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Europe needs to prepare better for coming out of new strict containment measures

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With the coronavirus (COVID-19) once again spreading rapidly, and the re-introduction of containment measures to flatten the curve of the epidemic, it is crucial for policymakers to plan effective strategies to re-open their economies to avoid further re-confinements. This should include much more effective testing, tracing and isolation policies that people can easily follow, as well as improved social distancing measures, according to a new OECD report.

Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 provides a first look at comparative data on how European countries have experienced and responded to the pandemic, including both outcomes and policies. Europe has again become a COVID-19 hotspot. As of 15 November 2020, over 10 million people in Europe had been infected and more than 265,000 died from COVID-19, with numbers continuing to rise rapidly. The report shows evidence that banning large gatherings, encouraging people to telework, mandating facemask wearing in public and encouraging their use in private gatherings involving at-risk groups, and strictly limiting capacity in restaurants, stores and other public indoor places can go a long way towards reducing the spread of the virus.

“The recent news of a vaccine is encouraging but tackling this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “International collaboration will be key to ensuring mass production and widespread distribution of the vaccine. But countries also need to reinforce their support for the healthcare sector and workers, and extend the scale and effectiveness of testing, tracing and isolation policies.”

A few European countries, like Norway and Finland, have been better able to contain the spread of the virus, partly because of geographic factors (lower population density) but also because of greater preparedness and rapid and effective test, track and trace (TTT) strategy, and stronger trust and compliance of citizens with government rules and recommendations. Outside Europe, the four OECD countries in the Asia/Pacific region (Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) have successfully controlled the COVID-19 outbreak. Beyond their geographical characteristics, these countries quickly introduced effective testing, tracing and isolation policies as well as trust and compliance with social distancing and other key guidelines.

More effective testing, tracing and isolation policies are crucial. Many countries are still struggling to get test results back to people quickly and the effectiveness of contact tracing applications has been limited in several countries. Greater logistical efforts are needed to make tracing of contacts effective and for people infected with COVID-19 to isolate themselves.

During the first wave of the pandemic, 90% of deaths were people over 60 years old and about half or more of COVID-19 deaths in many European countries were among people living in care homes. Measures to isolate confirmed cases in nursing homes have improved, although it remains a challenge to isolate residents with certain conditions, such as neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, without increasing further their psychological distress.

The pandemic has also highlighted the shortages of health workers in many countries before the crisis, as well as the need to create additional reserve capacity that can be quickly mobilised in times of crisis.

Many people with chronic and other conditions besides COVID-19 were unable to access needed care during the first peak of the pandemic in Spring 2020. Access to primary care and specialist care needs to be maintained to respond to all care needs and minimise any complications and indirect deaths from the pandemic.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, waiting times for elective surgery were on the rise in many European countries, as the demand for surgery was increasing more rapidly than supply. These waiting times are likely to increase further in several countries, as many elective surgeries and cancer diagnoses and treatments were postponed during the pandemic.

The report also makes the case to address other ongoing important risk factors to health, notably air pollution that causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year across EU countries.

Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 is the result of ongoing close collaboration between the OECD and the European Commission to improve country-specific and EU-wide knowledge on health issues as part of the Commission’s State of Health in the EU cycle.

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Cash flow the biggest problem facing business during COVID-19 crisis

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A new report  on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic  on businesses shows that their greatest challenges have been insufficient cash flow to maintain staff and operations, supplier disruptions and access to raw materials.

With businesses already undergoing significant competitive pressure prior to the crisis, government restrictions, health challenges and the economic fall-out brought by COVID-19 further set back many enterprises.

Interrupted cash flow was the greatest problem, the survey found. More than 85 per cent reported the pandemic had a high or medium financial impact on their operations. Only a third said they had sufficient funding for recovery. Micro and small enterprises (those with 99 employees or fewer) were worst affected.

The survey, carried out by Employers and Business Membership Organizations (EBMOs), involved more than 4,500 enterprises in 45 countries worldwide. EBMOs gathered data from their enterprise members between March and June 2020. The businesses were asked about operational continuity, financial health, and their workforce.

At that time, 78 per cent of those surveyed reported that they had changed their operations to protect them from COVID-19, but three-quarters were able to continue operating in some form despite measures arising from government restrictions. Eighty-five per cent had already implemented measures to protect staff from the virus.

Nearly 80 per cent said they planned to retain their staff – larger companies were more likely to say this. However, around a quarter reported that they anticipated losing more than 40 per cent of their staff.

Looking into the future, preparing for unforeseen circumstances and mitigating risks associated with a disruption of business operations is needed. Fewer than half the enterprises surveyed had a business continuity plan (BCP) when the pandemic hit, with micro and small businesses the least likely to have made such preparations. Additionally, only 26 per cent of the enterprises who responded said they were fully insured and 54 per cent had no coverage at all. Medium-sized enterprises, (those with 100 to 250 employees), were most likely to have full or partial coverage.

Strengthening government support measures for enterprises are also vital for their recovery. Four out of ten enterprises said they had no funding to support business recovery while two-thirds said funding was insufficient. Of the sectors analysed, the tourism and hospitality sector, followed by retail and sales, were most likely to report funding issues.

The report production was facilitated by EBMOs who collected and shared the survey data with the Bureau for Employers’ Activities  (ACT/EMP) at the International Labour Organization. ACT/EMP is a specialized unit within the ILO Secretariat that maintains close and direct relations with employers’ constituents.

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Lithuania: COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for reforms to drive growth and reduce inequality

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Effective containment measures, a well-functioning health system and swift public support to firms and households have helped Lithuania to weather the COVID-19 crisis to date. That said, the pandemic still carries significant economic risks, and the recent upsurge in infections is very concerning. Once a recovery is under way, Lithuania should aim to reform public companies, strengthen public finances, and ensure that growth benefits all people and regions, according to a new OECD report. 

The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Lithuania says that prior to COVID-19, good economic management and an investment-friendly business climate were helping to lift average Lithuanian incomes closer to advanced country levels. While the recession provoked by the virus has been milder than elsewhere – with GDP projected to drop by 2% in 2020 before rebounding by 2.7% in 2021 – Lithuania’s small and open economy will be vulnerable to any prolonged disruption to world trade. Increasing public investment and improving governance at state-owned enterprises could help lift growth and productivity. Other reforms should focus on improving the effectiveness of spending and taxation. Over the longer term, Lithuania should establish a clear debt reduction path and a long-term debt target.

“Lithuania’s sound economic management of recent years, and its swift response to both the health and economic aspects of the pandemic, are helping the country to weather the COVID-19 crisis,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “It is now key to build on these achievements and restart the reform engine to ensure robust, sustainable and inclusive growth for the future.”

The pandemic has exposed high levels of income inequality in Lithuania, where relative poverty is high among the unemployed, the less educated, single parents and older people due to a tax-benefit system that is insufficiently redistributive. The Survey recommends Lithuania to continue providing temporary support to people and businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as to increase regular social support while retaining incentives to work.

In terms of support to the economy, the Survey notes that while Lithuania’s government spending has increased considerably over the past two years, it remains below the OECD average. Public investment also remains low. Given the importance of modernising infrastructure and stimulating crisis-hit demand, the Survey recommends maintaining or increasing current levels of investment and improving investment quality by carrying out rigorous cost-benefit analysis for individual projects. Increasing investment in rural areas, and giving local government more say in tax policy and spending, could help reduce regional disparities and promote inclusive growth.

The Survey also recommends phasing out environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies and increasing environmental taxation, which would benefit public finances while helping the shift to a lower-carbon economy.

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United States confirms its leading role in the fight against transnational corruption

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The United States continues to demonstrate an increasing level of anti-bribery enforcement, having convicted or sanctioned 174 companies and 115 individuals for foreign bribery and related offences under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) between September 2010 and July 2019. The United States is thus commended for a significant upward trend in enforcement and confirming the prominent role it plays globally in combating foreign bribery.

The 44-country OECD Working Group on Bribery has just completed its Phase 4 evaluation of the United States’ implementation of the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions and related instruments.

Given developments since the United States’ last evaluation in 2010, the Working Group made a range of recommendations to the United States, including to:

  • Consider ways to enhance protections for whistleblowers who report potential FCPA anti-bribery violations by non-issuers and provide further guidance on available whistleblower protections;
  • Continue to further evaluate and refine policies and guidance concerning the FCPA;
  • Make publicly available the extension and completion of NPAs and DPAs with legal persons in foreign bribery matters as well as the grounds for extending DPAs in FCPA matters;
  • Continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the Corporate Enforcement Policy in particular in terms of encouraging self-disclosure and of its deterrent effect on foreign bribery; and
  • Continue to address recidivism through appropriate sanctions and raise awareness of its impact on the choice of resolution in FCPA matters.

The report praises the United States for its sustained commitment to enforcing its foreign bribery offence as well as its key role in promoting the implementation of the Convention. This achievement results from a combination of enhanced expertise and resources to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery, the enforcement of a broad range of offences in foreign bribery cases, the effective use of non-trial resolution mechanisms, and the development of published policies to incentivise companies’ co-operation with law enforcement agencies.

The report also notes a large number of positive developments and good practices, such as the DOJ’s reliance on several theories of liability to hold both companies and individuals responsible for foreign bribery, and the United States’ successful co-ordination that has allowed multi-agency resolutions against alleged offenders in FCPA matters. In parallel, the United States has increasingly sought to co-ordinate and co-operate in investigating and resolving multijurisdictional foreign bribery matters with other jurisdictions. Finally, the United States has helped foreign partners build their capacity to fight foreign bribery through joint conferences and peer-to-peer training thus enabling the law enforcement authorities of these countries to better investigate and sanction prominent foreign bribery cases.

The United States’ Phase 4 report was adopted by the OECD Working Group on Bribery on 16 October 2020. The report lists the recommendations the Working Group made to the United States on pages 111-113, and includes an overview of recent enforcement activity and specific legal, policy, and institutional features of the United States’ framework for fighting foreign bribery. In accordance with the standard procedure, the United States will submit a written report to the Working Group within two years (October 2022) on its implementation of all recommendations and its enforcement efforts. This report will also be made publicly available.

The report is part of the OECD Working Group on Bribery’s fourth phase of monitoring, launched in 2016. Phase 4 looks at the evaluated country’s particular challenges and positive achievements. It also explores issues such as detection, enforcement, corporate liability, and international co-operation, as well as covering unresolved issues from prior reports.

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