2021 WTO Public Forum Report on Session of “Shared Experiences” and “Collective Actions” to Respond to COVID-19” Session

30 September 2021


Session 45 of 2021 WTO Public Forum Public Forum 2021 — “Trade Beyond COVID-19: Building Resilience” was organized by the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. The main theme was on “Turning Our Shared COVID-19 Experiences into Collective Multilateral Actions to Build Resilience for Vulnerable Members and Groups”.

There were three main points that the organizer was keen to explore: (1) What are the shared experiences and lessens we have learned so far in relation to addressing COVID-19? (2) Whether and why the vulnerable WTO Members and vulnerable people are most devastated and the existing inequalities are exacerbated? And (3) Whether certain collective multilateral actions under the WTO are needed, in addition to the actions taken by individual Members?

The experiences and lessens that we have learned from the public health crisis are multiple folds. First, it is apparent that when COVID-19 became an extraordinary pandemic the WTO and its Members collectively were not ready. Therefore, we should not let such unpreparedness happen again. How to ensure that the WTO and its Members collectively are prepared for the future public health crises of similar scale is surely a critical issue.

Second, it is also apparent that many WTO rules are already there to govern pandemic-related trade measures. But some of them might have been ignored by Members when they took restrictive trade measures; some others rules might be unclear so that Members could have different understandings, which lead to different approaches.

Third, WTO’s decision-making process is not efficient enough. The discussion on TRIPS-waiver is an example showing the difficult situation when the WTO is to make important decisions. Fourth, we also see very positive development at the WTO. Currently, there is an on-going multilateral process at the WTO in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are yet to see the result of the discussions, we can be optimistic that Members are working hard on deliberating a comprehensive response to the pandemic at the multilateral level. This also shows the importance of collective response to the challenges and risks that the whole humanity is encountering.

Last, but not least, we can also identify that there are the deteriorating economic inequalities arising from the public health crisis; that the practices of some Members can serves as best practices; and that it is of high importance of cooperating with private sectors.

In this session, speakers identified various issues and proposed valuable suggestions. Professor Tsai-yu Lin (Professor at National Taiwan University College of Law and Director of Asian Center for WTO and International Health Law and Policy) spoke on “The Inadequacies of the Existing WTO Law to Respond to the COVID-19 Challenges: Medical Export Restrictions as an Example”. She looks into the current WTO rules to see whether there are any inadequacies for the purpose of properly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using medical export restrictions as an example, she argues that current Articles XI:2(a) and XX(b) of the GATT are unable to serve a proper balance between the need of imposing an export restriction to ensure the supplies for domestic use in exporting countries as well as the need of access to medical products through free flow of goods in importing countries. WTO law needs to seek a more balanced approach to deal with future pandemics. She proposes that there should be additional rules, to ensure that medical export restrictions in the context of global pandemics are subject to stricter rules substantively and procedurally.

Professor Chingwen Hsueh (Associate Professor at National Chengchi University College of Commerce) spoke on “How Far Can the WTO Go in the Path of Economic Empowerment of Women after the COVID-19: Possibilities and Challenges”. She analyzed the potential and the limits that the WTO may have in facilitating women’s economic empowerment through trade. She suggests that WTO Members should build up stronger linkage between the social supports for women and trade agreements, inter alia through investment facilitation agreement, labor chapter, or GSP conditioned on gender equalities. Members can also foster digital inclusion through opening the markets for telecommunication infrastructures, trade aid in STEM educations for females and capacity building. She is of the view that it is desirable to conduct the “gender impact assessments” on gender neutral provisions/trade negotiations. Last but not the least, the discussion on the MSMEs should focus on the improvement of the access to the financial resources.

Dr. Huai-Shing YEN (Deputy Executive Director of the WTO & RTA Center at Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research) spoke on “Addressing Public Health Vulnerability Through Trade Policy: Some Reflections on the Contingent Relaxation Measures on Healthcare Related Products”. She points out that some measures adopted during the pandemic has exposed Members to the vulnerability issue associated with healthcare-related products. Her suggestions to address public health vulnerability include: (a) to build a global data-based system on essential medical products to identify real-time bottlenecks in the supply chain, (b) to limit NTM with a trade-restricting effect, to encourage temporary trade-facilitating NTM into permanent and to encourage regulatory harmonization of essential medical products, and (c) to consider upstream agreements in the strategic goods with countries and companies.

Professor Tsai-fang Chen (Associate Professor of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University School of Law) spoke on Developing Multilateral Trade Rules to Enhance the Use and Supply of COVID-19 Related Technology and Products in the Fight Against the Pandemic in Special Consideration of Vulnerable Groups and Members”. His main argument is that the WTO should step up and do more by establishing a new agreement that focuses on COVID-19 related products and technology with a view to supporting vulnerable Members and groups. The objectives of the suggested new agreement are to ramp up the production of the COVID-19 related products in lower-income countries through support and capacity building, to ensure the smooth trade flow of the products, and to support the infrastructure building in the lower-income countries in the fight against this and future pandemic.

It is hoped that the discussions will not merely enrich the literature on the topic, but even help the current deliberation on WTO’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.