GP Insights # 318, 4 April 2020
The US's global scramble and alleged attempts to hijack more protective masks and other vital medical supplies to deal with the escalating number of Covid-19 victims has sparked tensions among its allies including Canada and Germany. These countries fear facing shortages while battling Covid-19 outbreaks in their own country.
Berlin accused the US of confiscating 200,000 Germany-bound masks en route from China and termed the act as "modern piracy". Brazil and France have also complained about the United States outbidding them in the global marketplace for critical medical supplies. French health officials claim that US officials barged into a Chinese airport and spirited away a planeload of masks that were ordered by France.
What is the background?
As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, demand for crucial medical supplies, such as masks and respirators, has surged worldwide. Recently Spain launched three weekly flights to ferry home medical supplies directly from China. The United States, which at present is suffering from double the number of infections compared to any other nation is scrambling for medical supplies including thermometers, gowns, masks and gloves mainly from Asia and Central America. The White House invoked the Defense Production Act which is a Korean-War-era law to deal with a critical shortage of N95 masks at US hospitals and ordered The US company, Minnesota mask manufacturer 3M to prioritize US orders over foreign demand. 3M was also directed to stop exporting masks to Canada and Latin America in addition to importing more from its factories in China. At a daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Trump said that US authorities had taken custody of 200,000 N95 respirators, 130,000 surgical masks along with 600,000 gloves.
The US is not the only accused. Earlier in February, Italy issued an ordinance blocking the export of medical supplies. Last month, Italian customs police seized some 800,000 masks and disposable gloves that were about to be sent to Switzerland. Recently, Tunisia accused Italy of blocking a shipment of alcohol for making the hand-cleansing gel.
What does it mean?
Such acts of national self-interest while waging the battle against Covid-19 test the often-proclaimed solidarity among nations. The World Health Organization, which presently advises that masks do not provide sufficient protection from infection, is even considering to change its guidelines on whether people should wear face masks in public. Mr Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control recommend Americans to use non-medical, cloth face coverings to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The Defense Production Act allows the President to force companies to make products for national defence. 3M warned that such acts would have "significant humanitarian implications" as 3M is a critical supplier of respirators in Canada and Latin America. It could also prompt other countries to act in a similar manner. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that "it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce trade". Germany has urged the Trump administration to adhere to international trading rules, deal sensitively with its transatlantic partners and abstain from "wild-west methods."
Several European officials echoed similar sentiments against the 'buying and diversion practices' of the United States. Regional leaders in France have also expressed their struggle in procuring medical supplies while American buyers outbid them. These turns come at a time when "All of the European Union is living in a state of hysteria". However, on the brighter side, some countries have tried to make amends for such acts terming them as missteps. Last month, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, apologized to Italy and gave away thousands of masks and respirators to compensate for their "mistakenly seized" supplies.