Eva Hilberg By: Eva Hilberg
Post-Doctoral Fellow
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03 May 2020 : Back to the start

Over the past week(s) I've been reading through articles, assessments and press statements made by various organisations and individuals over the course of the outbreak. I am now compiling timelines to keep track of what is happening and what has already happened, as the presentation of past events increasingly shifts. Things are also moving at such a fast pace that by now even January seems to be a very long time ago. What is striking in all of this is how wrong some institutions were at the beginning of it all, and how right some people were. It did not matter, as we now know, but a number of people clearly foresaw the possible extent of crisis that was heading our way. Others were determined not to see this, and are now busily rewriting past events. 

One of the issues that stands out for me is the question of disruptions to the supply chain of protective equipment, which was clearly and repeatedly raised very early on - but did not make one bit of difference to the shortfalls experienced. As the virus spread initially in the place where a lot of the equipment is being made (or where at least materials are being made), this disruption has clearly been on the cards from the outset. However, governments are still expressing their shock of not simply being able to buy some more, as though this was something that no one could ever expect. Of course, these are 'normal' strategies in the field of politics, but it still is fairly striking to see this issue set out clearly at the end of January, for example in a STAT article entitled “The time to worry is now” or with more detail in concerns recorded in the ‘Red Dawn’ emails in February. The Pandemic Supply Chain Network, a public-private collaboration between the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum, took up operation at the end of January. At the end of February, the FDA had identified at least twenty medicines that could be affected by supply chain shortages. Of course, this rather small-scale assessment pales in contrast with later global difficulties of obtaining ventilators, medical supplies, and personal protective equipment. The repurposing of all sorts of different medicines to potentially fight COVID-19 is another depressing chapter in this story.

To me it is shocking to see (again and again) how little has been done even when concerns were raised, and how much time has been wasted in this manner. But furthermore, the current crisis also highlights the absurdity of having a ‘global supply chain’ in the first place – presupposing that somehow most things can always be produced in one place and then distributed globally, even under pressure. This is now clearly exposed as a fiction that the economy has been operating under for the past few decades, creating profit margins in the process of the international consolidation of production. Not only international travel but also the international shipment of all sorts of materials and products has been premised on an almost infinite potential of circulation, only limited by the dimension of time – which recently has been increasingly compressed by means of digitalization. While some of this trend continues strongly in the surge in online meeting and virtual work arrangements, the materiality of the global supply chain has now reasserted itself very strongly. 

I wish I could have at least some hope that this version of globalisation may be one of the things that could be changed by all this, but even in the face of constraints, the answer still appears to be to produce more in the same place, instead of in different places. For instance, German companies selling facemasks mostly produce abroad, and are making the argument that they would need guaranteed purchase amounts and prices in order to even begin thinking about producing in Germany. There is also a global bottleneck when it comes to the material needed for masks, especially a specific type of non-woven propylene (or ‘meltblown’). Without this material you cannot make new medical masks, wherever you may be. There are no quick solutions to this supply chain issue, with lead times of over a year quoted to set up a new manufacturing line. In the meantime it appears that the world is (still) hostage to neoliberalism’s success and finds it very hard to begin thinking outside of this particular box.

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