Alicia Nicholls

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has this week called on Members, including those in the Caribbean, to notify trade and trade-related measures they are implementing nationally to fight the spread of COVID-19 and to support their economies during these unprecedented times.

This is part of the WTO’s efforts to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on global trade. It is also consistent with the WTO’s role as the guardian of the multilateral trading system by, inter alia, promoting transparency of Members’ trade laws and policies.

To this end, both this initiative and the Director General’s decision to establish a special taskforce of experts from across the WTO Secretariat to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on trade flows and the overall global economy are welcomed.

What has been notified so far?

According to the WTO’s new COVID-19 and world trade page, the following Members have notified trade/trade-related COVID-19 measures thus far: Albania, Brazil, Kyrgyz Republic, Mauritius, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.

As many countries turn inward to fight the outbreak, it is little surprise, though unfortunate, that many of the notified measures are trade-restricting. The majority of measures have been notified as technical barriers to trade (TBTs), but sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures and quantitative restrictions have also been notified. Several of the notifications relate to export bans or licensing arrangements for the export of medical equipment, while others restrict imports of live fish and fish products, mammals and exotic pets from certain affected countries, particularly China where the virus originated.

WTO Secretariat List of Members’ Trade-related COVID-19 measures

The WTO Secretariat has also compiled its own list of Members’ trade and trade-related COVID-19 measures based on official and other public sources. The list as at March 26 may be found here.

In addition to some trade-restrictive measures, the list shows that there have also been some trade-enabling measures implemented, such as reductions or eliminations of customs duties on medical supplies.

Another example of a trade-enabling measure is Argentina’s suspension of its anti-dumping duty on imports of hypodermic syringes from China and parenteral solutions from Brazil and Mexico.

The wider perspective

More broadly, there has been growing concern over bans or restrictions being implemented by some countries on the export of medical supplies, such as pharmaceutical drugs, disinfectants and face masks. An insightful analysis by Global Trade Report (2020) found that “as of 21 March 2020, 46 export curbs on medical supplies have been introduced by 54 governments since the beginning of the year”.

Let us consider a few examples. The European Union (EU) has temporarily introduced export authorisation requirements for exports of personal protective equipment outside of that bloc. Amidst a surge in global demand, India has announced an export ban on the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, believed by some to be a possible cure for COVID-19 but this remains scientifically unproven. The United Kingdom (UK) has banned the parallel exporting of certain medicines critically for treating COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.

Export bans are now being extended to food items, which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned could cause a global food shortage. For instance, in order to ensure enough rice supplies during the COVID-19 outbreak, Vietnam has halted the signing of new rice export contracts until March 28th. Kazakhstan has banned the export of key food items.

What about the Caribbean?

Although announced as temporary measures, these developments are particularly disconcerting for import-dependent small States like those in the Caribbean which not only rely on the importation of food products, but depend on the importation of medical supplies needed to combat the spread of the highly contagious virus. These export bans and restrictions will not only restrict the availability of these needed medical supplies, but make sourcing them more expensive, with dire implications for affected importing countries’ ability to save lives.

How have Caribbean countries responded to the COVID-19 crisis to date? No Caribbean WTO Member has notified any COVID-19 trade-related measures so far. Indeed, Caribbean countries’ policy responses to the crisis have been largely in the form of fiscal stimulus packages and economic and social support for affected workers and businesses, as opposed to any export-related measures.

Nonetheless, to assist the WTO Secretariat in its monitoring of Members’ trade/trade-related COVID-19 policy responses and to comply with our general notification obligations under the various WTO Agreements, it is advisable that our governments notify any COVID-19 trade/trade-related measures or economic support measures which may have a possible trade impact.

Caribbean countries should also advocate for greater international cooperation to ensure that they and other poorer countries are able to access needed medical supplies and foods.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant. You can also read more of her commentaries at www.caribbeantradelaw.com and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.