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Europe and Central Asia: Health Systems, Safety Nets, and Support to Businesses All Critical

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Decisive policy measures that prioritize investments in health care systems and provide safety nets for people, especially the most vulnerable, are critical to mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic in Europe and Central Asia, says the Spring 2020 Economic Update for the region.

In addition, countries in the region can help sustain economic activity by supporting the private sector with temporary business credits, tax cuts, or tax payment deferrals. Small and medium enterprises that are impacted could benefit significantly from targeted government subsidies.

“During these exceptionally difficult times, it is imperative for policymakers to act decisively,” says Cyril Muller, World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia. “This means moving rapidly to strengthen health systems and social safety nets, supporting the private sector, and preserving financial stability and confidence — all critical to people’s lives.”

Projections of the economic implications of COVID-19 are subject to significant uncertainty. Therefore, the report produces simulation exercises to illustrate the range of growth outcomes that may materialize as a result of the pandemic. *Scenarios suggest regional growth will fall into a recession in 2020, contracting to between −4.4 and −2.8 percent, held back by the coronavirus pandemic, before rebounding in 2021 as policy measures are introduced, global commodity prices gradually recover, and trade strengthens.

“Social distancing and closing of non-essential businesses and schools are necessary measures to contain the spread of the pandemic and save lives,” says Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, World Bank Chief Economist for Europe and Central Asia. “At the same time, policies must seek to minimize the economic costs of these measures and ensure the recovery is quick rather than prolonged, once the pandemic is over.”

Supportive measures such as cash transfers or healthcare subsidies, to help vulnerable people and families, and temporary business credit, and tax breaks to businesses will be critical to cushion the downturn and preserve jobs, says the report.

The COVID-19 pandemic is occurring at an already fragile time for the region. Growth in the emerging market and developing economies of Europe and Central Asia decelerated to 2.2 percent in 2019. Since February, the region has faced an increasingly uphill battle to cope with both the immediate health crisis and the long-term challenges brought about by the global pandemic.

The World Bank Group is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response, increase disease surveillance, improve public health interventions, and help the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. It is deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over the next 15 months to help countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

* Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic circumstances within countries and regions are fluid and change on a day-by-day basis. The analysis in this report is based on the latest country-level data available as of 20 March 2020.

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Thailand: Growth in Jobs Critical for Sustained COVID-19 Recovery

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Thailand’s economy was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and is estimated to have shrunk by 6.5 percent in 2020. Growth is projected to expand by 4.0 percent in 2021, according to Restoring Incomes; Recovering Jobs, the latest edition of the World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor,” launched today. The report stresses that sustained recovery in employment will be essential to helping the country bounce back in 2021 and 2022.

In 2020, weak global demand, the sharp decline in international tourist arrivals, and domestic mobility restrictions depressed goods and services exports and private consumption. Exports and private investment are estimated to have declined by 18.5 percent and 4.4 percent respectively, while household consumption declined by 1.3 percent.

The resulting declines in income have created economic hardship for many, though the Government has made good progress in implementing a substantial package of measures to support households and firms. Nevertheless, projections indicate that an additional 1.5 million people may have entered poverty in 2020 due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, based on a poverty line of US$5.50 (2011 PPP) per day.

This year, the economy is expected to recover gradually, despite the recent second outbreak of COVID-19, and growth is forecast to pick up further to 4.7 percent in 2022. However, the recovery remains vulnerable to downside risks, including from an extended resurgence of the pandemic resulting in a prolonged stagnation in tourism and domestic activity, a weaker-than-expected global recovery that could lead to continuing trade and supply chain disruptions, and high household debt levels.  

The pandemic’s impact has had a significant impact on Thailand’s labor market, with a particularly large increase in unemployment among young people. Hours worked fell, as did monthly incomes. Hours worked have not fully recovered, and employment in several sectors including manufacturing remains smaller than a year ago. This means the labor market is in a vulnerable position to confront any future shocks including a resurgence of COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 crisis and its economic impact have highlighted a key vulnerability for Thailand: the declining number of working-aged people, which compounds the challenge of recovering the economic losses of the last year,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “Improvements in employment, productivity and labor incomes, especially among the poor, will be necessary for a sustainable recovery.”  

The report recommends that in the short term, the government put in place training programs to improve workers skills and provide financial support while they get back to work. Ongoing efforts are required to ensure that education and training matches the needs of employers.

In the longer term, the government can increase employment in the care sector, make childcare more accessible and decrease its cost to help increase female labor force employment. The report also recommends increasing the retirement age and putting in place performance-based compensation schemes and flexible working arrangements to extend the working lives of older people.

“The decline in the working age population will reduce labor supply and economic output over the coming decades. Good jobs will need to be created in high-productivity sectors associated with Thailand’s emerging knowledge economy. Policies to boost labor productivity and labor market participation of older people and women can help promote a sustainable recovery from COVID-19, while addressing challenges associated with an aging population,” according to Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank Senior Economist for Thailand.

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The World Needs to Wake Up to Long-Term Risks

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For the last 15 years the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has been warning the world about the dangers of pandemics. In 2020, we saw the effects of ignoring preparation and ignoring long-term risks. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only claimed millions of lives, but it also widened long-standing health, economic and digital disparities. Billions of caregivers, workers and students – especially minorities who were disadvantaged before the pandemic – are now at risk of missing pathways to the new and fairer societies that the recovery could unlock. According to the Global Risks Report 2021, released today, these developments may further impede the global cooperation needed to address long-term challenges such as environmental degradation.

When it comes to technology access and digital skills, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” risks widening and challenging social cohesion. This will particularly affect young people worldwide, as this group faces its second global crisis in a generation and could miss out altogether on opportunities in the next decade.

Financial, digital and reputational pressures resulting from COVID-19 also threaten to leave behind many companies and their workforces in the markets of the future. While these potential disparities could cause societal fragmentation for states, an increasingly tense and fragile geopolitical outlook will also hinder the global recovery if mid-sized powers lack a seat at the global table.

Once again, environmental risks dominate by impact and likelihood, looking ahead towards the next decade. Societal fractures, uncertainty and anxiety will make it more difficult to achieve the coordination needed to address the planet’s continued degradation.

For the first time, the report also rates risks according to when respondents perceive they will pose a critical threat to the world. Clear and present dangers (0-2 years) reveal concern about lives and livelihoods – among them infectious diseases, employment crises, digital inequality and youth disillusionment. In the medium-term (3-5 years), respondents believe the world will be threatened by knock-on economic and technological risks, which may take several years to materialize – such as asset bubble bursts, IT infrastructure breakdown, price instability and debt crises. Existential threats (5-10 years) – weapons of mass destruction, state collapse, biodiversity loss and adverse technological advances – dominate long-term concerns.

“In 2020, the risk of a global pandemic became reality, something this report has been highlighting since 2006. We know how difficult it is for governments, business and other stakeholders to address such long-term risks, but the lesson here is for all of us to recognize that ignoring them doesn’t make them less likely to happen. As governments, businesses and societies begin to emerge from the pandemic, they must now urgently shape new economic and social systems that improve our collective resilience and capacity to respond to shocks while reducing inequality, improving health and protecting the planet. To help meet this challenge, next week’s event, The Davos Agenda, will mobilize global leaders to shape the principles, policies and partnerships needed in this new context,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.

The report also reflects on the responses to COVID-19, drawing lessons designed to bolster global resilience. These lessons include formulating analytical frameworks, fostering risk champions, building trust through clear and consistent communication, and creating new forms of partnership. The key risks outlined in the report are complemented with recommendations to help countries, businesses, and the international community to act, rather than react, in the face of cross-cutting risks. The report closes with an overview of “frontier risks” – nine high-impact, low-probability events drawn from expert foresight exercises – including geomagnetic disruption, accidental wars and exploitation of brain-machine interfaces.

“The acceleration of the digital transformation promises large benefits, such as for example the creation of almost 100 million new jobs by 2025. At the same time however, digitalization may displace some 85 million jobs, and since 60% of adults still lack basic digital skills the risk is the deepening of existing inequalities,” said Peter Giger, Group Chief Risk Officer, Zurich Insurance Group. “The biggest long-term risk remains a failure to act on climate change. There is no vaccine against climate risks, so post-pandemic recovery plans must focus on growth aligning with sustainability agendas to build back better.”

“Economic and societal fallout from COVID-19 will profoundly impact the way organizations interact with clients and colleagues long after any vaccine rollout. As businesses transform their workplaces, new vulnerabilities are emerging. Rapid digitalization is exponentially increasing cyber exposures, supply chain disruption is radically altering business models, and a rise in serious health issues has accompanied employees’ shift to remote working,” said Carolina Klint, Risk Management Leader, Continental Europe, Marsh. “Every business will need to strengthen and constantly review their risk mitigation strategies if they are to improve their resilience to future shocks.”

“The pandemic in 2020 was a stress-test that shook the foundations of economies and societies worldwide. Rebuilding resilience to systemic shocks will require significant funding, international cooperation and greater social cohesion. Resilience will also hinge on the continued growth in connectivity worldwide, as we know that economies that digitized early performed relatively better in 2020,” said Lee Hyung-hee, President, Social Value Committee, SK Group. “If the continued deployment of 5G and AI is to emerge as an engine of growth, however, we must urgently bridge digital divides and address ethical risks.”

The Global Risks Report 2021 has been developed with the invaluable support of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Advisory Board. It also benefits from ongoing collaboration with its Strategic Partners Marsh McLennan, SK Group and Zurich Insurance Group and its academic advisers at the Oxford Martin School (University of Oxford), the National University of Singapore and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center (University of Pennsylvania).

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Air travel down 60 per cent, as airline industry losses top $370 billion

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A new report from the UN’s air transportation agency confirms there was a “dramatic” fall in international air travel due to COVID-19, of around 60 per cent over the course of last year, to levels last seen in 2003.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said on Friday, that as seating capacity fell by around 50 per cent last year, that left just 1.8 billion passengers taking flights through 2020, compared with around 4.5 billion in 2019.

That adds up to a staggering financial loss to the industry of around $370 billion, “with airports and air navigation services providers losing a further 115 billion and 13 billion, respectively”, said ICAO in a press statement.

Grounded in March

As the coronavirus began its global spread, the air industry came to a virtual standstill by the end of March. Following widespread national lockdowns, by April the overall number of passengers had fallen 92 per cent from 2019 levels, an average of the 98 per cent drop-off seen in international traffic and 87 per cent fall in domestic air travel.

There was a moderate rebound during the summer travel period, but recovery was short-lived. “Sectoral recovery became more vulnerable and volatile again during the last four months of 2020, indicating an overall double-dip recession for the year”, ICAO said.

Disparity at home and abroad

The report notes “a persistent disparity between domestic and international air travel impacts resulting from the more stringent international measures in force.”

Domestic travel proved more resilient and was the main driver of any glimmer of recovery to the industry, particularly in China and Russia, ICAO notes, where domestic passenger numbers have already returned to the pre-pandemic levels.

Overall, there was a 50 per cent drop in domestic passenger traffic globally, while international traffic fell by 74 per cent, or around 1.4 billion passengers.

The plunge in traffic, has put the entire industry’s financial liability into question said ICAO, and threatens the viability of millions of associated jobs around the world.

Tourism in crisis

It has also severely impacted global tourism, given that more than 50 per cent of international travellers used to reach their destinations by plane.

ICAO said that the regional breakdown in losses showed a $120 billion loss year-on-year in the Asia-Pacific region, $100 billion in Europe, $88 billion in North America, followed by $26 billion, $22 billion and $14 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa, respectively.

The agency described the near term outlook as one of “prolonged depressed demand, with downside risks to global air travel recovery predominating in the first quarter of 2021, and likely to be subject to further deterioration.”

It does not expect any improvement until the second quarter of 2021, athough this will still be subject to the effectiveness of pandemic management and vaccination roll out across the world.

Best-case scenario

In the most optimistic scenario, said ICAO, by June of 2021 passenger numbers will be expected to recover globally to 71 per cent of their 2019 levels (or 53 per cent for international and 84 per cent for domestic flights). A more pessimistic scenario foresees only a 49 per cent recovery (26 per cent for international and 66 per cent for domestic).

ICAO will continue to provide recommendations and support for the aviation sector to weather the crisis. Its new Guidance on Economic and Financial Measures summarizes a range of measures that can be explored by States and the industry to ease the crisis, and strengthen the industry to withstand future shocks better.

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