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South Asia Must Ramp Up COVID-19 Action to Protect People, Revive Economies

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Amid the mounting human toll and global economic fallout triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, South Asian governments must ramp up action to curb the health emergency, protect their people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, and set the stage now for fast economic recovery, says the World Bank in its twice-a-year-regional update.

Released today, the latest South Asia Economic Focus anticipates a sharp economic slump in each of the region’s eight countries, caused by halting economic activity, collapsing trade, and greater stress in the financial and banking sectors.  

In this fast-changing and uncertain context, the report presents a range forecast, estimating that regional growth will fall to a range between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020, down from 6.3 percent projected six months ago. That would be the region’s worst performance in the last 40 years, with temporary contractions in all South Asian countries. In case of prolonged and broad national lockdowns, the report warns of a worst-case scenario in which the entire region would experience a negative growth rate this year.

This deteriorated forecast will linger in 2021, with growth projected to hover between 3.1 and 4.0 percent, down from the previous 6.7 percent estimate.

“The priority for all South Asian governments is to contain the virus spread and protect their people, especially the poorest who face considerably worse health and economic outcomes,” said Hartwig Schafer, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. “The COVID-19 crisis is also an urgent call-to-action moment to pursue innovative policies and jumpstart South Asian economies once the crisis is over. Failure to do so can lead to long-term growth disruptions and reverse hard-won progress in reducing poverty.”

The impact of the pandemic will hit hard low-income people, especially informal workers in the hospitality, retail trade, and transport sectors who have limited or no access to healthcare or social safety nets. The report notes that the COVID-19 shock will likely reinforce inequality in South Asia. As played out across the region, the sudden and large-scale loss of low paid work has driven a mass exodus of migrant workers from cities to rural areas, spiking fear that many of them will fall back into poverty. While there are no signs yet of widespread food shortages, the report warns that a protracted COVID-19 crisis may threaten food security, especially for the most vulnerable.

In the short term, the report recommends preparing weak healthcare systems for greater COVID-19 impacts, as well as providing safety nets and securing access to food, medical supplies, and necessities for the most vulnerable. To minimize short-term economic pain, the report calls for establishing temporary work programs for unemployed migrant workers, enacting debt relief measures for businesses and individuals, and easing inter-regional customs clearance to speed up import and export of essential goods.

Once lockdown restrictions are loosened, South Asian governments should adopt expansionary fiscal policies combined with monetary stimulus to keep credit flowing in their economies. Since many South Asian countries have limited fiscal space, these policies should target people worst hit by the freeze on economic activity. The report urges governments to adopt temporary spending measures and coordinate with international financial partners to avoid unsustainable long-term debt levels and fiscal deficits.

“After tackling the immediate COVID-19 threat, South Asian countries must keep their sovereign debt sustainable through fiscal prudence and debt relief initiatives,” said Hans Timmer, World Bank Chief Economist for the South Asia Region. “And looking beyond the present crisis, lie great opportunities to expand digital technologies for payment systems and distant learning to unlock remote areas in South Asia.”

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 the report is based on the latest country-level data available as of April 7, 2020.

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.  

REAL GDP AT MARKET PRICES IN PERCENT
CountryFiscal year2019(e)2020(f)2021(f)2022(f)
AfghanistanDecember to December2.9-5.9 to -3.83.3 to 3.95.2 to 6.2
BangladeshJuly to June8.22.0 to 3.01.2 to 2.92.8 to 3.9
BhutanJuly to June3.92.2 to 2.92.0 to 2.53.1 to 3.5
IndiaApril to March6.14.8 to 5.01.5 to 2.84.0 to 5.0
MaldivesJanuary to December5.2-13.0 to -8.56.3 to 7.35.0 to 5.5
Nepalmid-July to mid-July7.11.5 to 2.81.4 to 2.92.7 to 3.6
PakistanJuly to June3.3-2.2 to -1.30.3 to 0.93.2 to 3.3
Sri LankaJanuary to December2.6-3.0 to -0.50.2 to 1.22.0 to 2.5
  REVISION TO FORECASTS FROM OCTOBER 2019
CountryFiscal year2019(e)2020(f)
AfghanistanDecember to December-8.9 to -6.8-0.2 to 0.4
BangladeshJuly to June-5.2 to -4.2-6.1 to -4.4
BhutanJuly to June-5.2 to -4.5-3.9 to -3.4
IndiaApril to March-1.2 to -1.0-5.4 to -4.1
MaldivesJanuary to December-18.5 to -14.00.7 to 1.7
Nepalmid-July to mid-July-4.9 to -3.6-5.1 to -3.6
PakistanJuly to June-4.6 to -3.7-2.7 to -2.1
Sri LankaJanuary to December-6.3 to -3.8-3.5 to -2.5

Notes: The 2020 and 2021 numbers represent the lower and upper bound of the forecast range. For India, 2020 refers to FY19/20. e: Estimate f: Forecast. Source: World Bank

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Development

Report Underlines Reforms to Support Fiscal Federalism, Green Growth in Nepal

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Nepal has made significant strides in implementing fiscal federalism while key reforms are needed to support fiscal sustainability and Nepal’s transition towards green, resilient, and inclusive development states the World Bank’s Public Expenditure Review (PER) Report on Fiscal Policy for Sustainable Development launched today.

With the country’s transition to federalism, expenditure responsibilities have been devolved to subnational governments that are predominantly financed through intergovernmental transfers and revenue sharing. These now account for between 8 and 9 percent of GDP per year (or close to 30 percent of the annual budget). While federalism is helping bring policymaking closer to the people, it has also increased fiscal spending and (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic) led to a sharp rise in fiscal deficits and public debt, states the report.

“This report provides an analytical basis to inform our reform efforts to strengthen federalism and create fiscal space to support our new focus on a green, resilient, and inclusive development (GRID) model,” statedMr. Madhu Kumar Marasini, Finance Secretary. “This complements our ongoing efforts to refine the fiscal transfer system put in place the systems for monitoring and reporting for a more results oriented and accountable delivery of local services.”

The PER identifies key reforms to help Nepal strengthen fiscal sustainability and initiate a shift to a GRID pathway. It identifies the following five top priority reforms: (i) Encouraging the update of subnational spending responsibilities through the intergovernmental grants system; (ii) supporting exports and job creation through reforms to import duties; (iii) strengthening domestic revenue, for example by reviewing VAT exemptions; (iv) enhancing public capital spending by rolling out the National Project Bank; and (v) providing fiscal incentives for a green growth transition.

“The World Bank will continue to support government reforms to improve fiscal sustainability and the implementation of fiscal federalism, drawing on the recommendations of the PER Report,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Country Director for Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. “This report complements our human development PER, both of which will help inform the design of World Bank support to Nepal, including through our ongoing support through our various Development Policy Credits.”

The report also stresses the importance of strengthening investment processes and fiscal policies for green growth, and fiscal policy reforms to enable Nepal to use its green electricity surplus to mitigate air pollution to protect the health of people and the economy.

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Development

Philippines: Boosting Private Sector Growth Can Strengthen Recovery, Create More Jobs

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Rebounding from a deep contraction in 2020, the Philippine economy is forecast to grow 5.3 percent this year before accelerating to an average of 5.8 percent in 2022-23 on the road to recovery, according to the Philippines Economic Update (PEU) titled Regaining Lost Ground, Revitalizing the Filipino Workforce, released today by the World Bank.

Government spending on infrastructure is expected to buoy growth, aided by the steady progress in vaccination leading to greater people mobility and the revival of businesses. Barring a new uptick in COVID-19 cases, household consumption is projected to recover, anchored on rising remittances and improving incomes as more people regain or find new jobs.

“The new variant has added a layer of uncertainty but economic reopening, along with progress in vaccination, is clearly strengthening domestic dynamism and market confidence,” said Ndiame Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. “As the recovery gains traction, it will be important to enhance private sector participation in the recovery by deepening current efforts to make the country’s business environment favorable to job creation while upskilling the workers so that they can benefit from new or emerging job opportunities.”

Reforms that open more sectors to foreign investments, streamline administrative procedures to facilitate market entry and encourage firms to adopt new technology are measures that can boost private sector growth, create more jobs, and strengthen recovery, Diop added.

The nearly two-year long pandemic, however, has forced the closures of many firms, leading to losses of jobs and incomes, alongside health insecurities and disruptions in children’s education.

The Philippines underwent two surges of COVID-19 infections this year, first in March-April and in August-September due to the more infectious Delta variant. In both instances, the authorities reinstated strict mobility restrictions in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, and key metropolitan areas.

Nonetheless, the recent surge and mobility restrictions have not severely hampered economic activity. As a result, the economy expanded by 4.9 percent in the first three quarters of 2021, rebounding from a 10.1 percent contraction over the same period in 2020.

In 2022, the phased economic reopening is expected to benefit the services sector especially transportation, domestic tourism, and wholesale and retail trade. Sustained public investment will continue to support construction activities.

The PEU flags that despite encouraging trends, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a major risk to the country’s growth prospects.

The report notes that even in countries with high vaccination rates, infections have continued to spread, albeit with greatly reduced severity of illness, hospitalization, and mortality. Variants of concern, breakthrough cases, and waning vaccine efficacy have highlighted the complexity of economic reopening.

“Speeding up vaccination especially in areas outside the National Capital Region and sustaining the observance of health protocols including masking and maintaining social distancing are measures that remain important as the country navigates the challenges of reviving the economy,” said Kevin Chua, Senior World Bank Economist.

Social protection measures, Chua added, including the country’s cash transfer programs remain important measures to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on livelihoods, health, and education, especially among poor families.

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Africa Today

United States COVID-19 vaccine delivery to Mozambique

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In an effective effort to make tremendous and recognizable contributions to help fight the spread of coronavirus, the United States Embassy in Mozambique has announced the arrival of more than two million doses of the Johnson & Johnson coordinated through COVAX in Maputo, Mozambique.

This is the United States’ fourth and largest bi-lateral COVID-19 vaccine delivery to Mozambique, bringing the total number of U.S.-donated vaccines to nearly 3.5 million, and maintaining the United States as Mozambique’s largest bi-lateral vaccine donor.

“The United States remains committed to sharing vaccines equitably, around the world,” U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique Dennis W. Hearne said. “No one is protected from COVID-19 until everyone is vaccinated. As more vaccines become available to all nations around the world, we have a shared interest in getting everyone who is eligible vaccinated.”

The U.S. Government has provided early and ongoing support for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Mozambique, including assistance valued at $62.5 million. This assistance includes the recent donation of 60 oxygen cylinders and a PSA oxygen plant, 50 ventilators, personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, laboratory and oxygen equipment, training, and funding for increased medical staff, among other initiatives.

In close collaboration with the Government of the Republic of Mozambique, the U.S. Government provides more than $500 million in annual assistance to improve the quality of education and healthcare, promote economic prosperity, and support the overall development of the nation.

The Mozambican government’s target is to vaccinate about 16.8 million people. Excluded from the vaccination are pregnant women and children under 15 years of age. According to the latest figures from the Health Ministry, the number of people fully vaccinated against the disease now stands at 3,324,849, and 6,158,360 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Mozambique shares borders with South Africa where a new COVID variant (B.1.1.529), renamed Omicron, is currently spreading. Travellers from the region are monitored. The United States, Europe and Asian States have restricted flights from southern African region, and that include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

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