Covid-19 crisis in Ukraine
As part of our project “Eastern Partnership 2.0” we publish a series of articles about the three EU association states (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova). Three authors from the region (Veronika Movchan, Irina Guruli, Sergiu Gaibu) analyse the health, political, economic and social impact of COVID-19 in their countries.
It is too early to assess a full-scale impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ukraine. This crisis is not close to its end neither in the world nor in Ukraine. However, it is already clear that the effect will be highly harmful and likely long-lasting.
The spread of the disease has not been curbed yet. As of June 7, Ukraine registered 27 thousand cases, over half of which still being active, and 788 deaths. The number of new infections has remained high. A moderate downward trend of early May turned into an upward-sloping pattern later on. The first week of June featured +3650 new cases, the highest number ever registered in Ukraine.
Moreover, despite the noticeable acceleration recently, the number of tests per capita stayed the second-lowest in Europe (9,693 per 1 million). The latter causes concerns that the actual spread of the disease could be more extensive than detected. The high rate of infections among medical personnel reaching about one-fifth of total cases further exacerbated the disaster.
However, the uncertain epidemic situation has not prevented the gradual lockdown easing starting early May as the economic hardships, and general lockdown fatigue intensified demands for the re-opening.
The authorities have introduced the containment measures in mid-March when only a few first cases have been detected. The measures included the closure of educational and entertainment establishments, retail stores (except those selling food, pharma and personal protective equipment), open markets, restaurants, sports facilities, and – most importantly – transport. The country stopped international and domestic passenger transportation, except for selected municipal routes though accessible only by special permits.
These measures, contributing to the disease spread containment, has had a devastating blow on the national economy, especially on SMEs working in services. The domestic economic hardships were amplified by the very negative Covid-19 impact on the neighbouring countries including the EU, the largest trade partner of Ukraine, the disruptions in global supply chains, and increased global price volatility. Moreover, the return of labour migrants could cause a reduction in the inflow of remittances, averaged at ca. 8% of GDP in 2015–2019.
April figures confirm the hard economic hit of the Covid-19 crisis. The monthly retail sales dropped 15% in April over a year earlier, while passenger transportation by bus measured by passenger/km reduced by 95%, and passenger rail and underground transportation ceased utterly.
Although neither industrial production nor freight transportation was stopped, they were affected by second-round economic effects. The freight transportation measured by ton/km dropped by 27% in April over a year earlier, with the particular hit taken by trucking. The industrial production was down by 16% in April dragged by reduced manufacturing of metals, machine building, textile and leather products, and construction materials. The only industries demonstrating positive trends were manufacturing of chemical and pharmaceutical products, the demand for which boomed.
As in other countries, the crisis hurts the labour market. The number of newly registered unemployment doubled to 156 thousand in the period between mid-March and end-April, while the total number of unemployed reached 457 thousand vs 7,346 thousand hired employees. Apart from layoffs, employers have been actively using partial employment or temporary leaves. As a result, a total working time dropped by 15% in April over a year earlier, with much deeper slumps in selected sectors like hospitality sector (-68%), transport (-24%), trade (-20%).
As a result, the real GDP dropped by 1.5% already in the first quarter of 2020. In comparison, the annual drop is estimated at 6–11% depending on the scenarios of both duration of the domestic containment measures and the deepness of the global recession.
Still, the macroeconomic picture of this crisis has been different compared to the other crisis episodes in Ukraine. Thanks to the immense efforts aimed at banking system cleaning and the establishment of sound monetary policy, the exchange rate and inflation have remained so far stable. The consumer price index was at healthy 2.1% in April over a year earlier. The initial panic causing a depreciation of the hryvnia from UAH/USD 24.6 in end-February to 28.1 a month later calmed down as the NBU sold some of its international reserves, and the exchange rate returned to below UAH/USD 27 levels in May. Moreover, the NBU managed to restore its international reserves, and it has been gradually reducing its policy rate to stimulate economic growth with monetary easing.
The current account balance has also been stable. The much sharper reduction in imports of goods and services compared to a very moderate drop in exports resulted in a positive balance, counterbalancing the financial account outflow.
The fiscal situation has not been as reassuring. The state deficit is expected to reach about 7% of GDP, as the country needs higher spending to cope with the Covid-19 crisis, while the revenues have been declining. Moreover, 2020 has been one of the years with peak external public debt repayments.
Thus, the resumption of cooperation with the IMF has become an absolute priority. The fulfilment of several vital preconditions – the lifting of the moratorium on agricultural land sales and the adoption of the law banning the return of nationalised banks to its owners – allowed Ukraine to achieve a staff-level agreement with the IMF regarding a new USD 5 billion Stand-By Arrangement in May. Its approval is expected already in the first half of June. The IMF support has also unblocked the MFA from the EU, and the World Bank credits. Still, the much needed foreign direct investments and large-scale privatisation are unlikely to realise this year.
The Covid-19 crisis has not contributed to the stabilisation of domestic politics. The Cabinet of Ministers headed by Oleksiy Honcharuk was dismissed in early March when the first signs of the forthcoming Covid-19 crisis started to show up. The new Government formed by Denis Shmygal has already witnessed several changes of ministers, including the Minister of Healthcare, and has still been working without the approved Program. The Government activities have been accompanied by scandals, including the allegations of corruption in medical procurements and the failed police reform. The judicial reform is stalled, the process of communities’ amalgamation under the decentralisation reform halted. At the same time, the peace initiatives in the conflict with Russia have been hardly acceptable for a part of the society. However, the public approval of President Zelensky has remained high, while the negative sentiments are directed towards the Government and the Parliament.
Ukraine has not yet entered a perfect storm, but the combination of the deadly virus, economic hardships and political unease do not promise easy and quick revival.
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