American Consequences - May 2020

interested in negotiating between often- Chinese suppliers and American hospitals. James became a master of the (face mask) universe almost by accident. In late January, he was in Shanghai, running a logistics company, when the Chinese authorities started to use a sledgehammer to squash the Wuhan virus (as we called it back then, without irony). Sensing opportunity, James did what any red-blooded American entrepreneur – who happened to have helped head up two logistics startups in Silicon Valley – would do. He Googled “face mask suppliers U.S.” and went to work. “I found a supplier in Texas and ordered 30,000 face masks,” he told me. And conveniently, just weeks before James had built up some savings for the first time in his life. “I paid for them with my credit card. I had no idea if I’d be able to sell them,” he said. “My friends in the U.S. had just one word for me: Why?” His American friends didn’t get it. James put his newly acquired face masks up for sale on the website of his firm – kind of like an Amazon for foreigners in Hong Kong who want products from home that they can’t buy locally – and wound up selling the shipment to a Hong Kong mothers Facebook group. (Just weeks before, the authorities in Hong Kong tried to prohibit anti-government protestors from wearing masks... shortly after, they required everyone to wear them all the time.) James called the supplier from Texas back and ordered another 20,000 masks, though he

“I paid for them with my credit card. I had no idea if I’d be able to sell them,” he said. “My friends in the U.S. had just one word for me: Why?” In the meantime, there’s a lot of finger- pointing. Ahead of the crisis, the U.S. had just 40 million masks in the national strategic stockpile. “What a small, shameful way for a strong nation to falter: For want of a 75-cent face mask, the kingdom was lost,” wrote a commentator in the New York Times in late March. The lousy preparation of the U.S. and much of the rest of the world for a pandemic spawned supply-chain chaos, intense competition between countries and states for masks and other protective gear, and thousands of entrepreneurs and profiteers The shortage of PPE has been one of the many defining tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health workers in the U.S. (including my brother the ER doc) didn’t have sufficient PPE for weeks, including face masks, to adequately protect themselves. Strictly speaking, it’s not face masks themselves that are scarce. Rather, there isn’t enough of the filter in face masks, which is made of a non-woven polypropylene called “meltblown.” It’s used in everything from diapers to air filters to jackets, and it isn’t difficult to make. But the meltblown industry wasn’t equipped for the explosion in demand – and it will take a while for manufacturing capacity to catch up.


May 2020

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