Borders might be closed, but our policies need to be open
Today, while the entire world is affected by the ongoing SARS-COV-2, Europeans are, more than ever, together in their fight. Our borders might be closed, but our hearts, minds and policies should stay open, especially to those who need help and solidarity the most.
As a mission-driven publication that focuses specifically on the region of Eastern Europe we cannot forget about the societies that are not members of the EU and yet have been also affected by the pandemic.
We welcome the decision of the European Commission to allocate 140 million euro to support the Eastern Partnership states. Yet, we need to be aware that this is just a small fraction of what most Eastern Partnership states will need to not only tackle the ongoing pandemic, but overcome the economic consequences that will follow.
Without further support from the international community, countries such as Ukraine or Georgia could be doomed to experience an existential catastrophe. A result of the current crisis is not only a huge challenge for these countries with obsolete healthcare systems, but will undoubtedly lead to a serious economic recession or even depression.
The risk of even greater economic hardship is not only significant, it may also lead to other negative outcomes, including political and social upheaval as well as increased vulnerability to external manipulation and hybrid attacks, including disinformation campaigns aimed at further dividing the already devastated societies.
Therefore, while preparing to write this article, which in a way is a call to EU decision-makers to include non-EU member states in its further pandemic and economic relief efforts, we asked colleagues from several Eastern Partnership states to share with us their insights as to what the most pressing needs may be.
Support for Ukraine, the largest of the EaP states, should come in both direct aid as well as economic relief to help soften the blow that the pandemic will undoubtedly deal to the country. It is estimated that in the most optimistic scenario the GDP will fall by five per cent. Below are five main points that we received with a note that this is where Ukraine needs immediate support from its European partners to counteract both the health and economic crises. They include:
- To allow restructuring of external debts obligations;
- To provide Ukraine with a financial and humanitarian support aimed at overcoming the economic downturn after COVID-19;
- To help with medical equipment, medicines, personal protective equipment and tests, to support the development of border checkpoints with the help of modern screening technologies;
- To develop co-operation on the level of laboratory systems that will help to exchange information about COVID-19 spread and coordinate measures for deterrence of the pandemic; and
- To make special grants available for medical institutions such as the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine that can produce high-quality tests for virus identification and join in the creation of a vaccine against COVID-19.
In Georgia, the situation looks equally dire. The health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed without the proper equipment or number of staff. We applaud grassroots and civil society engagement in the country to help bolster the response, especially funding by the EU and Germany provided to the Georgian startup company, Doctor Goods, to manufacture 40,000 surgical gowns in a week to address the COVID-19 pandemic. But the country still desperately lacks a supply of medical gear and medicine, including N95 respirator masks and hydroxychloroquine. The EU should act swiftly to provide further support in laboratory testing capacity and, if possible, medical personnel who can both assist in providing Georgian hospitals with developing some level of surge capacity as well as help train Georgian medical professionals to better respond.
The economic impact is likely to seriously hurt the Georgian state and its society. The country is already in a statewide lockdown which will have a massive impact on small- and medium-sized businesses. One of Georgia’s main sectors of its economy, the tourism industry – which was already negatively impacted last year when Russia suspended flights to Georgia – will be devastated. Some projections see an economic downturn for the whole country of minus six per cent (-6 %) GDP for 2020. The Georgian government is preparing some stimulus measures to help those affected by the economic fallout, but it will not be enough and will require additional support from its European partners.
The situation in Moldova is similar. The health system does not have the capacity to deal with a pandemic, which includes not enough medical workers and out-of-date or a lack of equipment.
The impact of the pandemic will be even more drastic for the Moldovan economy. Small- and medium-sized companies will face bankruptcy and the unemployment rate will rise dramatically. Direct financial assistance may also be needed for the state budget which will be unsustainable in the event of an economic depression. Now is the time for the EU to directly engage the authorities in Chișinău and negotiate ways to unblock financial aid which has been held up recently.
Non-Associated States (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus)
A Marshall-like Plan for Europe’s recovery should also take into account the non-associated states of the Eastern Partnership. Armenia in particular has been hit hard by the pandemic and faces the same type of situation as outlined above. Azerbaijan, arguably, may fare better as it has more of its own resources on hand to manage in the short-term. However, the plummeting price of oil along with the economic fallout of the pandemic will dramatically affect both the state budget and the private sector.
Belarus, meanwhile, is at considerable risk, especially considering the fact that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made some off remarks regarding others’ response to the virus and has taken little action to stop the spread in his country. Most schools and public areas remain open, as do its borders. The society, on the other hand, is on edge and becoming more outraged towards Lukashenka’s mismanagement. There is no doubt that Belarus’s economy is at high risk of collapsing when taking into account the low price of oil, Russia becoming more internally focused on its own response and the global economic fallout. The EU should show its solidarity with the Belarusian people by including the country in its response and recovery packages from the onset.
Certainly there will be many voices in the European Union who will argue that EU states, above all, should receive the aid. Indeed, all European countries will be affected in the short, medium and long term. There is no doubt that a massive Marshall-like Plan for recovery is what will be needed to restart our economies and safeguard the livelihood of hundreds of millions of Europeans.
In this op-ed, we are not arguing a redirection of resources away from EU member states. Instead, we strongly believe that this crisis should become not only an opportunity to show European solidarity with our neighbours in the East, but also a chance to further integrate these countries into European-wide solutions. Including the Eastern Partnership states in the massive recovery efforts will pay dividends in the long term and show to these societies that we, Europeans, are all in this together.
This op-ed was written by the editors of New Eastern Europe. We would like to thank Yahor Azarkevich, Denis Cenusa, Victor Kipiani, Anna Korbut and Anton Naychuk for their input.