Top economists warn COVID-19 impacts will be severe and long-lasting for developing countries



COVID-19 impacts will be severe and long-lasting for developing countries, members of the United Nations High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs said on Friday.

They spoke during a meeting convened by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which comprises twenty renowned thought leaders in economic and social fields.

In their two-day meeting, Board members explored various approaches to confront the once-in-a-century crisis, with inequalities, climate change and lack of access to COVID vaccines topping the priority list. The experts, who include a Nobel laureate, former Heads of State and Government and other renowned scholars, called for concerted and immediate actions to respond to challenges for a green recovery.

The Board’s recommendations will inform flagship UN reports on the global socioeconomic situation and future and will contribute to the Secretary-General’s efforts to advance the common agenda and reinvigorate multilateralism.

“For most of the world, this is not over. This catastrophe is continuing,” stressed Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “In the North, there are signs of economic recovery as vaccination rates increase, but in the developing world this crisis is just starting and the world needs to respond with more urgency.” 

Board members recognized that the global vaccination progress will decide the speed of recovery and opening of borders for travel and trade. But disparity in access to vaccines threatens to hinder the recovery and exacerbate inequalities between countries. Board members agreed that a huge push to expand access to vaccines, especially for developing countries should be the international community’s top priority. 

“Disparities around the world in terms of pandemic response and access to vaccines have shown that the international community needs to make fundamental changes to our rules and how we implement them,” said Joseph Stiglitz, economics professor at Columbia University and Nobel laureate.

In dealing with the economic fallout of the crisis, some countries have deployed massive resources – estimated at an unprecedented $16 trillion – to prop up their economies, while others have been left without strong support to recover. Fiscally constrained, the developing countries face much poorer prospects for recovery and economic growth over the coming years than those of developed countries and are running a risk of a lost decade. 

The global community’s response to this looming debt crisis is encouraging, but not sufficient and risks leaving out middle-income countries, the Board warned. To create fiscal space for investments in recovery and the Sustainable Development Goals, progress on corporate taxation is needed, and the Board members found the recent steps towards a global minimum corporate tax promising. 

Within countries, the pandemic has hit unequally too. Beyond the uneven burdens of hospitalization and death, women have been forced out of work disproportionately, while children from disadvantaged groups have faced greater barriers in accessing education. 

So far, rescue packages have not been successful in reducing inequalities and more must be done to prioritize investments in people and to link social inclusion with growth strategies, the Board members agreed, warning that any premature moves to austerity, as seen after the 2008 Financial Crisis, risk hurting the poorest.

“Ensuring fiscal space for social protection measures is important, but we should not overlook the productive basis of employment and incomes,” said Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University. “Instead, more consideration is needed to examine what is preventing our economies from generating good jobs – and informality is clearly part of that cause.” 

“The idea of building back better, has to be nested within the design of social contracts,” said Mariana Mazzucato, Professor of Economics at the University College London (UCL), noting that recovery plans and bailouts need to have conditions attached to create more sustainable and inclusive outcomes, such as investments in climate response. “We should use tax policies to ‘tilt’ rather than ‘level’ the playing field, to reward the organizations that are moving in the direction required,” she said.

In the recovery, it is crucial to create a bridge between the short term and medium-term challenges, according to the Board experts. Carbon neutrality, for instance, represents a crucial, immediate shift in development pathways towards a medium-term goal. Board members urged more attention to its implications for low-income countries. 

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