Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

OPINION: Why trade restrictions must be eliminated during 2nd wave of COVID-19

Nearly 100 countries enacted temporary restrictions or bans on the export of medical products this year

During the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have faced acute shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), medicines and other essential medical supplies, severely compounding the health crisis. Such shortages remain an acute and pressing problem, and are expected to worsen during a second wave.

Many countries have responded to shortages by imposing export restrictions in an effort to bolster their own domestic supplies. But even though governments should seek to protect their populations, the use of export restrictions is damaging to global health systems — and ultimately undermines efforts to combat the coronavirus.

At the onset of the pandemic, nearly 100 countries enacted temporary restrictions or bans on the export of medical products.

Germany and France, for example, placed export restrictions on medical equipment and drugs, which were followed by an European Union-wide ban on medical equipment exports to non-EU countries.

India — the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer — restricted the export of dozens of drugs, including acetaminophen and various antibiotics.

The United States halted the sale of masks and other medical gear to foreign buyers. A range of other countries followed suit, imposing various forms of restrictions, ranging from outright export prohibitions to cumbersome licensing requirements to discourage exports.

Restrictions could escalate in second wave

While some export restrictions have since been removed, many remain in place. And with a second wave looming, there is a risk that the use of such restrictions will escalate once again.

Export restrictions hurt the countries that implement them, as well as their trading partners, by preventing deliveries of medical supplies and medicines, which can seriously disrupt health planning.

Export restrictions can temporarily lower domestic prices and raise availability, giving the illusion of efficacy, but they discourage investments to increase production capacity, so any benefit is short-lived.

Countries that impose export restrictions are also likely to fuel retaliation or emulation by other nations, cutting off their own access to medical products and components.

Export restrictions therefore reduce the domestic availability of medical supplies, while also promoting panic-buying, hoarding and speculation.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is supposed to prevent governments from arbitrarily imposing barriers to the flow of goods across borders. But during the COVID-19 crisis, its rules have failed to stop countries from imposing export restrictions.

Existing WTO rules give considerable scope to governments to respond to emergencies, including permitting trade measures to protect human health, and allowing temporary export restrictions to prevent or relieve shortages of essential products.

Full self-sufficiency impossible

Some have suggested that the answer to supply shortages is to reshore production, so that each country produces its own medical supplies.

But that’s neither realistic nor desirable. Medical supply chains are global in nature and, given the complexity of the products involved, it would be impossible for any one country to be fully self-sufficient.

To take just one example, ventilators require as many as 1,000 parts, coming from dozens of countries and nine layers of suppliers. Trade in medical supplies and the components required to produce them is, therefore, essential.

Four recommendations

We propose four policy directions to address the trade-related aspects of the crisis:

1. Governments must strengthen their commitment to prevent export restrictions in critical medical supplies. A group of nine countries, led by New Zealand and Singapore, has launched a multi-country pact to keep supply chains open and remove trade restrictions on essential goods. This initiative should be expanded through a WTO agreement to refrain from introducing measures that restrict trade in medical supplies.

2. Governments should pursue diversification, rather than domestication, of medical supply chains. Countries are most vulnerable to serious shortages when they rely heavily on just a handful of suppliers for critical goods, regardless of whether those suppliers are domestic or foreign. Diversification is therefore the best way to reduce the risk of supply chain disruptions.

3. Rather than competing with one another for scarce medical goods, states should be collaborating to address the underlying problem. Amid a global pandemic, beggar-thy-neighbour (or sicken-thy-neighbour) trade policies intended to bolster a country’s own medical supplies at the expense of others are counter-productive. Instead, the most effective means to address the supply shortage is through international co-operation to boost production, diversify medical supply chains and ensure supplies can move to where they are needed the most.

4. Governments must significantly increase their investment in stockpiling reserves of essential medical supplies. Many countries maintain such stockpiles — containing everything from masks and gowns to ventilators — but chronic under-funding left them dangerously unprepared for the current crisis. When the pandemic hit, countries rapidly depleted their limited stocks. The resulting supply shortage was caused not by dependence on trade, but a failure in planning.

Export restrictions are damaging both to the countries that implement them as well as their trading partners. As we stare down a second wave of COVID-19, there are far better alternatives to prevent shortages and ensure adequate supply of medical goods.

Kristen Hopewell receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Joshua Tafel does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A living wage sets a higher standard than the minimum wage; it is what a family needs to earn to provide the basic needs based on the actual costs of living in a community.
Fruitvale now a living wage employer

“I’m really excited that Fruitvale is leading the charge for municipalities locally,” Morissette said.

Nelson police say a man attacked two people downtown with bear spray on Wednesday afternoon. File photo
Two people attacked with bear spray in downtown Nelson: police

Police say the three people know each other

Rotary eClub of Waneta Sunshine, alongside members from the Kootenay Native Plant Society and Trail Wildlife Association, joined together for a day of planting at Fort Shepherd. The Waneta Sunshine eClub was granted funds through an Express Grant from District 5080 to plant 50 shrubs which support pollinator opportunities at Fort Shepherd. Photos: Submitted
Kootenay conservation partners plant pollinator ‘superfoods’ at Fort Shepherd

TLC welcomes community groups to Fort Shepherd who would like to help local ecosystems thrive

Harold and Sadie Holoboff are bringing great food and service to the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant at Champion Lakes Golf and Country Club. Photo: Jim Bailey
West Kootenay golf course welcomes father-daughter team to restaurant

Chef Harold Holoboff brings comfort food to another level at Champion Lakes Eagle’s Nest Restaurant

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
BC Green leader Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

B.C. Premier John Horgan leaves his office for a news conference in the legislature rose garden, June 3, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. premier roasted for office budget, taxing COVID-19 benefits

Youth addiction law that triggered election hasn’t appeared

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Most Read