Monitoring report shows continued but slow rollback of COVID-19 related trade restrictions

WTO members showed restraint in the imposition of new trade-restrictive measures related to COVID-19 and continued to roll back restrictions adopted earlier in the pandemic, according to the Director-General’s annual overview report on trade-related developments. Despite a slowdown in new trade restrictions unrelated to the pandemic, the stockpile of unrepealed restrictive measures that has accumulated since the monitoring exercise started in 2009 now affects traded merchandise worth an estimated USD 1.5 trillion, or nearly 9 % of world imports.

The report, which covers the period between mid-October 2020 and mid-October 2021, was presented to WTO members at a December 9, 2021 meeting of the WTO’s Trade Policy Review Body (TPRB).

In presenting the report to members, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of COVID-19 related trade facilitating measures had outnumbered trade-restrictive ones by nearly two to one. She noted that of the 117 export restrictions WTO members and observers introduced, 45 export restrictions remained in place, covering products such as medicines, other medical supplies and personal protective equipment. “I urge members to roll back these restrictions as soon as possible as they may be hampering the COVID-19 response, including vaccine production and deployment,” she said.

“The monitoring report makes clear that the multilateral trading system has been, and continues to be, an important factor in our response to the pandemic,” the Director-General said. “But we also know that trade and the WTO can and must do more to foster production of, and equitable access to, sufficient quantities of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. This is why I have urged members to reach an agreement on pandemic response, including intellectual property issues, by the end of February.”

The report notes that since the outbreak of the pandemic, 399 COVID-19 trade and trade-related measures in goods have been implemented by WTO members and observers. Of these, 262 (66%) were of a trade-facilitating nature and 137 (34 %) could be considered trade restrictive. Export restrictions accounted for 85 % of all restrictive measures recorded – 117 measures in total – of which 59 % had been repealed by mid-October 2021.

Despite the rollback, a total of 56 trade restrictions are still in place, of which 45 are export restrictions. Around 22 % of the trade-facilitating measures have also been terminated, with 205 trade-facilitating measures still in force.

The trade coverage of ongoing COVID-19 trade-facilitating measures still in force was estimated at USD 112.1 billion while the coverage of trade-restrictive measures stood at USD 92.3 billion.

During the period under review, only a limited number of new COVID-19 trade and trade-related measures were recorded for WTO members on goods, mainly consisting of extensions or terminations of measures introduced early in the pandemic. Similarly, the flow of new COVID-19-related support measures by WTO members and observers to mitigate the pandemic’s social and economic impacts decreased over the review period.

Services sectors were heavily impacted by the pandemic, and 138 (90 %) of the 153 reported COVID-19-related measures affecting trade in services put in place in response to the pandemic remain in force. During the review period, 29 new COVID-19-related services measures were recorded by the WTO Secretariat.

With respect to non-COVID-19-related trade measures, 124 new trade-facilitating and 103 trade-restrictive measures on goods were recorded. The trade coverage of the import-facilitating measures introduced during the review period was estimated at USD 481.6 billion and the coverage of import-restrictive measures stood at USD 105.9 billion. Although the trade coverage of new import restrictions is relatively low, the stockpile of import restrictions implemented since 2009 and still in force was estimated at USD 1.5 trillion, representing some 8.7 % of world imports as of mid-October 2021.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.