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Business Envoy

COVID-19: protecting human life and supporting economic recovery through global trade

Australia's membership and activity in various international fora such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the G20 and APEC have been crucial in tackling the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Australia has been working with other members of these organisations to support efforts to protect human life during the pandemic, and to support economic recovery. This has included keeping supply chains functioning and facilitating trade in essential goods such as medical supplies, food, and energy. This work was a key focus in the Extraordinary G20 Leaders' Summit Statement on COVID-19.

The crisis has heightened the importance of a stable and open global trading system – underpinned by the WTO – to enable the flow of goods to help combat the pandemic and to support international business in the economic recovery.

This message has been echoed by the heads of the WTO and World Customs Organization (WCO) in a joint statement on 6 April, pledging to minimise disruption to cross-border trade in goods so that essential goods can quickly reach those most in need. Increased transparency is assured with these organisations sharing information on their websites about new trade-related measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A key trade-related initiative introduced by Australia is the temporary suspension of tariffs on certain medical supplies. Published on 1 May 2020 in the Australian Customs Notice Number 2020/20 and retrospectively effective from 1 February 2020, the measure reduces the cost of obtaining medical products from foreign suppliers at a time when there is unprecedented global competition to source vital anti-pandemic goods.

A women on public transport looking out the window.  She is wearing a facemask.
Image credit: istock

This initiative – as well as similar initiatives by many of our trading partners – has been pertinent to the international response to COVID-19. WTO, G20 and APEC key Ministerial statements support these measures.

In cases where export restrictions have been introduced, the WTO ‘Friends of the System' Ministerial Statement stressed that emergency measures restricting trade of essential goods should be WTO-consistent and pledged to lift such measures as soon as possible. Australia put in place temporary export restrictions to prevent hoarding and profiteering, while ensuring commercial trade and humanitarian exports continued unhindered.

During this difficult time, Australia remains determined to continue removing trade barriers and improving market access opportunities for our goods and services exporters. Recent efforts include the seventh round of negotiations of the Australia–European Union Free Trade Agreement, which was conducted via videoconferencing on 4-20 May 2020, and the launch of the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement negotiations on 17 June 2020.

Australia's focus on the pandemic remains to protect human life and support economic recovery. Australia is doing so by working with a number of countries on measures within the WTO. These include negotiations aimed at updating the WTO rulebook on issues such as e-commerce, services domestic regulation and fisheries subsidies that will provide a much needed confidence boost to companies and investors facing uncertainty. Australia is also supporting technical assistance and capacity building to help developing countries implement their trade policies in ways that support their efforts to minimise the impact of COVID-19.

The pandemic has raised the need to look at new areas for global trade rules for the future. Australia continues to work with international counterparts to explore these new initiatives.


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