Trade Policy at Work

Multilateralism at the COVID-19 Pandemic Crossroad

This study reflects on what the COVID-19 pandemic has meant for trade multilateralism, and lessons to be drawn for the future. It reviews trade disruptions which resulted from the pandemic across economic sectors (e.g. agriculture, services, e-commerce, transport), examining some of the trade-related response measures adopted by members. Finally, the author reflects on the implications of the crisis on the upcoming WTO Ministerial agenda, including prospects for a comprehensive WTO response to Covid-19 as well as current discussions on a proposed TRIPS Waiver.

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference to be held two years after MC11 in 2017, is still to be held, five years on. Its continued postponement is in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, declared by the World Health Organisation in March 2020 to be a global pandemic. World-wide restrictions such as minimum contact distances, mask wearing and the need for people to get vaccinated introduced to minimize the spread of the pandemic presented the WTO negotiators with a whole new terrain of uncertainties and affected the conduct of negotiations. A pandemic first considered by many as only a temporary inconvenience may turn out to be endemic.

No economic sector could escape the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic which gave rise to huge disruptions in regional and global supply chains, the proliferation of trade-restrictions, reduced income, a decline in inflows of remittances, and difficulties in securing essential goods, including vaccines and medicines. The pandemic brought to the fore important elements and lessons about multilateral trade, such as the indispensable nature of multilateralism; the importance of services that enable online supply; the need to bridge the digital divide within and across countries; the importance of transparency; as well as the importance of greater global cooperation in the production and distribution of essential products such as food and medicine.

Though seemingly logical that WTO members’ COVID-19 pandemic experiences would inform their approach to the long-standing negotiating agenda, the reality is that members’ positions, and their arguments in support of those positions, have not changed even as all the members acknowledge the socio-economic crisis caused by the pandemic. However, to their credit, in 2021 WTO members embarked on a process to comprehensively respond to the pandemic, while some of the members tabled a proposal to waive certain obligations under the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights to make medical products, including vaccines, more affordable in the fight against the pandemic. Otherwise, the negotiating agenda has remained the same since MC11, with active discussions in the long-standing areas of agriculture; fisheries subsidies; special and differential treatment for developing countries; WTO reform and e-commerce, to name a few.

WTO multilateralism, traditionally conducted in the form of negotiators sitting at a table, had to adapt when this became impossible to do in the context of the restrictions that curtailed the holding of in-person meetings. Together with the rest of the world, WTO members had no choice but to turn to virtual means of holding meetings through the use of internet-based platforms. As uncertainty surrounds whether things will return to what they were in the pre-COVID-19 years, or whether the world is in an entirely new normal where the environment has permanently changed, virtual means of negotiation may endure long past the pandemic considering the current heavy reliance on digital technologies. It would seem logical for WTO members to embrace virtual means where their positive impact in the negotiations has been demonstrated, even though it is unlikely that in-person meetings will be abandoned taking into account some positive intangible elements associated with such meetings.

The solution to the continuing gaps in members’ positions even in the run-up to MC12 is unlikely to be found in the early convening of MC12 alone. The solution continues to lie in the need for political will on the part of the WTO members to take the difficult decisions that could lead to agreement in the negotiations.