This Pandemic is a Portal, and Virtual Exchange is Our Way Forward

Grupo 8 Air Force Hangar, March 2020

The collapse of our “just in time” delivery system

Seven years ago, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota Michael Osterholm went on the record with GiveWell — a nonprofit charity assessment organization — stating that naturally occurring pandemics, such as influenza pandemics, were the most significant biosecurity threat facing the world.

As summarized by GiveWell, Director Osterholm stated:

It is difficult to estimate the likelihood that a pandemic will occur in a given time frame. However, the proper underlying conditions exist for a pandemic to occur in the near future. In particular, the H5N1 and H7N9 strains of the influenza virus and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which is currently a public health problem in the Middle East and Europe, are current pandemic risks.

During that same interview, Director Osterholm forecasted the exact type of economic supply shutdown that has since been facilitated by today’s COVID-19 pandemic:

The global economy is based on a “just in time” delivery system in which many critical supplies — particularly medical supplies and drugs — are acquired via international trade shortly before they are used. Generally, countries do not keep significant stockpiles of such supplies. If a pandemic were to occur, countries might close their borders to try to limit the spread of the pandemic, thereby limiting their access to crucial supplies. In this kind of situation, intensive care units and health care systems would become much less effective.

As of April 1, 2020, 39 percent of the world’s total population (more than 3 billion people) were living in countries that had completely closed their borders to non-citizens and nonresidents, because of the COVID-19 outbreak. China, home to 1.4 billion people and producer of more than half of the world’s face masks, effectively closed its borders on March 28. Earlier that month, Germany banned the export of most of its medical protective equipment, and soon thereafter, Chancellor Angela Merkel began implementing border closures.

As Director Osterholm noted to GiveWell in 2013:

The U.S. government stockpiles some critical medical supplies, but its stockpiles are ultimately limited; if the global “just in time” delivery system were to shut down, significant shortages in medical supplies — even basic supplies like masks and respirators — would develop quickly.

As the outbreak took hold of the world and panic set-in, global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) skyrocketed. The U.S.’ leading domestic mask manufacturer and one of the top 10 respirator mask manufacturers in the world, Prestige Ameritech, went from typically making 250,000 masks per day to manufacturing 1 million masks daily — all while the company’s co-owner and executive vice president turned away an additional 100 million orders per day.

“‘We were already in the middle of a bad flu season, and now we’re having a pandemic in the middle of the flu,’” Prestige Ameritech co-owner Mike Bowen said in an interview with WIRED.

Bowen continued, “‘Couple that with American hospitals gearing up, people panic buying, and China now cutting off a good portion of the masks they send to the US — it’s a perfect storm.’”

So, if we knew there were imminent risks for a pandemic, why weren’t any of us more prepared — especially here in the U.S., where we have managed to retain our position as the world’s largest economy since 1871?

According to Director Osterholm:

The [U.S.] government has not funded systematic preparedness research because it is expensive, and there is not significant political pressure to improve disaster preparedness. [Globally,] governments and other organizations tend to prepare for yesterday’s problems. For example, significant funds have been invested in improving airport security since 9/11, but little has been invested in forward-looking biosecurity preparedness.

Everything inter-is

Alissa Wilkinson recently published an essay for Vox, urging readers to consider reframing the COVID-19 pandemic as an ecological problem.

“Instead of thinking of this pandemic as a war — us versus them, humans versus invading virus,” Wilkinson writes, “what if we reframed our thinking to imagine our goal as finding balance not only in the natural world, but in our social and cultural worlds as well?”

“What an ecological metaphor offers that a war metaphor can’t provide — due to its dependence on drawing a line between winners and losers, between us and the enemy,” Wilkinson explains, “is what [Associate Professor Jodie] Nicotra calls the ‘invisible connections’ between things. ‘You don’t see how vast economic inequality connects to a virus, but it does,’ she says.

‘You don’t see the webs of regulations and laws, or the production of equipment. You have to see that all of this stuff is bound up together and train yourself to see these connections between things.’”

I, too, believe that in order to step forward through this pandemic — which I view as a portal, not a war — in a better way, we need to train ourselves to see the connections between all things, namely the major social, environmental, and economic issues at-hand.

But how can we train ourselves to do this if we can’t first learn to uncover the deep-seated connections that exist between ourselves?

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Abigail Faires (@abbyfaires_lnks) is a freelance writer, international educator, and the co-founder of Learn2Link: a global learning network that inspires youth-led community development and emerging 501(c)(3) organization.