Securing supplies: How to prevent another COVID-19 breakdown

This article first appeared in Foreign and Defence Policy and was written by  Elisabeth Braw, Resident Fellow, Foreign and Defense Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Key Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vulnerability of global supply chains during crises.
  • No liberal democracy today can become fully autarkic, growing and building all its needs domestically, nor can it store all its population’s needs in strategic stockpiles.
  • Governments must work with the private sector to exercise crisis scenarios. This can also be done at the multinational level, reflecting countries’ interlocking needs and businesses’ global operations.
  • Wargaming such crisis scenarios will help governments and businesses reduce the impact of future crises.

“As the saying goes ‘when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade’, so, when there’s a virus pandemic and you own a distillery you make . . . hand sanitiser,” noted the British online resource Gin and Tonicly last spring, listing six community-minded British distilleries that had switched their alcohol-based production from gin to hand sanitizer. The distilleries did so to help Britons who were suddenly desperate for the lowly liquid that protects against sundry bacteria and viruses.

Portobello Road Gin in London, for example, started making hand sanitizer for the many Metropolitan Police Service officers who suddenly faced a deadly airborne enemy while on the beat. Silent Pool Distillers, based in the county of Surrey, began manufacturing hand sanitizer for local hospital staff, nursing home workers, and police officers. Worldwide, gin distilleries including the boutique Portobello Road Gin and corporate giants Anheuser-Busch Companies and Absolut Vodka owner Pernod Ricard USA turned to hand sanitizer.

Other companies, too, came to the rescue as countries suddenly found themselves short of crucial items. The luxury brand Burberry converted its trench coat factory in Yorkshire to produce hospital gowns, selling them to the UK government. A snowboard factory in Burlington, Vermont, turned to making face shields to donate to hospitals; the Vermont Teddy Bear Company decided to sew thousands of face masks to make sure ordinary consumers were not using medical-grade disposable ones. Anticipating US government orders, the Swedish defense contractor Saab started manufacturing hospital gowns. Dyson Limited, the maker of cutting-edge vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, began developing ventilators to sell to Britain’s National Health Service, though ultimately the UK government did not need them.

Whether for altruism, profit motives, or because the government issued commands (as was the case in the United States), in many countries the private sector came through when COVID-19 struck. Indeed, the chaos and efforts in spring 2020 provide an important case study of Western societies’ current ability to respond to a crisis. This matters greatly, as future crises may be more severe and may appear with other contingencies. It is thus imperative to learn from even the relatively manageable COVID-19 crisis. The COVID-19 supply disruption raises a fundamental question: What is a supply chain if it does not provide the complete range of goods that society requires to survive and prosper? During crises, industrialized societies may have to change their expectations from a supply chain that allows them to prosper to one that allows them to survive.

Read the full report.