In ‘coronapocalypse’ the worst shortages could be deadly


Grocery aisles look post-apocalyptic right now. Toilet paper? It will make a comeback, but in its place, life-preserving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies could become perilously scarce a true additional emergency.

Should we expect shortages of certain medical supplies and pharmaceuticals in the coming weeks and months? Most likely yes. Dwindling availability of hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment like masks and gloves during a patient surge are obvious, but we could also see shortages of other items like asthma medication. 

Worst case, even food supplies could run low. The country needs to do something about this right now before it compounds the COVID-19 public crisis branded as #coronapocalypse on social media.

Shortages are the result of supply-demand imbalance, caused by either an unexpected increase in demand, or an unexpected decrease in supply, or both. Shortages are common in crises such as natural disasters or health emergencies. 

But given the worldwide shutdown or slowdown of economic activity, the disruptions could get much worse this time. To make sense of the chaos, here are some points on how those shortages usually happen and what to look out for in this crisis from price gouging to possible rationing.

A lot comes down to supply chain dynamics: Toilet paper’s return will be because people fear-hoard it in a panic but consume it at pretty much the same rate as in normal times. For most items with stable consumption, the demand spike is mostly due to fear, which promotes excessive purchasing; the snowball effect of fear leads to more panic buying and eventually empty shelves. Once the panic and fear run their course, we expect to see lower demand for these items, more in line with the actual consumption. 

In the case of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, health care services, etc., the increase in demand is typically more in line with consumption, so the supply-demand gap can continue for a long time. Capacity is limited even during normal times and not easy to ramp up quickly, due to expensive equipment, strict regulations, etc.

When a pandemic disrupts the medical supply chains, even temporary delays or shortages can lead to serious health problems. And pandemics do disrupt supply chains, which are actually intricate webs, in multiple ways that span the globe and usually take time to recover. This creates a more serious and worrisome imbalance between demand and supply. 

And unlike natural disasters, where the impact is local, pandemics are worldwide, affecting many communities more or less at the same time. Pandemics do not physically damage infrastructure, but supply chains can be severely disrupted due to higher levels of employee absenteeism in many locations and sectors with cascading impacts. 

Rationing — with a priority allocation to those most in need — can help balance demand and supply for critical items.

The peak period for COVID-19 may last for eight weeks or more. Unfortunately, the disease can resurge during fall 2020, possibly after a mutation, causing another wave. Once approved, the production of new products such as vaccines or antivirals specifically designed for COVID-19 will ramp up slowly, so they will be especially in short supply. 

Decision-makers need to make plans — right now — investing in the supply chains necessary for the effective functioning of society and the distribution of limited supplies of essential products.

Pinar Keskinocak, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech and director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Disaster preparedness Economics supply and demand

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