Plaza Mayor of Madrid (Spain), deserted by the coronavirus
Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain, 19 March 2020. (Image: zianlob via iStock photo)

How industrial policy can mitigate the impact of the pandemic

Policy actions and coordination will be crucial in mitigating the impacts of the global pandemic on industry.

By Frank Hartwich, Smeeta Fokeer, Anders Isaksson and Fernando Santiago

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise, UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned that this pandemic is the biggest challenge the world has faced since World War II. What began as a health emergency is now rapidly threatening to turn into a global economic crisis. Containment measures have shaken the foundations of the three main pillars of the global economy: demand, supply, and finance. Timely and coordinated action is crucial to contain the spread of the virus, to minimize the short-term impacts on the economy and to create conditions to redress global economic activity. A comprehensive evaluation of measures to significantly slow down infection rates is necessary to reduce the risk of exacerbating the ensuing economic downturn. Some of these issues are addressed here with a focus on industrial development in both developed and developing countries.

Industry is affected by supply- and demand-side effects 

It is too early for statistical data to fully capture the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on global demand and supply. Emerging evidence from China and a select number of developed countries suggest a drop in demand, proxied by the considerable decline in energy consumption and transport use, real estate-related commercial activity and other indicators of consumer behaviour.1 Social distancing measures mean reduced commercial activity. A combination of lower incomes and the fear of contagion have resulted in lower private spending, which an increase in government spending can only partly compensate for. 

On the supply side, with factories either closed or operating well below capacity and large numbers of employees prevented from working, less output is being produced. Production is further hampered by the lack of intermediate supplies. The disruption of trade and its impact on international production networks and global value chains will need to be evaluated, but will likely be very pronounced. Governments around the world are introducing debt relief measures and offering businesses deferral programmes. It remains to be seen how many firms — especially SMEs — will succeed in absorbing the de facto accrued losses and survive the pandemic fairly unscathed. 

Managing COVID-19 Image 1
Employee working with machine parts. (Image: serts via iStock photo)

The impacts differ across countries

The impact of this crisis and countries’ ability to cope with it varies considerably. While some countries are better prepared to cope with the pandemic and its impacts, others are struggling to deal with either the COVID-19 outbreak or its impacts or with both; others yet will find it hard to apply any COVID containing measures or rely on the donor community. The scope of the pandemic’s impact is not confined to the national level; differences in impact will be observed across industries, firms and households alike. At the national level, several pre-emptive policy measures may help save lives, provide support for businesses to stay afloat, protect employment and gear up the economy to weather the storm. 

Although such policies are directed towards a large majority, many are falling through the cracks. Such containment measures can only be effective at the individual, household, firm or even country level if sufficient savings and cash flow are available. Just like households that rely on daily wage earnings will not be able to afford to comply with social distancing measures, some countries will not be able to afford to shut down substantial parts of their economy to contain the spread of the virus. Even if this were possible, the duration of such drastic measures highly depends on how robust a country’s social welfare system is, if one exists at all. The community impacts in countries with a weak social welfare system are likely be severe, leading to deteriorating health conditions that will quickly overwhelm the already fragile health care system and bring the economy to its knees. The ability to manage both the emergency situation and the recovery phase also hinges on the individual country’s economic structure. 

This pandemic will further intensify the effects of persistent inequalities2, with highly vulnerable households, businesses and countries expected to suffer the highest losses. They would certainly benefit most from organized global collective action. Progress towards achieving the SDGs will likely be postponed and any advancement made so far may very well suffer a setback. The role of industry and industrial development to contribute to the advancement of the SDGs will be seriously jeopardized.

Immediate reactions from the manufacturing sector

Industrial firms have responded to the spread of COVID-19 in various ways. Many are trying to solve immediate cash-flow challenges by cutting costs and seeking debt relief and compensation from their governments. Employees are being put on short-time working and are requested to take leave to reduce the wage burden. The ensuing personal income loss will lower both consumption and company revenues. Meanwhile, a number of companies are repurposing their production lines, switching to the production of urgently needed goods such as ventilators, masks and intensive care units.3 Many companies have also reorganized their businesses to make use of telecommuting and e-commerce. 

It remains to be seen how many businesses will be able to absorb the shock waves; those with a higher cash flow and a more diversified investment portfolio will certainly fare better. Extensive debt guarantees and credit support programmes should cushion — at least partially — the need for liquidity, but may need to be combined with mechanisms to defer debt repayments to a later stage. Further to credit support, some governments are already considering subsidies for the most severely affected businesses. 

Finally, some firms have started rethinking their business models, with supply shortages from overseas leading to an increase in procurement of inputs from local or regional businesses. The full extent of these measures will only become evident after the shocks associated with COVID-19 have settled.

Managing COVID-19 Image 2
Glass bottle filling at a production line. (Image: zorazhuang via iStock photo)

How governments can help

Businesses will not be able to weather the economic downturn on their own. Policy actions and coordination will be crucial in mitigating the impacts of the crisis. Many governments have already adopted a wide array of policies, including exchange rate adjustments and balance of payments measures, monetary policies as well as fiscal measures. Solutions at the microeconomic level will also, however, be necessary, as the scale of the current supply shock — a general forced shutdown of economic activity — is unprecedented, and adequate policy responses may in part lie outside the traditional mix of interventions.4 Policy measures can be structured around four target areas:  

  1. Measures to keep businesses afloat during COVID-19 containment efforts. Such measures include the introduction of actions to ensure liquidity for businesses to tackle immediate cash flow challenges and support business continuity. This might include subsidizing publicly-provided inputs, temporary debt relief and compensation through special credit lines and guarantees, deferral of financial obligations and, where possible, revisiting the conditions for firms to file for bankruptcy. Partial closures to accommodate fluctuations in demand may also be an option. Governments can defer the payment of taxes, duties and other government fees.
  2. Measures to maintain employment during COVID-19 containment efforts: These measures are aimed at supporting employee retention. For instance, public health care systems could cover the wages of workers and employees who have to quarantine. Furthermore, temporary regulations could be introduced to prevent large-scale layoffs and alternative work arrangements, including short-term leave, telecommuting and cost sharing through partial salary adjustments.
  3. Measures to adapt businesses during COVID-19 containment efforts: Firms can be incentivized to shift to other means of doing business, for example, by improving their web presence, advertising via social media, enhancing customer service functions via phone and online, and engaging in e-commerce. Companies should be supported in the provision of higher workplace safety standards and better protection for workers. Moreover, governments can support the private sector by increasing the procurement capacity of the health care system, its service delivery and its ability to conduct research. Funds can be established that provide grants and loans to businesses that produce the goods and services necessary to curb COVID-19 and to support the development of COVID-19-related (virtual) industrial clusters.
  4. Measures to reorient businesses after COVID-19 containment efforts: Governments can implement measures that prepare businesses for the new post-COVID-19 economic conditions and realities. Industrial development may follow a path of increased risk aversion to protect the basis of domestic industries and be inclined to promote most-crucial production (including food products, health care products, telecommunications technology and inputs for local manufacturing). In the medium run, governments, particularly in developing countries, will need to promote initiatives to secure the supply of such products in view of possible disruptions in global value chains. Firms will need to invest in new business processes and in technological innovation. Governments can support these efforts by monitoring market conditions and developing indicators allowing firms to quickly identify emerging market needs and changes in consumer behaviour. Governments could also provide public funding schemes to facilitate investment in internalizing production and establishing new supplier networks.

Getting post-COVID ready

It remains to be seen how quickly economies around the world will be able to resume their operations, and what this recovery will look like. The longer the COVID-19 containment measures stay in place, the more challenging and taxing the recovery process will be, magnifying the need for public support. 

In the short term, policy measures should counteract increased risk aversion and prevent flight-to-liquidity, which could exacerbate financial stress, particularly in emerging and developing markets, and thus curtailing access to the resources needed to manage the anticipated consequences of COVID-19 on the economy. On the supply side, policies should ensure continued protection of workers, a quick rebooting of domestic supply as well as restoring — and eventually reshaping — the functioning of global value chains. On the demand side, public procurement and innovation in products and processes may be necessary, including investments in new technologies.

For many developing countries, sustainable long-term recovery will require a commitment to bridge capability gaps and improve the performance of local health care systems,5 including links to local manufacturing capacities. UNIDO, together with the UN system, would have the necessary competencies to take the lead by developing an agenda for the coordination of efforts to support the most vulnerable and the most severely affected industries worldwide.

For economies to reopen as soon as the spread of COVID-19 has been contained, flexibility and close monitoring will be necessary to allow for an orderly phasing out of interventions, to incentivize business restructuring and avoid policy capture or free-riding behaviours.

The recovery from the shock of COVID-19 will likely not allow a return to pre-crisis normality. Policies to identify new alternatives for the organization of global production networks and to build, diversify and reorient productive capabilities will represent an important component of the strategies to build resilience against future disruptions. 

  • Smeeta Fokeer is Industrial Development Officer at the Climate and Technology Partnership Division (CTP) of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  • Anders Isaksson is Senior Research and Industrial Policy Officer at the Department of Policy Research and Statistics (PRS) of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  • Fernando Santiago is Industrial Policy Officer at the Division of Capacity Development, Statistics and Industrial Policy Advice of of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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