The World Trade Organization (WTO) has disclosed that 80 countries and customs territories have banned or limited the export of face masks, protective gear, gloves and other goods to mitigate shortages since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak began.
The agency said that bans were imposed by 72 WTO members and eight non-WTO member countries, but only 13 WTO members had notified the global trade body as required by its regulations. The WTO noted that the lack of transparency about restrictions and failure to cooperate internationally could undermine efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease.
“While the introduction of export-restrictive measures is understandable, the lack of international cooperation in these areas risks cutting off import-reliant countries from desperately needed medical products and triggering a supply shock,” the WTO report said. “And by interfering with established medical supply chains, such measures also risk hampering the urgently required supply response.”
Export bans and restrictions are generally prohibited in the WTO, although there are exceptions which allow temporary measures to “prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products essential to the exporting contracting party.”
Globally, travel restrictions had already slowed the flow of goods needed to fight the pandemic, but export restrictions made it difficult for governments and businesses to adjust purchasing decisions and find new suppliers.
Leaders of the group of 20 major economies in March said any emergency measures taken in response to the pandemic should be “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary,” but new export restrictions have emerged even since then.
Last month, the United States asked China to revise new export quality control rules for protective equipment after complaints that the rules were holding up supplies.
France, on the other hand, had expanded its list of drugs that face export restrictions despite repeated calls from the European Union to lift curbs that could cause shortages in other countries.
The WTO said restrictions could prompt others to follow suit and further reduce available supplies.
“The long-term effects could be significant,” the report said, warning that too-broad measures that stayed in place could irreparably alter supply chains and additional tariff and non-tariff barriers could spring up as a reaction.