Syria’s economy amidst Coronavirus crisis…supporting traders as unemployment increases and prices hike
Enab Baladi- Mais Shtian
The government of the Syrian regime has taken a set of preventive measures on the health, social, economic, and educational levels to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), before its official announcement of confirmed infections. At the same time, the regime’s government is experiencing a deterioration in all aspects of life after nine years of war.
The Syrian Finance Minister, Mamoun Hamdan, has announced that 100 billion Syrian Pounds (SYP- around 77 million USD) would be allocated to finance the government’s measures against the coronavirus, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
During a meeting in the General Directorate of Customs on 19 March, Hamdan called for facilitating customs procedures for importers, especially of goods such as medicines, drugs, and medical supplies, besides accelerating their customs clearance process.
Moreover, the Economic Commission of Syria’s Council of Ministers issued a decision to facilitate import processes that provided for exempting importers of all goods, including food items and raw materials necessary for food industries, detergents, and disinfectants, from the import deposit requirement of 25 percent of traders import license.
The economic measures were mainly focused on subsidizing the importation of necessary materials and the health sector, amid the absence of proposed solutions for those who lost their work due to the closure of many commercial services and quarantine measures against the current crisis of the coronavirus.
Even though the Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis confirmed the full availability of essential goods in warehouses, and the increased outlets of the Syrian Trading company, the prices of these goods hiked dramatically in the markets, and the outlets of the company were overcrowded, according to what the correspondents of Enab Baladi monitored.
Syrian regime’s economic procedures are investments rather than support
The Syrian researcher, Sokrat al-Alou, commenting on the economic measures taken by the government and its dedicated funds to confront the spread of the coronavirus, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that these provisions are partial, not comprehensive, and regarded as an investment rather than governmental support, taking in consideration the high prices of disinfectants, and medical face masks in the Syrian market.
According to al-Alou, the governments’ announced allocations to confront the coronavirus, might be mere statements to give the impression that the Syrian government cares for the citizens’ welfare, and has plans to protect them. He added, it is more likely that the government will resort to Russia or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to borrow funds necessary for combating the coronavirus.
The researcher also told Enab Baldi regarding the absence of a crisis emergency fund in Syria’s budget of 4,000 billion SYP (around 9.2 billion USD) for the current year. Al-Alou assumed that if the regime allotted 100 billion SYP for measures against the coronavirus, then the amount will be cut off from the investment income of the state budget.
As for the possibility that the regime may resort to treasury bonds for financing itself, al-Alou considered that the offering of new bonds would lead to additional burdens on the government because it has recently placed similar bonds. Not to mention that the Syrian economy is suffering a near collapse situation and a very high inflation rate; thus, those bonds would be of high risk to the Syrian economy.
Absence of provisions compensating people losing their jobs due to coronavirus crisis
The closure of restaurants, cafes, and markets, and the suspension of many occupations, whether entirely or partially as part of the preventive procedures to contain the coronavirus, have left hundreds of thousands of day workers jobless.
Besides, self-employed people were also affected by the coronavirus crisis as they no longer have any source of income in the light of the high prices in the Syrian markets.
According to the statistics provided by the website “Trading Economics,” Syria’s unemployment rate reached 8.4 percent in 2019. In the meantime, the Syrian government has not offered official figures regarding its joblessness rate or announced any economic support program for establishments or individuals affected by the forced quarantine.
The decision of the Central Bank of Syria (CBS), issued on 26 March, to allow banks to postpone the repayment of loans for three months while waiving the late payment fees, aims to ease the burdens of the debt of economic establishments owed to banks, al-Alou said.
He added that historically speaking, the government of the Syrian regime has not provided support to revitalize the economy unless through state employees, in other words, “the government may offer financial grants to state employees; thus the money will be poured into the Syrian markets, stimulating the demand.”
Former Governor of the CBS, Duraid Durgham, proposed in a post published on his Facebook page to grant financial aid or monthly compensation of 50,000 SYP (around 38 USD) to employers registered in the institution of social insurance and whose work has been suspended due to the measures taken by the government to confront the spread of the coronavirus.
Durgham suggested that the government could issue exceptional legislation due to the current condition. This legislation would allow the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL) to provide a solidarity grant, a loan, or a long-term zero-interest bond, adding that “half of the net profits earned last year by the banks can alone cover the cost of these suggested solutions.”
He added, “if the same procedure is applied for hotels and private universities and schools (and other private facilities that are abundant at good and bad times), the combined sums will allow the allocation procedure to be funded or even increase the monthly compensation.”
Coronavirus: a pressure card to lift economic sanctions
The Syrian government was late to take action to prevent the spread of the virus and continues to this day denying the real number of confirmed cases, wishing to turn Syria into an epicenter of the epidemic like Iran; therefore, forcing the international community to cooperate with the regime and ease the sanctions, according to al-Alou.
Al-Alou added that the regime is not dealing seriously with the danger of the coronavirus, for it is considering its spread in Syria as an opportunity to negotiate with the international community to reduce the imposed sanctions; therefore, the regime refrain from forcing the private sector to suspend its activity. In the meantime, the suspension will be limited to the public sector, while the private sector will have the freedom to make a decision.
Moreover, the coronavirus crisis will not leave a significant economic impact on the government; an idea confirmed by people standing in long queues in front of the Syrian Trading Establishment (STE) —the primary state-authorized entity responsible for selling subsidized goods—and bakeries to provide for their families regardless of the safety and prevention measures against the coronavirus, according to al-Alou.
Prominent figures at the Syrian regime, along with businessmen and companies supporting the regime, have been subject to a series of sanctions imposed by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) since 2011.
These sanctions imposed restrictions on the regime’s imports and exports and limited the trading activity of the businessmen and companies subjected to the sanctions, which resulted in the Syrian economy’s further collapse.
Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN), Bashar al-Jaafari, together with representatives of eight countries, delivered a message on 26 March to the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, in which they demanded to lift the sanctions on their countries and providing support to their economies and governments to combat the coronavirus.
Guterres responded by calling for lifting the international and individual sanctions imposed on some countries, regarding that these sanctions could undermine their ability to confront the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, the Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU, Peter Stano, confirmed that the sanctions imposed by the EU on several countries in the world exclude humanitarian aids in response to the demands of lifting sanctions.
Syria needs 71.2 million USD to confront current coronavirus crisis
After nine years of war in Syria, the public health system was rendered weak and in need of lots of support to strengthen its ability against a possible outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), according to the latest UN report regarding Syria’s needs to confront the coronavirus.
The report stated that Syria currently needs 71.2 million USD to fund its preventive measures against the virus, of which 3,250,000 USD have been secured through the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.
Syria is suffering from a shortage of hospitals and medical personnel, while sanctions imposing restrictions on the import of certain medical materials necessary to confront the COVID-19 epidemic are a source of concern, according to the UN report.
In the meantime, the Health Ministry of the Syrian regime’s government has announced five confirmed coronavirus infections so far.
The government has taken a set of measures to arrest the spread of the virus, such as suspending the educational process, reducing the number of public sector employees, halting all social, cultural and sports activities and events, closing cafes, restaurants and sports clubs, besides imposing a partial quarantine.
At the same time, the prices of most essential materials are soaring, especially after the coronavirus pandemic crisis, which resulted in an additional 30 percent increase, in conjunction with a major decline in the value of the Syrian Pound.
According to the UN’s annual report of 2019 regarding Syria’s most urgent humanitarian needs, the UN estimated the proportion of Syrians below the poverty line at 83 percent.
Meanwhile, the purchasing power index for citizens in the Syrian capital, Damascus, witnessed a significant decline reaching 9.61 points, which was classified as “very low” by the international database website for living conditions worldwide, Numbeo.
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