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The Panama Canal with the Centennial Bridge in the background. The pandemic has taken a toll on trade in Central America. (photo: Lokibaho by Getty Images)
When it Rains it Pours: Pandemic and Natural Disasters Challenge Central America’s Economies
IMF, Western Hemisphere Department
December 17, 2020
COVID-19 has not spared Central America. Confirmed cases have multiplied towell over 600,000 in November, with the death toll exceeding 14,000.
Countries have taken prompt containment measures, with the strictestenforced in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,amid inadequate testing and tracing capacities and limited access to basichealth services.Insufficient hospital capacity and protective equipment,elevated poverty, and, in some cases, densely populated cities haveworsened the human toll. Low levels of testing and weak reporting in somecountries suggest the situation might be even worse than officialstatistics.
The economic toll has been heavy as well. The trade shock has been particularly strong in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama (via a severedrop in revenues from lower traffic in the Canal).
Tourist arrivals dropped sharply in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic,where tourism receipts made up 6–10 percent of GDP before the pandemic.
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On average, lockdowns have contributed about 70 percent to the slowdown,especially in Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, reflectingthe combination of stringent containment measures and a higher share ofcontact-intensive sectors.
Multiple natural disasters added to the economic destruction and increasedthe risk of worsening the pandemic: two tropical storms in June in ElSalvador; a severe drought in Honduras; and two recent back-to-backcategory 4 hurricanes that hit Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Hondurasparticularly hard.
Several factors have helped mitigate the double health and climate shocks,in particular a solid agricultural performance and, since May, a strongrebound of remittances, on which most Central American countries dependheavily. Lower oil prices benefitted the region, a net importer. Medicalequipment exports have partly offset the tourism downfall in Costa Rica.
Nonetheless, with tourism and trade unlikely to return to pre-pandemiclevels soon, real GDP is projected to contract sharply in 2020, by nearly 6percent, ranging from -2 percent in Guatemala to -9 percent in El Salvadorand Panama. The speed of the recovery will depend on countries’ exposure tothe world economy; the stringency of containment measures as infectionscontinue to rise; the availability of vaccines; and their ability tosustain supportive policies.The economic impact of the recentnatural disasters, still being assessed, might further lower theseestimates.
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Extensive fiscal and monetary support have helped mitigate the economic andsocial impact. Most countries increased spending, extending subsidies andtransfers to reach the informal sector that accounts for up to 60 percentof employment in some countries (for instance, in Guatemala and Honduras).Countries granted temporary tax relief to key economic sectors, andprovided liquidity support and credit relief through rate cuts, lendingfacilities, credit guarantees, and regulatory forbearance.
The fiscal cost of these measures has been significant, squeezingcountries’ already strained finances and causing public debt to swell. Buttargeted support will need to continue, to resolve the health emergency,support the nascent recovery, and prevent that already elevated levels ofpoverty, inequality, and unemployment rise even more.
Emergency financial assistance from the IMF and other multilateralinstitutions has provided temporary relief, and most countries issued debtin international markets. But financing needs remain large, averaging 9percent of GDP over the next three years, amid tight financing conditions.A few countries have already approached the IMF for additional support,which could catalyze financing and anchor their adjustment programs
The road ahead
Looking ahead, fiscal consolidation will be necessary to rebuild countries’financial health, and a broad political and social dialogue will becritical to build support for gradual, transparent, and sustainablemedium-term plans. Spending should be reprioritized toward adequate,well-targeted social safety nets to protect the vulnerable, and efficientpublic investment in health, education, infrastructure, and technology tonarrow the existing skills and infrastructure gaps and enhance resilienceto future shocks.
Ambitious structural reforms will need to complement macro-policy actionsto boost competitiveness and increase growth potential, reduce inequalityand informality, support a strong and green recovery, and build resilienceto climate shocks. Regional authorities are already moving in thisdirection, preparing a reconstruction plan that prioritizes financing toprojects that adapt and respond to climate change effects.
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The financial system will require attention, as widespread job losses andbusiness closures will likely weigh on banks’ health. Supervisoryauthorities will need to support flexible use of capital and liquiditybuffers consistent with international standards, while closely monitoringfinancial stability risks and preparing to unwind the support measures whenwarranted.
As it recovers from the health emergency, the region will face multiplechallenges on the way to an inclusive and sustainable economic recovery. Itwill require careful phasing out of emergency policies to reduce debtsustainability risks, while protecting the nascent recovery and the socialfabric. Access to additional multilateral loans and market financing willbe needed to meet sizable medium-term financing needs.
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This article draws on joint work by the IMF’s country teams working onCentral America, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.