One of the hard lessons being learned by American society is that it does not serve our long-term interests to outsource most manufacturing to a single country. The tough question is, will we act on the lesson learned?
In 2005, after the SARS epidemic, Michael Osterholm, director of University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that influenza pandemics have occurred with regularity throughout history — 10 in the past 300 years. They cannot be avoided, only lessened in impact.
The trade disruption — in the worst case, collapse — of worldwide trade, he wrote, will “represent the first real test of the resiliency of the modern global delivery system.”
“The pandemic-related collapse of worldwide trade and its ripple effect throughout industrialized and developing countries would represent the first real test of the resiliency of the modern global delivery system,” he wrote. The result would be a strain on the delivery of necessary medical items.
He wrote that 3M and its counterparts would never be able to supply the world’s need for respiratory protection masks, partly because component parts were sourced from multiple countries.
The failure to invest with foresight, he said, could result in an economy that “remains in shambles for years.”
In public health, no single constituent is responsible for maintaining a sufficient buffer across the economy to protect society’s health in the event of a health crisis — or the current COVID-19 pandemic. Each individual company has the responsibility to shareholders to increase profits, not to guard society against a potential crisis.
But even a free-market fundamentalist ought to be aware of the unseen obstacles on which the global economy could run aground. Corporations can mitigate risk through crisis contingency planning, and government may have a role in stockpiling a “virtual buffer” — for example, strategic areas such as vaccines and critical medical supplies.
In our current crisis, Osterholm is once again being quoted daily in the media. Will he and other experts’ advice be listened to once we are no longer sitting at home?
Isaac Cheifetz, a Twin Cities executive recruiter and strategic résumé consultant, can be reached through catalytic1.com.