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Toward a Resilient Recovery – Battling the Pandemic in Europe and Central Asia

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The emerging and developing economies of Europe and Central Asia have been hit hard by the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 978,000 people have lost their lives and more than 48 million have been infected with the coronavirus to date. Few households or businesses have not experienced major disruption. The World Bank is working closely with countries to help them combat the pandemic and achieve a resilient, inclusive, and sustainable recovery for everyone.

Nyozmoh Mirzoeva, a 62-year-old grandmother in Tajikistan, has experienced extraordinary hardship over the past couple of years. In early 2020, Nyozmoh’s husband, an electrician, died in a work-related accident and, not long after, her son migrated to Russia in search of work as a laborer. Prevented from seeking employment because of a long-term disability, Nyozmoh struggled to support the rest of her family, including young grandchildren.

Compounding the enormous challenges facing Nyozmoh, the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly across Tajikistan in mid-2020. Like her family, the poorest households around the country had to significantly cut back on essential needs in order to get by from day to day. Four out of ten Tajik households have reported they were forced to reduce their consumption of food, while one in five families have said they were unable to obtain medical care.

Tajikistan, one of the poorest countries in the Europe and Central Asia region, was among the first countries to receive emergency support from the World Bank to respond to the pandemic. In April 2020, the Bank approved $11.3 million in financial support to help strengthen healthcare capacity, provide emergency cash assistance to poor households, and communicate effectively to the public about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Bank has since provided an additional $21.2 million in financing to further strengthen Tajikistan's COVID-19 response, help vulnerable households, procure and distribute vaccines, and scale-up earlier interventions.

Like Tajikistan, all countries in Europe and Central Asia have been severely affected by COVID-19. To help countries tackle the health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic, the World Bank has to date committed more than $1.8 billion in overall support to the region.

Boosting Health Systems

From the beginning of the outbreak, the first priority of governments has been to protect people’s health. As such, the World Bank moved rapidly with COVID-19 emergency support to governments around the region, including through projects in many countries.

These projects have helped finance the purchase of life-saving equipment such as new intensive care beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), and also construct new hospitals and expand the capacity of existing facilities.

In Armenia, for example, the Bank allocated $3 million in April 2020, at the request of the Ministry of Health, to address the country’s urgent need for equipment and supplies for the intensive care of people with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. In February 2021, Armenia’s health system was given a further boost with $7.4 million in additional financing, allowing over 137,000 people in two underserved regions, Gegharkunik and Vayots Dzor, to access quality medical care.

In Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, the Bank has supported the health system’s response to the pandemic through the COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness and Response Project, which helped increase the number of ICU beds to a total of 430 in 19 designated hospitals – in line with the average number of intensive care beds in European countries.

In addition, essential medical equipment has been procured for 55 Moldovan hospitals where the most complex COVID-19 cases are treated, including 400 oxygen concentrators, 292 artificial ventilators, 20 oxygen generators, 1 million personal protection equipment, 8 ambulances, and many more indispensable pieces of equipment.

In Tajikistan, at the onset of the pandemic, the Emergency COVID-19 Project helped provide around 100 new fully equipped Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in health facilities, and strengthened the health system’s overall capacity to treat individuals infected with COVID-19. In addition, urgently needed supplies to help detect and prevent COVID-19 were procured, including testing kits, laboratory reagents, and personal protective equipment for medical personnel.

In Georgia, the World Bank was one of the first donors to support the government when the pandemic started. The Bank worked closely with the government and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to design the COVID-19 Emergency Response Project, which came into effect in May 2020. The main goal of the project was to save lives and protect health workers. Numerous medical equipment, tools, diagnostics, and tests were procured and distributed to hospitals throughout Georgia.

In Uzbekistan, the Bank is supporting the government’s effort to strengthen the national health system’s capacity to treat COVID-19 patients through a project that has, to date, procured over 600 pieces of modern medical equipment costing approximately $21.5 million. This equipment, which includes ventilators, computed tomography scanners, patient monitors, PCR, ultrasound and X-ray machines, has been distributed among 35 hospitals across Uzbekistan.

In addition, the Ministry of Health plans to procure additional equipment, costing about $20 million, that will allow medical personnel to diagnose and treat patients more effectively.

In Ukraine, the government received $25 million through the restructured Serving People, Improving Health project, to respond to the immediate health emergency. This financing was supplemented with an additional $135 million to support critical hospital upgrades and reforms, as well as provide much-needed training to thousands of Ukrainian doctors.

The World Bank also provided $90 million under the new Emergency COVID-19 Response and Vaccination Project to scale-up Ukraine’s health sector response to the pandemic, support the rollout of vaccination to priority groups among the population, procure vaccines and improve the infrastructure for vaccine storage and logistics.

Protecting the Poorest and Most Vulnerable

World Bank assistance to the Europe and Central Asia region has also included income support for poorest and most vulnerable households, and for the unemployed. This has meant working with national and local governments to improve and expand social protection initiatives.

In Uzbekistan, the Bank helped the government extend social protection coverage to support more people adversely affected by the economic crisis. From November 2020 to February 2021, more than one million households received low-income family allowances, totaling $51.8 million. In addition, from December 2020 to May 2021, more than 75,000 unemployment benefit payments, totaling $3.7 million, were provided to citizens who had lost their jobs.

In Moldova, the Bank’s COVID-19 project not only supported the health sector response, but also included support to help the poor and vulnerable cope with the immediate impacts of the pandemic. To date, the project has provided nearly $26 million in social and financial support to poor households.

In Tajikistan, the Bank financed a program that provided one-time emergency cash transfers to over 65,000 poor households with young children. With many families forced to cut back on meals as a result of rapidly rising food prices, these emergency funds helped ensure they had enough to eat. Thanks to additional financing approved by the Bank in February 2021, an additional 70,000 people in Tajikistan are to receive such assistance.

In Georgia, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Project also helped address the economic impacts of the crisis. About 750,000 poor and vulnerable people benefited from cash support through various social assistance and unemployment benefits. By October 2021, about $72 million in temporary emergency benefits for vulnerable households had been provided, along with temporary unemployment benefits and one-off benefits for self-employed individuals.

In the Western Balkans, the pandemic had an unprecedented impact on employment, especially among youth and women. Countries in the region quickly took steps to support people who lost their jobs or source of income, and to protect existing beneficiaries of their last resort income support programs.

In North Macedonia, for example, the government ensured that social assistance payments continued despite the pandemic conditions. The government also quickly took steps to modify the eligibility criteria for its last resort income support program (Guaranteed Minimum Assistance) to extend coverage to poor people affected by the pandemic who would otherwise not be eligible. This allowed the program to expand coverage flexibly.

The World Bank assisted the government in modifying its social assistance systems to respond to the crisis, and in extending funding to support the expansion of the GMA through the North Macedonia Emergency COVID-19 project.

In Ukraine, the Second Additional Financing for COVID-19 Response under Social Safety Nets Modernization Project provided $300 million to improve the performance of Ukraine’s social assistance and social services system for low-income households and provide income support to households affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.

Supporting Businesses and Jobs

The Bank is providing policy advice and financial assistance to governments so they can help micro, small and medium enterprises weather the crisis and return to growth. This is critical to ensure businesses can survive and people have jobs to return to.

In Turkey, micro and small enterprises are the main source of employment for poor and near-poor households, and account for more than 40 percent of employment in the manufacturing sector. Bank funds have helped micro and small enterprises through the $300 million Rapid Support for Micro and Small Enterprises Project for Turkey.

The project has provided reimbursable support financing for manufacturing firms and other, innovative young firms focused on manufacturing, scientific research and development, and computer programming.

In Georgia, the World Bank rapidly mobilized a robust financial support package for the country’s businesses through the EUR 85 million Relief and Recovery for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Project, which was designed to contribute to the Government’s jobs agenda and support up to 6,000 MSMEs that have been most affected by the pandemic, especially in such hard-hit sectors as agriculture and tourism.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, the Emergency Support for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises project provided financial relief and recovery support to up to 65,000 micro, small and medium businesses in the country that were impacted by business closures, loss of revenues and missed trading opportunities. In addition, the project’s funds helped ensure that pensions and other social insurance benefits under the responsibility of the Social Fund were paid in a timely manner for up to six months.

In North Macedonia, following the shutdown that started in March 2020, the government approached the Bank for co-financing support for the implementation of a wage subsidy scheme. This support has helped viable firms in tourism and transport – two of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic. Approximately 20,000 companies benefitted from the wage subsidy scheme, helping over 120,000 employees in North Macedonia.

Procuring and Deploying Vaccines

Fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines is vital to saving lives and boosting economic recovery. The World Bank is making $20 billion available to help developing countries around the world finance the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

In Moldova, the Bank supplemented its initial COVID-19 response with an additional $30 million in April 2021 to procure vaccines for roughly one-third of the population, and to provide technical and financial support for the deployment of vaccines for half the population. According to the World Health Organization, by mid-November 2021, more than 1.5 million vaccine doses had been administered in the country, which is home to roughly 2.7 million people.

In February 2021, the World Bank approved additional financing for the Tajikistan Emergency COVID-19 Project, including $8.63 million for the procurement and delivery of eligible vaccines. With support from other development partners, and through COVAX, more than 5 million vaccine doses had been administered in Tajikistan by mid-November.

In Ukraine, World Bank financing has helped the government procure vaccines for over 2 million people, to date, and the Bank is currently planning additional financing of $150 million to help purchase approximately 20 million more vaccine doses, an investment that will provide vaccination for over 10 million people, almost one-quarter of Ukraine’s population. By mid-November, almost 21 million doses had been administered in the country.

Vaccine hesitancy remains high in Ukraine, however, as in many countries across the Europe and Central Asia region. Especially challenging has been to increase vaccine uptake among the most vulnerable groups, including people aged over 60. As such, governments have been deploying various measures, ranging from communication and outreach campaigns to financial incentives and “green passes.”

The Bank has supported the Government of Ukraine with such efforts, including by financing a hotline that provides information on all COVID-related matters. To date, over 1.3 million calls to the National contact line on COVID-19 have been processed, including over 410,000 calls on vaccination.

In addition, the Bank is currently preparing to provide Ukraine with additional resources to strengthen its communication and community outreach campaigns, as well as capacity-building efforts, to address misconceptions about vaccination.

In Georgia, the Bank moved quickly to support the country’s vaccination campaign, including with financing of $34.5 million for vaccine procurement and deployment, along with investments in cold chain systems, service delivery, medical waste management, and digital health systems. Over 1 million doses of vaccines are being retroactively financed by the Bank, enough to cover almost 30 percent of the eligible population. By mid-November, more than 1.9 million vaccine doses had been administered in the country.

Vaccine hesitancy in Georgia has also posed a challenge in the country’s battle against the pandemic. To help address this, the Bank has supported the government’s national communication campaign, including new branding, videos, and regional meetings with citizens. Through technical assistance and knowledge sharing, the Bank has also supported several initiatives of the government, including the introduction of a green pass and financial incentives targeting retirees.

The pandemic has had major health, social, and economic impacts on people and communities around Europe and Central Asia, as around the world. The World Bank will continue to provide support to countries to ensure that all people can benefit from a resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery.