectors in major markets like Europe and the United States (e.g., restaurants and bars, sporting events, entertainment facilities (theme parks, movies, theater, etc.). In a March 9 statement from UNCTAD, concerns about reduced global growth (but still positive) put the likely cost of COVID-19 at $1 trillion with a worst case of $2 trillion. https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2300.
A mid-term update to the OECD’s economic forecast released in early March revised estimated global growth down from 2.9% to 2.5% and if widespread problems in Asia, Europe and the United States, a decline to a growth rate of just 1.5% due to COVID 19. But the interim projections had the EU and the US still with some GDP growth in 2020. 2 March 2020, OECD Interim Economic Assessment, Coronavirus – The World Economy at Risk, https://www.oecd.org/economic-outlook/.
Governments are taking aggressive steps to try to address the potential economic damage from their efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. Congress has passed one piece of legislation last week and will likely pass a second where the collective costs may exceed $2 trillion as Congress and the Administration try to deal with the challenge to millions of Americans suddenly unemployed, to the collapse of many small businesses and the challenges to major industries like the airline industry.
Similarly, the European Union is looking at actions that would involve hundreds of billions of Euros to address many of the same challenges.
With the collapsing of demand in major developed economies in Europe and the U.S. while these extraordinary measures restricting movement are in place, global trade has been and will continue to be significantly impacted. Articles indicate that China’s exports in January and February were reduced by 17.2% from prior year levels due in large part to COVID-19 (imports into China were down 4%) with spillover effects to many other countries who use Chinese inputs for further manufactured goods. See, e.g., Bloombergs, China’s Exports Slump As Coronavirus Forces Shutdown, March 6, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-07/china-s-jan-feb-exports-fall-17-2-y-y-in-dollars-est-16-2. While China has embarked on efforts to spur economic growth and growth in exports now that the number of cases seems to be under control in China, the rebound in China’s trade will certainly be slowed by the challenges being experienced in other major markets, particularly in the EU and the United States.
Still, any efforts of major trading nations to support the global trading system and limit restrictions as possible in these extraordinary circumstances is important, as are efforts of business associations to collaborate to address challenges to business operations from the virus.
Because past outbreaks appear to be poor examples of either the severity of the problems being faced by a number of countries or the length of time disruption will occur before economies hard hit can start to rebound, an air of uncertainty of unique dimensions is likely to continue to overhang global markets for a number of months and potentially longer. The best that may be possible in the global trade field is a substantial slump in traffic without major long-term barriers being introduced.
Here’s hoping that the “invisible enemy” that COVID-19 has been called by some proves addressable in the near term. Billions of people are watching and attempting to cope with lives often seriously disrupted. Helping the people of the world survive the health challenges posed by COVID-19 is obviously job one for governments around the world confronting rapidly increasing numbers of confirmed cases. Trade can assist in some important ways during such a crisis. Unfortunately, trade actions can be used in times of crisis to promote beggar-thy-neighbor actions which can make dependence on global supply chains and foreign sources of key products politically untenable. We are seeing both sides of how trade is perceived playing out in countries at the present time.
The GATT and the WTO were created by market economy countries, and the rules embodied within each reflect an effort to identify principles and rules that would promote reciprocal trade among its members. While there have long been members of the GATT and now the WTO that have not been market economies in fact, the problem of the distortions that occur to the global trading system from state-directed or non-market economies has come into sharp focus in the last twenty years with the accession and rapid growth of China and the accession of a number of other countries or the emulation of China’s model by existing members with substantial state direction, state ownership of business, state planning, forced technology transfer and massive subsidization.
While a number of WTO members have been concerned about the disconnect between the WTO rules-based system and such non-market economies where various conduct is not actually addressed by WTO rules, the United States has led the effort to obtain a reaffirmation of the market-oriented nature of the WTO and the need to address the distortions that exist but are not addressable under the WTO.
The U.S. Raises the Issue of Nonmarket Economies in 2018
But the United States has led on the broader issue. The U.S. teed the issue up in a presentation to the General Council during the summer of 2018 with the submission of a fourteen page paper. China’s Trade-Disruptive Economic Model, Communication from the United States, WT/GC/W/745. The paper was broken down into four sections. The first dealt with “non-market oriented conditions set by the government and the party” looking at the objectives of control and at control at the firm level. The second section deal with “non-market allocation of resources” and covered non-market allocation of key means of production, industrial policies, and the use of law as an instrument of the Party State. The third section reviews the “costs to WTO Members of China’s economic model” covering topics like non-reciprocal and protected markets, excess capacity created by the Chinese model and the extensive use of forced technology transfer. The forth section looked at “benefits to China of its economic model”. The U.S. paper and the additional document submitted by the U.S. (2017 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance) are included below.
While the effort of the U.S. has been vigorously opposed by China and other like minded Members of the WTO, to the United States and other major players like the European Union and Japan, there cannot be meaningful WTO reform without addressing the distortions flowing from economic systems that are not premised on market principles or where the state has a large role.
The March 3-4, 2020 General Council Meeting
The first meeting of the WTO’s General Council in 2020 will be on March 3-4 (an informal meeting was held on February 21st). On the agenda will be the United States paper in the form of a draft General Council Decision titled “The Importance of Market-Oriented Conditions to the World Trading System”. WT/GC/W/796. The text is copied below:
“THE IMPORTANCE OF MARKET-ORIENTED CONDITIONS TO THE WORLD TRADING SYSTEM DRAFT GENERAL COUNCIL DECISION
“Communication from the United States
“The following communication, dated 20 February 2020, is being circulated at the request of the delegation of the United States.
“The General Council decides to adopt this declaration on the importance of market-oriented conditions to the world trading system.
“The General Council recalls that the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established to promote Member economies’ participation in a world trading system ‘based on open, market-oriented policies and the commitments set out in the Uruguay Round Agreements and Decisions’.1
“The General Council also recalls that the establishment of the WTO reflected Members’ ‘desire to operate in a fairer and more open multilateral trading system for the benefit and welfare of their peoples’ and, during the period of time during which the Uruguay Round was being negotiated, ‘significant measures of economic reform and autonomous trade liberalization were implemented in many developing countries and formerly centrally planned economies’.2
“The General Council expresses its serious concerns with non-market-oriented policies and practices that have resulted in damage to the world trading system and lead to severe overcapacity, create unfair competitive conditions for workers and businesses, hinder the development and use of innovative technologies, and undermine the proper functioning of international trade.
“The General Council affirms that market-oriented conditions are fundamental to a free, fair, and mutually advantageous world trading system, to ensure a level playing field for Members’ workers and businesses.
“The General Council affirms Members’ citizens and businesses should operate under market-oriented conditions and notes the following elements indicate and are important so that market-oriented conditions exist for market participants:3
“i. decisions of enterprises on prices, costs, inputs, purchases, and sales are freely determined and made in response to market signals;
“ii. decisions of enterprises on investments are freely determined and made in response to market signals;
“iii. prices of capital, labor, technology, and other factors are market-determined;
“iv. capital allocation decisions of or affecting enterprises are freely determined and made in response to market signals;
“v. enterprises are subject to internationally recognized accounting standards, including independent accounting;
“vi. enterprises are subject to market-oriented and effective corporation law, bankruptcy law, competition law, and private property law, and may enforce their rights through impartial legal processes, such as an independent judicial system;
“vii. enterprises are able to freely access relevant information on which to base their business decisions; and
“viii. there is no significant government interference in enterprise business decisions described above.
“The General Council agrees to reaffirm Members’ commitment to open, market-oriented policies in order to achieve market-oriented conditions that are critical to ensure a level playing field for workers and businesses and a fairer and more open world trading system that benefits their peoples.
“1 Marrakesh Declaration of 15 April 1994, fifth preambular paragraph. “2 Marrakesh Declaration, paras. 2 and 4. 3″ This decision is without prejudice to the rights or obligations of any Member under the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization.”
While a lot of attention remains on reform to the dispute settlement system to permit a return to a two-tiered level of review of Member actions, there has been a growing recognition that significant reform is needed for the WTO to restore its relevance in a rapidly changing global environment. While reform needs to address updating of rules to cover new areas and making existing rules more effective, there cannot be meaningful reform without addressing the disconnect between Members who operate on market economy principles and those that don’t.
While it is highly unlikely that in a consensus based system Members with economic systems that are not premised on market principles will agree to address the massive distortions their economic systems create, the future of the WTO depends on finding ways to address the differences and distortions. Look for a contentious General Council meeting on this topic.