World·Analysis

'Mask wars' risk setting back global fight against coronavirus

The cutthroat tactics of the 'mask wars' risk making the COVID-19 crisis worse for everyone. The selfishness isn’t a surprise under the circumstances, but the apparent desperation of some of the wealthiest countries on Earth is.

Global competition for supplies among Western nations spikes

The mask wars have pitted neighbouring countries against each other in the rush to acquire them — prompting accusations of modern piracy. Above, nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division in the Bronx borough of New York City demand N95 masks. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

When the crisis is over, there will be tough questions to be answered and explanations to be sought over how so many leading countries found themselves short of masks and other life-saving protective equipment.

For now, the Western world must contend with the consequences of their lack of foresight: including the unsightly "mask wars" that have pitted neighbouring countries, even U.S. states and levels of government, against each other in the rush to acquire them — prompting accusations of modern piracy.

The country most often accused of undercutting the efforts of its allies in the so-called mask wars is the U.S., which not only attempted to halt exports of U.S.-made N95 masks to Canada and Latin America last week, but also stands accused of scuttling European deals to purchase them in China and elsewhere. But it isn't the only country out for itself.

With the outbreak of the mask wars across shuttered Western borders, and alongside outright bans of exports of medical equipment, any hint of a unified global effort to fight the coronavirus is absent, beyond the work of scientists cooperating on a possible vaccine.

The selfishness isn't a surprise under the circumstances, but the apparent desperation of some of the wealthiest countries on Earth is. It's a revelation that has justifiably raised eyebrows in less fortunate parts of the world, where some are now bracing for a similar spike in cases but with a fraction of the resources.

Selfishness striking, says professor

The cutthroat tactics of the mask wars risks making this crisis worse for everyone. Rich countries on the front lines of the melee have learned early lessons about the vulnerability of their supply chains and about their neighbours and allies. What the competition looks like when the number of infected and dead rises further in the weeks to come is unsettling to contemplate.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, holds a 3M N95 mask as she and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence visit 3M headquarters in Maplewood, Minn. The company said the administration asked it to stop exporting medical-grade masks to Canada and Latin America. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)

"It's normal for countries to take care of their own citizens first," says Roland Paris, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But the selfishness and lack of coordination among leading countries, he says, "is striking." Instead of an international response "we're unfortunately seeing a mad scramble to grab whatever's available, to hell with the other guy."

WATCH | Trudeau slams Trump's order to halt N95 masks to Canada:

3M says an order aimed at keeping masks made by the company in the U.S. amid the shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic could have humanitarian implications for the other countries it supplies. 1:58

Closest to home, "to hell with the other guy" translated into Trump ordering Minnesota-based company 3M to halt exports of its masks to Canada and Latin America, using his authority under the Defence Production Act. The move caught Canada off guard, while the company pushed back against the order.

European countries have shuttered their borders, with some like Italy and Germany among others cancelling deals to sell equipment to neighbours or blocking shipments at the last minute.

Even more stark, the mask wars have seen American and other buyers scuttling European and Brazilian deals, some even snatching shipments already promised to other jurisdictions by outbidding them—even "on the tarmac" as planes prepared to take off. Some shipments reportedly just disappear.

Lasting damage

Among a number of examples, officials alleged that 200,000 masks en route to Germany were intercepted in Bangkok to redirect them to the U.S., prompting Andreas Geisel, the interior minister for the state of Berlin, to call it an "act of modern piracy." The details of the disputed case are still murky and the company, 3M, has said it had no indication of any wrongdoing. Trump insisted there had been "no act of piracy."

WATCH | Can cloth masks protect you from COVID-19? Two doctors weigh in:

Doctors answer your questions about the coronavirus, including whether people should be wearing homemade or cloth masks when they are outside. 3:30

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller tweeted, accusing Trump of failing to show solidarity, and that such actions are "inhuman and unacceptable." The Brazilian health minister described it all as "a problem of hyper demand." 

Translation of Müller's tweet: The behaviour of the U.S. president is anything but solidarity [promoting] and responsible. It's inhumane and unacceptable. Even in the time of the corona epidemic, the German government must insist that the U.S. comply with international rules.

European Union officials wouldn't comment on the specific allegations but called for better international co-operation.

"Now is the time for international solidarity and leadership, not isolation," said Brice de Schietere, chargé d'affaires of the EU delegation to Canada. 

The everyone-out-for-themselves behaviour prompts yet more questions: if this cutthroat competition is happening over protective equipment and tests, what happens when there's a vaccine? Reports in the German press that the U.S. was seeking exclusive access to a possible vaccine in development by a German company was an early ominous sign.  

President Donald Trump this week released an epidemiological model projecting a pandemic death toll in the U.S. ranging between 100,000-2.2 million, depending on public mitigation measures. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

But even before we get there, the selfish approach now could lead to setbacks in the fight to flatten the curve and minimize the virus's spread, says Sarah Cliffe, director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

Understandable, says Cliffe, that each country wants to protect its own citizens. But that could backfire when countries right on the front line "don't get the medical equipment they need," because "it's more likely the virus will spread in the future."

WATCH | Dr. Samir Gupta explains what you should consider before putting on a mask against COVID-19:

Dr. Samir Gupta provides crucial information about wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic and what to think about before putting one on. 2:30

Worse, says Cliffe, the cutthroat competition seems to be echoing the experience of the 2007-2008 global food price crisis — when the price of food, initially pushed up by droughts and higher oil prices, only truly skyrocketed globally when countries began to compete to stockpile.

"When everyone is doing that at the same time, the unintended consequence could be to make the overall situation worse," she says.

Naturally, the countries that suffered most — and waited the longest — were the poorest.

Plenty of lessons

It's proving the same in the struggle to find and buy masks. Now, the price of masks and other protective equipment has skyrocketed too, with buyers in some cases offering several times the high prices on offer.

During the spread of COVID-19, N95 masks have become popular products at pharmacies. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

A French official likened the search to procure equipment abroad as a "treasure hunt." The Spanish health minister described the market as "crazy." All of it calls for a more co-ordinated international approach, said Cliffe.

One possibility is the rotation of priority for global equipment to countries and regions that are at the height of their battle, "because if we help them to stop the spread, it helps countries that are next in the firing line," says Cliffe.

There is little indication that will happen during this crisis. There is little evidence to indicate much cooperation among western countries at all. But there have been plenty of lessons.

The Associated Press reported that Spain, which has suffered more than 130,000 infected and more than 12,000 dead, has started three weekly flights to China, the world's largest manufacturer of masks. The same report says Italy is using military planes to secure its shipments from China and other countries.

WATCH | Ontario Premier Doug Ford reacts to U.S. clampdown on mask exports:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says Canada and the U.S. are 'stronger together' than they are separated.  1:38

The mask hysteria will lead to further more permanent changes in how countries source their medical supplies, says Cliffe. Many countries and regions will realize "they made a mistake in being so reliant on one unique global supply and that they want to, at the very least, diversify their sources of supply to avoid that problem in the future."

The European Commission is centralising the stockpiling of ventilators, masks and other equipment to help member states, said de Schietere, and is, for the first time creating a European reserve of emergency medical equipment.

It's also looking at other measures that could increase the EU's self-reliance, including the repurposing of existing factories

For Canada, the "sad lesson," says Roland Paris, " is that we can't rely even on our closest partner. "For better or worse, that lesson that will guide Canada's future decisions about supply chains and stocks of vital medical supplies."

With files from Reuters and Associated Press

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