The novel coronavirus has brought the world economy to a grinding halt. Global growth is set to fall from 2.9 percent last year into deep negative territory in 2020—the only year besides 2009 that this has happened since World War II. Recovery will likely be slow and painful. Government restrictions to prevent the virus from resurging will inhibit production and consumption, as will defaults, bankruptcies, and staffing cuts that have already produced record jobless claims in the United States.
But not all countries will bear the pain of the global recession equally. Low-income countries suffer from poor health infrastructure, which inhibits their ability to fight off the coronavirus, and many of them had dangerously high debt levels even before the pandemic necessitated massive emergency spending. Foreign investors are now withdrawing capital from emerging markets and returning it to the rich world in search of a safe haven. As a result, countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria are seeing their currencies plummet in value—making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to service foreign loans.
Faced with the threat of financial ruin, poor countries have turned to multilateral financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The IMF has already released emergency funds to at least 39 countries, and by the end of March more than 40 more had approached it for help. The World Bank has fast-tracked $14 billion for crisis relief efforts. Yet even as they offer extraordinary amounts of aid, the IMF and World Bank know that these sums won’t be nearly enough. For that reason, they called on Group of 20 creditor nations to suspend collecting interest payments on loans they have made to low-income countries. On April 15, the G-20 obliged: all of its members agreed to suspend these repayment obligations through the end of the year—all members except one, that is.
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