Countries Ban Export of Masks & Medical Supplies in Face of Coronavirus, But Trump Leads U.S. in Opposite Direction

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face masks COVID-19

Picture by Debora Cartagena, USCDCP

As COVID-19 has spread from an epidemic in China to a world-wide pandemic, countries have restricted or banned the exporting of needed medical supplies such as face masks and ventilator tubes. A lot of countries have done this.

Scott Tong reports in an article on

With critical ventilators and medical safety gear in short supply globally, countries that manufacture these goods are racing to keep them inside their borders. Nearly three dozen governments have banned or limited exports in March alone, a new study finds.

Given that there are nearly 200 countries in the world (195 or 197 depending on who’s counting), nearly 36 of them banning the export of masks and/or other needed medical gear in the midst of this world-wide crisis may not sound that, that big. We’re talking about less than 18% of the countries in the world here, right? However, when you consider that, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there are only 39 developed countries, or countries with “advanced economies” as IMF puts it, 36 suddenly becomes a much, much more significant number.

You can’t blame countries that much for putting their people first and telling their producers of needed medical supplies, like masks or ventilators, that those supplies have to stay there to take care of their people rather than being shipped out to other countries. At the very least, you can understand the reason countries would ban the export of masks and other medical supplies right now when there are shortages of these supplies all around the world.

Frankly, you would expect President Trump to be the first world leader to push his country toward such protectionist policies. After all, isn’t “America first” one of his slogans? Isn’t he the poster child (or poster 73-year-old/most powerful man in the world) for protectionism with his tariffs and trade war on China? Heck, protectionism was the word of the day when Trump was elected. However, the message from President Trump has been quite the opposite.

The U.S. has not banned or restricted exporting masks, ventilators, or other crucial medical supplies — not in a bill from Congress and not in an executive order from the president. That’s not to say the president hasn’t issued executive orders over the coronavirus and specifically medical supplies related to the pandemic. President Trump has signed an executive order to boost the supply of masks; he signed an executive order against the hoarding and price-gouging of masks and other needed medical supplies; and he even signed an executive order to invoke the Defense Production Act, allowing him to force companies like General Motors (GM) to produce ventilators if they don’t step up to the plate like Ford and GE has.

It was when, in one of his daily briefings with his coronavirus task force, the president spoke about companies building ventilators that I noticed the stark contrast between the protectionist policies of blocking medical supplies from leaving to other countries and what President Trump was laying out as expectations for the U.S. Not only has President Trump not pushed for a ban on exporting masks or ventilators, he said in the briefing that the U.S. will produce not only ventilators for our country but ventilators to help other countries with their needs too.

In Friday’s (March 27th) coronavirus briefing, President Trump said:

… they [the United Kingdom] want ventilators. Italy wants ventilators. Spain wants ventilators. Germany wants ventilators. They’re all calling for ventilators. Well, we’re going to make a lot of ventilators, and we’ll take care of our needs, but we’re also going to help other countries.
That’s a pretty stark contrast to an anecdote in Tong’s Marketplace article about Germany stopping masks that were bound for Switzerlan:

According to Evenett, Germany even intercepted a shipment of Chinese-made masks bound for Switzerland.

“They were just trans-shipping through Germany, and they got caught up in this,” [Simon Evenett, international trade professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland] said. “The Swiss went ballistic. And they called in the German ambassador and really gave him a telling off. The last I heard they were still in Germany.”

Tong points to the worry of Chad Bown, trade scholar and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, that countries will retaliate and trade walls will go up as a warning to what these protectionist moves could lead to in this time of global crisis. Bown even points to the trade war between the U.S. and China for how quickly trade restrictions can escalate. It almost seems ironic that President Trump and U.S. would lead in a way that is counter to these protectionist trade restrictions.

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  • Ann G.

    This post is very much appreciated, at a time when worldwide media and internet trolls alike are hard at work spreading false reports that the US government has halted exports of medical supplies to Canada and Europe.

    So thanks for this much-needed clarification. When you need to know the facts, go to the folks who actually get the work done!

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