How the Middle East and Central Asia Can Limit Economic Scarring in the Wake of COVID-19
November 19, 2020
The economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic is the largest and
deepest shock of its kind in recent history and could do lasting damage to
economies in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In the recently released Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia, IMF staff
explore this prospect and how countries can take steps to avoid economic
scarring and improve their resilience.
Intuitively, economic scarring occurs when a crisis causes persistently
lower production or weaker demand. The severity of scarring depends on a
country’s preexisting conditions when a crisis hits and how a country
subsequently responds. The global financial crisis, for example, led to
significant scarring in the region. In fact, by the end of 2019, one-third
of the countries in the region had not returned to their pre-crisis output
trends, and for those who did, it took more than five years.
Why scarring is a threat now
Given the unprecedented nature of the current challenges and the already
elevated fiscal and external vulnerabilities before the pandemic hit,
countries in the Middle East and Central Asia face the daunting possibility
that the impact of this crisis will linger for even longer than the global
financial crisis. Our economic outlook estimates that, five years from now,
countries in the region could be 12 percent below the GDP level suggested
by pre-crisis trends—compared with 9 percent for emerging markets and
developing economies. What’s more, a return to the pre-crisis trend could
take more than a decade.
Scarring in the region could occur in a few key areas. First, continued
containment measures expose services, especially travel and tourism, to
severe disruptions and losses. In fact, for tourism-reliant countries—such
as Georgia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco—we project that baseline GDP and
employment growth could go down by 5 percentage points each in 2020, with
lingering effects for as many as five years.
Second, with higher leverage and lower profitability, corporates in the
region entered the crisis in a weaker position than in past crises. Data
from the first half of 2020 show corporate revenues dipped by 7 percent,
and many sectors, like energy, manufacturing, and services, had
double-digit drops. The damage to corporates in the region will likely take
years to undo, raising the risks of corporate default in the medium term.
Third, remittances are estimated to have contracted by 23 percent on
average during the first half of 2020. Persistently lower remittances will
soften private demand and worsen poverty and inequality. Fragile and
conflict-affected states, like Yemen and Sudan, and other
remittance-dependent countries, such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan,
could collectively see up to 1.3 million more people living in extreme
poverty in 2020.
Finally, countries were beset by high unemployment even before COVID-19
spread, and the region’s limited ability to work from home and high degree
of informality only worsened the impact of lockdowns on labor outcomes.
Evidence from past shocks suggests that downturns in the region typically
have long-lasting effects on the labor market, and unemployment spells can
have enduring, damaging effects on an individual’s employment prospects.
Tackling the challenges ahead
All these factors point to a difficult path forward for the Middle East and
Central Asia region. Fortunately, though, widespread scarring can still be
avoided if authorities take swift and decisive action.
It will be essential to promote economic recovery without creating “zombie”
sectors that are dependent upon government support. That means policies
should only support viable businesses, while facilitating the retraining
and reallocation of labor and capital away from sectors in permanent
Measures such as temporary support for wages, interest subsidies, and tax
deferrals will be essential to ensure that businesses have sufficient
liquidity. If solvency pressures do arise, strong insolvency frameworks
should be put in place for swift resolution to minimize adverse impacts on
Throughout all this, the most vulnerable must be prioritized and protected.
Spending on health, education, and social assistance should be protected,
and innovative digital solutions to improve targeting and expand coverage
should be explored. For countries with fiscal space and weak social safety
nets, unconditional cash transfers could be considered on a temporary basis
as better targeting is developed. Reequipping workers in the worst-affected
sectors with skills needed elsewhere will be key to staving off prolonged
unemployment. For expatriate workers, countries should encourage greater
internal mobility, support employment retention, and bolster job-matching
and search programs. Countries should also improve their digital platforms,
which will boost labor market resilience and allow countries to harness the
value of the digital economy.
COVID-19 will leave an indelible imprint on 2020 and beyond, with an
unimaginable human and economic cost. However, with effective policies and
determined action, countries in the Middle East and Central Asia can avoid
a lost decade and emerge from the pandemic with strong prospects for a
prosperous, inclusive, and more resilient future.