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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday that the province may consider a regional approach to loosening COVID-19 restrictions if numbers continue to decline. (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Province further easing health restrictions

Numbers of people hospitalized and in intensive care has dropped dramatically, says premier

(Black Press file photo)
Ponoka Elementary School has three COVID-19 cases, including one variant

St. Augustine School has had no confirmed cases so far in 2020

Ryan Jake Applegarth of Ponoka, 28, is scheduled to appear at Ponoka Provincial Court on March 12, 2021. (File photo)
Discussions about justice continue as Ponoka murder victims’ court cases proceed

Responses to comments Ponoka Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley made to town council Feb. 9

File photo
Alberta’s central zone has 670 active cases

301 new cases identified Sunday

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

A ” Justice for Jeff” T-shirt. (Photo submitted)
Rally to be held outside courthouse for slain Ponoka man

At what may be the last opportunity for Jeffery Kraft of Ponoka… Continue reading

(File photo/Lauren Collins Vana)
UPDATED: Ponoka cat owners have until July 1, 2021 to purchase licenses

Town council passed new Animal Control Bylaw Feb. 23

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Time to check the mail: Every household to receive a Canada Post postcard this spring

Postcard can be mailed for free to any address in Canada

A cross-country skier glides along the banks of the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Canadians across the country can look forward to a mild spring peppered with the odd winter flashback throughout the first part of the season, according to predictions from one prominent national forecaster. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Mild spring with some wintry blasts predicted for most of Canada: Weather Network

Weather Network is forecasting a slower than average start to spring in British Columbia

AstraZeneca’s vaccines are ready for use at the vaccination center in Apolda, Germany, Sunday, Feb.28, 2021. (Michael Reichel/dpa via AP)
Feds hoping for AstraZeneca shots this week as Pfizer-BioNTech prepare next delivery

The first of those doses could start to arrive in Canada as early as Wednesday

People line up outside a vaccine clinic as seniors wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton Alta, on Friday February 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Health Services head sorry for glitches in vaccine booking system for seniors

AHS president said technical issues have been fixed and a virtual waiting room is in place

Vandalism is shown on Alberta NDP MLA Janis Irwin’s constituency office in Edmonton in this handout photo on Saturday, February 27, 2021. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney quickly condemned vandalism at an Opposition legislature member Janis Irwin’s Edmonton office after the MLA posted pictures showing her front window spray-painted with the words “Antifa Liar.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Janis Irwin *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

Edmonton MLA Janis Irwin posted pictures showing the front window spray-painted with the words ‘Antifa Liar’

Most Read