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

2020 Ponoka business awards
Ponoka chamber 2020 Business Award winners

The Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce 2020 Business Awards were held… Continue reading

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owner found

Father and son found miniature horse while out for a walk at JJ Collett

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

(Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)
Ponoka FCSS’ Empty Bowls sells out

For the first time ever, Ponoka Family and Community Support Services’ (FCSS’s)… Continue reading

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons Thursday October 22, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
O’Toole tells Alberta UCP AGM Liberals were ‘late and confused’ on COVID response

He says Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has taken charge and not waited to make things happen

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Inquiry into oil and gas foes to deliver report next year: Kenney

A lawsuit filed by environmental law firm Ecojustice argues the inquiry is politically motivated

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Most Read