Governments around the world have been struggling with the health and economic costs of COVID-19 pandemic. Multilateral institutions generate a great deal of information on the pandemic and its effects and many countries do as well.
While the United States went through a huge resurgence of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the June-August 2020 time period, there have been smaller resurgences in a number of other developed countries in the July – August time frame including Australia, Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Spain and others. At the same time, the pandemic is raging in much of the Americas (other than Canada), in India, in some parts of Asia and increasingly in a number of African countries. While it is likely that the world total on new cases peaked in the two weeks ending August 16, the two weeks that end on August 30 will be very close to those numbers (3.6 million cases).
Most global economic outlook projections have been premised on the pandemic’s worst economic effects being in the 2nd quarter of 2020 with a strong recovery in the third quarter and a continued rebound through 2021. Those projections are increasingly at risk as major economies struggle to return to normal without the need for further economic restrictions to address new surges of the pandemic. In the United States, despite efforts by the House of Representatives to pass legislation several months ago to continue the stimulus to the economy to help those unemployed and avoid massive evictions, help schools prepare for the fall season and state and local governments deal with the massive shortfall in revenue among other matters, the Senate didn’t take up legislation until late July and had trouble agreeing on any additional funding. The impasse between the Democrats and the Republicans and White House has led to limited if any support in August and heading into the fall with the potential for millions of additional job losses and reopenings that are not adequately prepared. The opening of schools in recent weeks has had a number of challenges and many schools are proceeding virtually in an effort to remain safe but putting downward pressure on the economy. Thus, the global challenges are likely to worsen in the remaining months of 2020 making the global economic recovery slower and later than has been hoped.
The first pages of the CRS report (pages 5-8, Overview (excluding Table 1)) do an excellent job of reviewing the challenges for the United States and the world and recopied below.
The World Health Organization (WHO) first declared COVID-19 a world health emergency in January 2020. Since then, the emergency has evolved into a global public health and economic crisis that has affected the $90 trillion global economy beyond anything experienced in nearly a century. Governments are attempting to balance often-competing policy objectives between addressing the public health crisis and economic considerations that include, but are not limited to these:
- Confronting ballooning budget deficits weighed against increasing spending to support unemployed workers and social safety nets.
- Providing financial support for national health systems that are under pressure to develop vaccines while also funding efforts to care for and safeguard citizens.
- Implementing monetary and fiscal policies that support credit markets and sustain economic activity, while also assisting businesses under financial distress.
- Implementing fiscal policies to stimulate economic activity, while consumers in developed economies sharply increase their savings as households face limited spending opportunities, or a form of involuntary saving, and concerns over their jobs, incomes, and the course of their economies, or precautionary saving.
- Intervention by central banks and monetary authorities generally in sovereign debt and corporate bond markets to stabilize markets and ensure liquidity are raising concerns among some analysts that this activity is compromising the ability of the markets to perform their traditional functions of pricing risk and allocating capital.
- Fiscal and monetary policies that have been adopted to date to address the immediate impact of the health crisis compared with the mix of such policies between assisting households, firms, or state and local governments that may be needed going forward should the health and economic crises persist.
Policymakers and financial and commodity market participants generally have been hopeful of a global economic recovery starting in the third quarter of 2020, assuming there is not a second wave of infections. Some forecasts, however, raise the prospects that the pandemic could negatively affect global economic growth more extensively and for a longer period of time with a slow, drawn-out recovery. Without a quick resolution of the health crisis, the economic crisis may persist longer than most forecasters have assumed and require policymakers to weigh the most effective mix of additional fiscal and monetary policies that may be required without the benefit of a relevant precedent to follow. Additional measures may have to balance the competing requirements of households, firms, and state and local governments. Various U.S. States reversed course in late June to impose or reimpose social distancing guidelines and close down businesses that had begun opening as a result of a rise in new confirmed cases of COVID-19, raising the prospect of a delayed recovery.
In its July 29 policy statement and subsequent press conference, the U.S. Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) indicated that the rise in COVID-19 cases in the United States since mid-June was weighing down economic growth and that, ‘The path of the economy will depend significantly on the course of the virus. The ongoing public health crisis will weigh heavily on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.’
Differences in policy approaches between countries are threatening to inflict longer-term damage to the global economy by impairing international political, trade, and economic relations, particularly between countries that promote nationalism and those that argue for a coordinated international response to the pandemic. Policy differences are also straining relations between developed and developing economies and between northern and southern members of the Eurozone, challenging alliances and conventional concepts of national security, and raising questions about the future of global leadership.
In some countries, the pandemic has elevated the importance of public health as a national security issue and as a national economic priority on a par with traditional national security concerns such as terrorism, cyberattacks, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The pandemic-related economic and human costs could have long-term repercussions for economies through the tragic loss of life and job losses that derail careers and permanently shutter businesses. Fiscal and monetary measures implemented to prevent a financial crisis and sustain economic activity may also inadvertently be adding to income and wealth disparities. Within some countries, the economic fallout may be adding to widening racial and socio-economic cleavages and increasing social unrest. In speaking about these costs for Americans, Federal Reserve Chairman Powell said on May 19, 2020,
‘Since the pandemic arrived in force just two months ago, more than 20 million people have lost their jobs, reversing nearly 10 years of job gains. This precipitous drop in economic activity has caused a level of pain that is hard to capture in words, as lives are upended amid great uncertainty about the future.’
The virus was first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, but has been detected in over 200 countries and all U.S. states.3 In early March 2020, the focal point of infections shied from China to Europe, especially Italy, but by April, the focus had shied to the United States, where the number of infections was accelerating. The infection has sickened more than 20.2 million people, about one-fourth in the United States, with over 800,000 fatalities. At one point, more than 80 countries had closed their borders to arrivals from countries with infections, ordered businesses to close, instructed their populations to self-quarantine, and closed schools to an estimated 1.5 billion children.
Over the 22-week period from mid-March to mid-August 2020, 56.3 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the number of insured unemployed workers was 14.8 million in mid-August, down from a peak of 25 million in mid-May, as indicated in Table 1. The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs in the week ending August 1, totaled 28 million, up from 1.7 million in the comparable week in 2019. The insured unemployment rate was 10.2%, also down from the peak reached in early May. On May 8, 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April 2020, pushing the total number of unemployed Americans to 23 million, 6 out of a total civilian labor force of 158 million. The increase pushed the national unemployment rate to 14.7% (with some caveats), the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. On June 6, BLS reported that nonfarm employment increased by 2.5 million in May, reducing the total number of unemployed Americans to 21 million and pushing the unemployment rate down to 13.5%, again with some caveats. On July 2, the BLS also released data on the employment situation in June, indicating that nonfarm payroll rose by 4.8 million, lowering the unemployment rate to 11.5%; on August 7, the BLS reported that nonfarm payrolls rose by 1.8 Million in July, lowering the number of unemployed individuals to 16.4 million and the unemployment rate to 10.2%.
Preliminary data also indicate that U.S. GDP fell by 9.5% in the second quarter of 2020 from the previous quarter, but at an annualized rate of 33%, the largest quarterly decline in U.S. GDP recorded over the past 70 years. In its May 27 Beige Book analysis, the Federal Reserve (Fed) reported that economic activity had fallen sharply in each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts.
In Europe, governments have attempted a phased reopening of businesses. After several months of data indicating an economic rebound had begun in the Eurozone, surveys of business activity in August reportedly indicated that the recovery was slowing amid a rise in new COVID-19 cases and countries reimposing new quarantines and lockdowns in various parts of the Euro area. Industrial production across the Eurozone as a whole fell by 17% in April, raising the annual decline to 28%, surpassing the contraction experienced during the global financial crisis. The European Commission’s July 8, 2020, forecast projected that EU economic growth in 2020 could contract by 8.3% and only partially recover in 2021. In addition, a July forecast by the European Commission forecasts a larger drop in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 among European economies than it had forecasted in its spring report, with a less vibrant recovery in 2021. Second quarter data indicate that economic growth in the EU contracted by 11.7% from the first quarter and by 14.1% compared with the same quarter in 2019. Second quarter data indicate the UK economy contracted by 20.4%, the largest quarterly decline on record.
After protracted talks, European leaders agreed on July 21 to a new €750 billion (about $859 billion) pandemic economic assistance package to support European economies. Second quarter data also indicated that employment among the EU countries fell by 2.6%, or 5.5 million jobs. The jobs data, however, does not include roughly 45 million people, or a third of the workforce in Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain, currently covered by employment protection programs. Similarly, Japan reported on August 17 that its economy contracted by 7.8% in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the previous quarter, or at an annual rate of 27.8%.
On May 27, 2020, European Central Bank (ECB) President Christine Lagarde warned that the Eurozone economy could contact by 8% to 12% in 2020, a level of damage to the Eurozone economy that Lagarde characterized as being unsurpassed in peacetime. Foreign investors have pulled an estimated $26 billion out of developing Asian economies not including more than $16 billion out of India, increasing concerns about a major economic recession in Asia. Some estimates indicate that 29 million people in Latin America could fall into poverty, reversing a decade of efforts to narrow income inequality. Some analysts are also concerned that Africa, are escaping the initial spread of infections, is now facing a sharp increase in rates of infection outside South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, and Ghana, where most of the infections have occurred to date.
The world is going through the worst economic contraction since World War II. The pandemic has affected the health of people around the world, with close to 24 million confirmed cases and likely a multiple of that considering the extent of infections in people without symptoms. More than 800,000 people have died, a number which is also likely to be low based on the number of people who die but never are hospitalized and thus not likely reported as COVID-19 related in many countries.
Most developed countries have followed the tried and true methodology of aggressive testing, tracing, and quarantining to slow the spread of the pandemic and then drastically reduce the number of new cases. For most developed countries this included some form of stay at home orders, social distancing,
mask wearing with severe negative effects on many economic sectors. The United States has largely been alone among developed countries in having a generally poor, unorganized and mixed message response to the spread of the coronavirus. Yet other developed countries, as they have reopened, have experienced some of the rebound in cases that the United States experienced on steroids these last three months. The result has been deep economic contraction in the second quarter of 2020 and slower economic recovery likely in the third and fourth quarters of 2020.
At the same time, developing countries have become the center of the pandemic in recent months and may face greater health care challenges because of their infrastructure. These countries are facing severe economic contractions as well both from internal demand declines and from international market contractions.
While the billions being poured into development of vaccines and therapeutics will hopefully result in tools to reduce and then stop the spread of the pandemic, 2021 is the early side of likely massive amounts of vaccines and therapeutics being available.
With the ongoing economic challenges, worsening debt structure of nearly all countries and the collapse of many businesses and employment (e.g., travel and tourism employment is projected to drop by 100- 120 million jobs in 2020), the world needs greater coordination of recovery strategies, increased attention on keeping global markets open (and limiting export restraints) and renewed attention to see that vaccines and therapeutics are equitably available to all at affordable prices as new products become available.
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