N95 Masks Have Been Leaving The U.S. During The Coronavirus Pandemic When We Needed Them The Most: What Should Happen Next?
After writing my last article on the buying and selling frenzy for N95 masks, I couldn’t have anticipated what was coming next, but it’s clear that the story is only getting bigger. A flurry of news came shortly after, documenting from multiple angles that masks and other supplies, required by front-line medical personnel to do their jobs, have been leaving the country while desperately needed in U.S. hospitals.
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Let’s review what we now know about these critical medical supplies leaving the country during the pandemic.
As reported here last Monday, brokers in the U.S. have been facilitating sales of N95 masks to foreign buyers throughout the health crisis. I shadowed one broker who refuses to sell to foreign buyers during the pandemic, but the broader sales network—unrestricted by U.S. laws that have allowed the export of medical supplies around the world—includes players engaged in these deals.
After this story broke, reporting appeared in multiple news outlets showing that foreign exports of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies have been continuing during the pandemic.
In an article titled “Key Medical Supplies Were Shipped From U.S. Manufacturers To Foreign Buyers, Records Show,” The Intercept reported:
The article goes on to provide details of shipments destined for cities around the globe, while also bringing to light how countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany—all destinations of U.S. exports—“moved to ban exports of vital health care products in a bid to shore up domestic supply.”
Similar coverage of these and other countries’ export bans appeared in Bloomberg News: “This year some two dozen nations – including China and India – have begun to restrict or ban exports of medical gear like masks, gloves, protective suits and disinfectant.”
By the end of last week, an exchange erupted between the Trump administration and the 3M Company MMM (makers of N95 masks) regarding use of the Defense Production Act to influence production and limit export of critical medical supplies. President Trump said in a tweet: “We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. “P Act” all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing – will have a big price to pay!”
3M released a statement saying “3M and its employees have gone above and beyond to manufacture as many N95 respirators as possible for the U.S. market,” and warning that “ceasing all exports of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done.” The statement also cites “significant humanitarian considerations” for mask exports to support “healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators.” (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already said he will not retaliate against the U.S.)
During a press conference on Friday, April 3, the President said he was officially using his powers under the Defense Production Act to “prohibit export of scarce health and medical supplies by unscrupulous actors and profiteers” and “the Secretary of Homeland Security will work with FEMA to prevent the export of N95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment.” He later said in answer to a question that he may allow certain exceptions to the export ban for countries in dire need.
Adding yet another dimension to the story, The Daily Mail and Daily Mail Australia reported on an investigation that revealed China stockpiled two billion masks along with 25 million pieces of other essential medical supplies between January and March.
Quoting from coverage of the report:
The story was also discussed on 60 Minutes, with testimony from a witness who says “he saw tons of gloves, masks, gowns, sanitizer and other vital medical supplies being packaged to be shipped out of Australia to China” while Australian healthcare workers have been reporting shortages of PPE at hospitals across the country.
China is seen by much of the world as a source of medical goods, but in this case it seems China—a key destination of U.S. exports—actively sought sources of PPE in other countries to amass an enormous stockpile of billions of masks and other medical supplies. This was occurring while hospitals across the U.S. and other countries have been in desperate need for these very items.
While coverage of the larger story will continue to unearth more details, some of the data points are rapidly connecting, and we’re also revisiting what we know in light of what’s changed. For example, we know that export laws in the U.S. have allowed the sale of medical supplies around the globe – that’s been true right up until this point in the pandemic. What’s changed is that the U.S. was thrust into a health crisis without modern comparison, and that changed our perception of export laws that would otherwise remain unquestioned.
Likewise, the U.S. has always provided significant humanitarian aid to countries in need, including critical medical supplies. What’s changed, again, is that this health crisis came to U.S. shores (and, in yet another twist, has placed the U.S. in a position of needing humanitarian assistance from other countries).
Blame will continue to be pointed in all directions, but for now—at least until we make it through this crisis—it’s more important that we work toward an understanding of what happened and why. We are living through the biggest health crisis of our time and it’s crucial that we figure out how to learn from this experience to improve our systems and standards moving forward.
This will not be the last pandemic humans face, nor the last health crisis that surpasses our previously held assumptions, and we must become better prepared to handle what comes next. As more information comes to light, hopefully the politics and blame can take a backseat to heightened understanding for the benefit of us all.
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