Among the many wake up calls stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the fragility of global supply chains has taken center spotlight. As these supply lines are disrupted, consumers are beginning to see shortages of products that were taken for granted just weeks earlier. The most visible shortage has been at grocery stores with barren shelves where food and toilet paper are normally fully stocked. However shocking these shortages are, they are mostly the result of panicked buying instead of strain on their supply chains, at least in the United States. Other products, particularly medical products, like personal protective equipment (PPE), rely heavily on imports from China and elsewhere. The disruption of supply chains in necessary products like these poses a threat to national security that policymakers must address with the same level of attention afforded to past national security crises.
The US has already prepared some emergency measures. Chief among these is the Strategic National Stockpile, a strategic supply of medical equipment for emergency use since the 1990s, including drugs, PPE, and ventilators, though it was intended for responding to smaller scale emergencies, not a nationwide pandemic. As the stockpile’s resources have been depleted, the federal government has encouraged individual states to procure the equipment on their own. However, the overwhelming demand for these products that COVID-19 has generated is forcing states to compete with each other on the open market. Bigger states like California can muster much greater purchasing power than smaller states, leading to inequitable distribution of supplies.
This ultimately puts people’s lives at risk, as supply shortages force hospitals to make decisions about who gets treated and, even, who gets resuscitated. When hospitals are unable to provide enough PPE to health care workers, people inevitably die, including doctors and nurses. The death toll in the United States has already surpassed that of the 9/11 terrorist attacks many times over. For an even more visceral example of the extent to which the pandemic is a challenge to national security, one need look no further than the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, where over 600 sailors have tested positive for COVID-19.
Developments in the world economy have brought many benefits to both firms and consumers – when the economy is functioning. Lower labor costs abroad make products cheaper for consumers at home. Companies use just-in-time inventory (keeping only a few weeks’ worth of inventory on hand), which has made them more profitable. But this system assumes that raw materials and products will continue to move through the world without major disruptions. In the event of a major disruption, like the one we are witnessing now, these benefits quickly turn into liabilities as countries enact restrictions on exports of vital medical products.
In the United States, activating the Strategic National Stockpile and invoking the Defense Production Act are important actions the federal government can take to shepherd resources to where they are most needed in a crisis. The Defense Production Act allows the federal government to order private companies to prioritize federal contracts ahead of all others for national defense purposes. But these moves have shown to be insufficient, as the stockpile’s cache of ventilators and masks is already almost completely depleted, and the Trump Administration has received criticism for invoking the DPA too late.
When the crisis has ended and policymakers review what went wrong, they should pay considerable attention to the problems caused by our tangled, fragile supply chain. To start, the private sector needs to better understand its supply chain. Government can lead the charge by identifying the most crucial products (e.g., medicine, PPE, devices), mandating that companies fully map out their supply chains, and ensuring they are robust enough to withstand a supply shock in the event of a global catastrophe. Global pandemics are, unfortunately, inevitable in our increasingly interconnected world and we should treat them with the level of urgency and attention we have ascribed to other national security threats in the past.
Kristofer Garriott is pursuing his Master’s in Public Policy with an emphasis in national security at the Schar School of Policy and Government. Areas of interests include terrorism and the rise of great powers in the 21st century. A native of Virginia, Kris has lived in Panama and loves to travel to new places. He currently works as a contractor in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.
Photo can be found here.