Coronavirus Exposes Globalization’s Downside Amid Protective Equipment Shortages

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 4, 2020

Experts say personal protective equipment shortages in the United States reveal dangerous levels of over-reliance on globalized supply chains.

“I’ve been preaching the same message since 2007,” said Mike Bowen, founder of the Secure Mask Supply Association, an organization that for years has been raising the alarm about the United States being at the mercy of foreign government-controlled production facilities of personal protective equipment that is critical in fighting epidemics.

“For fourteen years, I’ve warned about America’s foreign-controlled mask supply,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

Bowen, who also runs Prestige Ameritech, the nation’s biggest surgical mask manufacturer, said he has been working flat out since the outbreak hit headlines, trying to fill orders for protective masks of the type frontline responders and medical staff rely on when dealing with viral outbreaks like COVID-19.

He warned that without a reliable domestic supply of masks, “a ‘Cover your Cough’ campaign will be the only defense.”

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Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray anti-septic solution against the coronavirus at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 26, 2020. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

‘Unprecedented Potential Severe Health Challenge Globally’

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar warned lawmakers on Feb. 25 that the United States faced a shortage of surgical masks and N95 respirators. He said the country has a stockpile of about 30 million N95 masks, but might need as many as 300 million during the outbreak.

“This is an unprecedented potential severe health challenge globally,” Azar said.

Panic buying and hoarding of masks have exacerbated the problem.

“Healthcare workers rely on personal protective equipment to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a release on Tuesday. “But shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons.”

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A pharmacy worker sells N95 face masks in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, on Feb. 27, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The organization blamed the shortage on “rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse,” which it said “is putting lives at risk from the new coronavirus and other infectious diseases.”

The WHO has called on industry and governments to increase manufacturing by 40 percent to meet rising global demand amid the supply squeeze.

“Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real. Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding. We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a daily press briefing on the new coronavirus at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 2, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

The WHO estimates that since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the prices of surgical masks have increased by 600 percent, while those of N95 respirators have gone up threefold.

In the wake of panic buying and hoarding of personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer, some experts argue some of the gear is of limited utility to the general public.

“We need to make sure those N95 masks are available for the doctors and nurses that are going to be taking care of individuals that have this illness,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said during a House Foreign Affairs hearing on Feb. 27. “And it really does displease me, to find people going out, there is no role for these masks in the community.”

Dr. James Robb, former professor of pathology and an early researcher on coronaviruses, said in a note widely shared online that masks “will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth,” but that they are useful in keeping people from touching their face, which is a major transmission mechanism.

“No handshaking! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump,” Robb advises at the top of his list of preventive measures.

People wear surgical masks as they walk
People wear surgical masks as they walk along Chinatown’s Grant Avenue in San Francisco, Calif., on Feb. 26, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

‘Bringing Manufacturing Back to America’

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak highlights the importance of bringing back to the United States previously offshored supply chains for badly needed drugs and gear.

In a meeting between the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force and representatives of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies at the White House on Tuesday, Trump said, “The coronavirus shows the importance of bringing manufacturing back to America so that we are producing, at home, the medicines and equipment and everything else that we need to protect the public’s health.”

“We want to make certain things at home. We want to be doing our manufacturing at home. It’s not only done in China; it’s done in many other places, including Ireland, and a lot of places make our different drugs and things that we need so badly,” Trump said.

The president added steps were being taken to mitigate the risk to public health of reliance on other countries for key drugs and equipment.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters that the administration is considering invoking special powers through a law called the Defense Production Act to rapidly expand domestic manufacturing of protective masks and clothing to combat the coronavirus. Reuters said one of the officials was from the Department of Homeland Security, while the other was from the White House, and that both requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

The law grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base to support military, energy, space, and homeland security programs,” according to a summary on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

‘Most Urgent Possible Wake-up Call’

Trade expert Alan Tonelson praised the Trump administration’s efforts to reshore key manufacturing capacity, calling reliance on China for America’s medical supplies a policy failure.

“A U.S. economy heavily reliant on vital medicines and their ingredients from an increasingly hostile and secretive China is a devastating indictment of pre-Trump national security and public health policy,” Tonelson told The Epoch Times in an email.

“But the purely economic effects shouldn’t be overlooked either, as globalist leaders also encouraged the buildup of China as a huge global manufacturing hub, and thereby exposed Americans to the risk of shortages and other supply chain risks in a wide variety of critical products.”

“All Americans should demand that the coronavirus outbreak be regarded by Washington as the most urgent possible wake-up call,” Tonelson added.

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