The World Trade Organization logo outside its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
The World Trade Organization logo outside its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

Trade restrictions remain widespread as wealthy countries move to protect their economies, according to a new report by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The world trade body said new import-restrictive measures unrelated to Covid-19 covered an estimated $417.5bn (R7.04-trillion) worth of merchandise trade, the third-highest figure recorded since May 2012.

Tariff increases, import bans, stricter customs procedures, export duties and other such measures introduced during the review period affected 2.8% of G20 trade. Meanwhile, the stock of import-restrictive measures implemented since 2009 and still in force continues to grow — now affecting an estimated 10.3% of G20 imports ($1.6-trillion).

The G20 is an informal, but powerful group of 19 countries and the EU, with representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Its mandate is to promote global economic growth, international trade and regulation of financial markets. SA is the only African country in the G20.

While trade restrictions generally remain widespread, the WTO report found evidence of steps towards more open trade policies across sectors, including goods, services and intellectual property.

New import-facilitating measures, such as tariff reductions, the elimination of import taxes and the reduction of export duties, covered an estimated $735.9bn worth of trade, excluding policies relating to the pandemic. This figure is the highest recorded since 2014, and is sharply higher than the $92.6bn trade coverage of import-facilitating measures recorded during the previous monitoring period from May to October 2019.

The WTO said the initial Covid-19 outbreak saw many governments introduce trade restrictions; over 90% of them had export bans on medical products, such as surgical masks, gloves, medicine and disinfectant. Since then, G20 economies have repealed 36% of these restrictions. They have also lowered barriers to imports of many pandemic-related products. As of mid-May 2020, 65 of the 93 pandemic-related trade measures implemented during the monitoring period — or about 70% — were of a trade-facilitating nature. The remaining 28 measures, 30% of the total, could be considered to have trade-restrictive effects.

WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo said historically high levels of trade-restrictive measures remain a source of concern, all the more so at a time when international trade and investment will be critical to rebuild economies, businesses and livelihoods around the world.

“That said, we also see some encouraging indications: not since 2014 have import-facilitating measures implemented during a single monitoring period covered more trade,” Azevêdo said.

“There are signs that trade-restrictive measures adopted in the early stages of the pandemic are starting to be rolled back. There is no room for complacency: building on these positive indicators will demand consistent efforts and leadership, starting with the G20. Exceptional circumstances require exceptional responses, and this is the time for G20 governments to work together to facilitate a rapid and inclusive economic recovery.”

The report — the 23rd in a series dating back to the global financial crisis in 2009 — was the first to be prepared against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. The full impact of the viral outbreak and associated lockdown measures is not yet reflected in trade statistics, but according to WTO data published in June, world trade fell sharply in the first half of 2020. The volume of merchandise trade shrank 3% year‑on‑year in the first quarter.