At the opposite extreme, a recent U.N. report suggests COVID-19 could push up to 132 million people into hunger, and if there is a reoccurrence during winter, it may further lead to starvation. IMF is suggesting because of the closure of business and lockdown, it is likely that the global growth will contract by -4.5 per cent.

When it comes to the right to health, governments are committed to safeguarding the health of their citizens. Yet at the time of Covid-19 things have gone for a toss. Healthcare infrastructure and professionals are far from being universally accessible. An inadequate number of hospital beds has forced many governments to convert stadiums, sports complexes, and railway coaches, into makeshift hospitals.

Additionally, supply-chain disruption is making things worse. Unprecedented demand caused by hospitals stockpiling basic medicines such as antibiotics, painkillers, sedatives, and corticosteroids has caused global shortages and surging prices. India’s drug regulator’s temporary green light for a 50 per cent increase in the price of the blood thinner heparin is one example. Meanwhile, COVID-related pressures have seen Pakistan’s regulator approve a 7 per cent increase for essential drugs. In the UK, the price of basic painkillers has leaped 30 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

Some governments are adding to the problem by levying needless import tariffs on medicines. At 20 per cent, Pakistan boasts the highest tariff rates on medicines globally. More, the South Asian trio of Nepal, Pakistan and India have the top three tariff rates on medicines. Latin America is another medicines tariff hotspot, with Argentina and Brazil levying average tariffs of close to 10 per cent. For vaccines, India again tops the list globally, with vaccine tariffs at 10 per cent. Pakistan and Bolivia are among a clutch of countries that impose vaccine tariffs of 5 per cent.

Even low tariffs have a cumulative impact on a product’s end price, ultimately paid by patients. A 2017 study by the European Centre for International Political Economy found that tariffs add a cumulative burden of up to $6.2 billion per year in China. In Brazil and India, patients may pay up to 80 per cent more than the ex-factory sales price due to tariffs. Abolishing these tariffs would deliver to patients aggregate savings of up to US$6.2bn in China, US$2.8bn in Russia, US$2.6bn in Brazil and US$737m in India.

Beyond medicines, COVID essentials from hand soap to ventilators are more expensive thanks to tariffs. According to the WTO, the average applied tariff for hand soap is 17 per cent and some WTO members apply tariffs as high as 65 per cent. Five Latin American countries (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina) have the highest tariffs on facemasks, from 17 per cent to 55 per cent. Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela levy a 14 per cent import tariff on ventilators; in India it’s 10 per cent.

The government should intervene in order to bring down price of medicines and vaccines. With the rising cost of healthcare, lack of medical insurance among the commoner, and loss of livelihood, lowering tariffs will be far more beneficial and effective. Some governments– Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia and Norway among them – have shown leadership by temporarily exempting COVID-19 related medicines, vaccines and medical supplies from import duties and taxes. Meanwhile, APEC governments are discussing proposals to eliminate for at least one year taxes and tariffs on COVID-19 medical products.

Governments should commit to permanent tariff reductions on medicines, vaccines, and medical supplies through legally binding WTO commitments. Also, needed is greater coordination effort in international research to allow the cross-border flow of epidemiological and clinical data. Data is often stranded in its country of origin, due to widespread laws requiring data storage in local servers, coupled with de facto bans of cross-border data flows. Often, such laws are presented as privacy safeguarding; in reality, they are an attempt to boost local ICT industries such as data centres. China, India, and Russia are the highest-profile offenders, but far from the only ones. (IPA Service)