Economic nationalism was on the rise before the spread of COVID-19, and worryingly, it may be picking up even more as a result.
Countries around the world are experiencing the biggest public health crisis in recent memory, and there are concerns about having the necessary supplies to deal with it. It is understandable that governments are afraid that they will be short of the medical care products they need.
The proper response, however, is not an “every country for itself” hoarding of these products. Instead, all countries should play a constructive role in addressing the problem, taking into account their current public health situation. As our colleague Scott Lincicome put it last week, the proper response by government here should be:
conducting international diplomacy and multilateral coordination of public health and economic issues in order to share best practices, ensure global medical collaboration on potential cures, and prevent counterproductive, “beggar‐thy‐neighbor” policies such as hoarding or export restrictions;
Unfortunately, there are signs that some governments are headed in the wrong direction. So far, 54 countries have implemented some form of export restriction on medical supplies.
There have even been actions to restrict food exports. To date, the United States has not joined in this approach, but a member of U.S. Congress recently proposed a full ban on certain critical medical supplies. With the number of cases surging quickly in the United States, proposals such as this one could gain support.
As Lincicome suggests, what countries should be doing instead is coordinating with each other, which will help them figure out who needs what products at a given moment. Each country is at a different stage of the COVID-19 crisis. Those who are in the midst of the crisis should be reaching out to tell the rest of the world what they need. And those who are in recovery or have not been hit too hard, such as China and Japan, should be helping those who need it.
There was speculation that China, a major producer of medical supplies, was restricting exports, but the evidence so far suggests that has not happened. After dealing with its internal crisis, China is now trying to export again: It approved the export of 5 million masks to South Korea; and a Chinese company recently signed a contract with the Italian government to provide 8 million masks. And as Reuters reported on Sunday:
A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.
A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard‐hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.
The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.
(Of course, there have also been restrictions on the import side, but those can easily be removed by the countries imposing them. Hoarding goods for your own citizens to use is at least understandable. Restricting your own ability to buy foreign products, through tariffs or Buy American provisions, makes no sense.)
Beyond products, people with expertise are crucial as well. The Economist recently noted the following:
veterans from the earliest battles of the pandemic are taking their knowledge to others. On March 12th eight Chinese doctors, led by Liang Zongang, a professor of cardiopulmonary reanimation, arrived in Italy on a charter flight that brought medical equipment supplied by the Chinese Red Cross. They were followed on March 18th by around 300 Chinese intensive‐care doctors.
There has been a lot of blame thrown around relating to the origins of the coronavirus and the actions taken in the early months. All of that can be sorted out later in the interest of preventing this from happening again. Public health experts need to have access to the full details in relation to both the origins and actions of each government in response.
For now, though, we need to focus on getting through the current public health crisis. The best approach is for nations to coordinate the relief effort. (Our colleague Inu Manak wrote last week about how the WTO could play a role here.) China’s contributions have been very helpful, and the U.S. State Department recently announced its own efforts.
There will be opportunities for other countries to help as well. There could be a second wave of the virus in China, and there will almost certainly be a dangerous spread through the developing world. Any country with the resources to help should plan to do so.
In the meantime, export restrictions should only be used if absolutely necessary—if a country is in the worst stages of the crisis and cannot spare any supplies. Otherwise, we should let the need for these supplies dictate where they are sold.