Farhad Manjoo: How the world’s richest country ran out of face masks

Why is the United States running out of face masks for medical workers? How does the world’s wealthiest country find itself in such a tragic and avoidable mess? And how long will it take to get enough protective gear, if that’s even possible now?

I’ve spent the last few days digging into these questions, because the shortages of protective gear, particularly face masks, has struck me as one of the more disturbing absurdities in America’s response to this pandemic.

Yes, it would have been nice to have had early, widespread testing for the coronavirus, the strategy South Korea used to contain its outbreak. It would be amazing if we can avoid running out of ventilators and hospital space, the catastrophe that has befallen parts of Italy. But neither matters much — in fact, no significant intervention is possible — if health care workers cannot even come into contact with coronavirus patients without getting sick themselves.

That’s where cheap, disposable face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns come in. That we failed to procure enough safety gear for medical workers — not to mention for sick people and for the public, as some health experts might have recommended if masks were not in such low supply — seems astoundingly negligent.

What a small, shameful way for a strong nation to falter: For want of a 75-cent face mask, the kingdom was lost.

I am sorry to say that digging into the mask shortage does little to assuage one’s sense of outrage. The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.

Perhaps the only way to address the shortfall now is to recognize that the market is broken, and to have the government step in to immediately spur global and domestic production. President Donald Trump, bizarrely, has so far resisted ordering companies to produce more supplies and equipment. In the case of masks, manufacturers say they are moving mountains to ramp up production, and some large companies are donating millions of masks from their own reserves.

But given the vast global need for masks — in the United States alone, fighting the coronavirus will consume 3.5 billion face masks, according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services — corporate generosity will fall short. People in the mask business say it will take a few months, at a minimum, to significantly expand production.

“We are at full capacity today, and increased production by building another factory or extending further will take anywhere between three to four months,” said Guillaume Laverdure, the chief operating officer of Medicom, a Canadian company that makes masks and other protective equipment in factories around the world.