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European Union Restricts Export Of Medical Gear, Threatening Countries Which Need It


Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia all import a lot of their protective gear for health care workers from the EU - things like masks, face shields and so on. And now that supply has been put on hold because the EU and dozens of other countries around the world have either restricted or banned the export of medical equipment in an effort to protect their own supplies during this pandemic.

Anabel Gonzalez has been looking into this. She's a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former trade minister for Costa Rica, from where she joins me now.



CHANG: So this restriction on the export of medical supplies from the EU, how serious of a threat do you think that is to the ability of developing countries to fight COVID-19?

GONZALEZ: So let me start by saying that there are over 54 governments across the world that have reportedly taken steps to ban or otherwise limit their exports of medical equipment, such as face masks and medicines and their ingredients. This is something that is very serious because world experts of medical products and medical gear are highly concentrated. For example, the top ten exporters account for almost three-quarters of world exports of medical products.


GONZALEZ: So if two or three or four of these countries decide to put in an export ban, well, then many people around the world will not have access to these vital supplies.

CHANG: How do these protectionist policies also hurt the countries that institute them?

GONZALEZ: Well, export restrictions are detrimental to exporting countries in at least three ways. First, they tend to increase prices because they disincentivize production. Second, they basically invite for retaliation from other countries. And third, because there is no single country in the world that is able to produce all the medical products and gear that are required to fight COVID-19. So at the end of the day, imposing restrictions on one or several products may lead to this country actually not having access to other vital supplies as well.

CHANG: I want to turn a corner a little bit. In yesterday's Coronavirus Task Force briefing, one of President Trump's economic advisors said this.


PETER NAVARRO: If there is any vindication of the president's buy American, secure borders and a strong manufacturing base, philosophy, strategy and belief, it is this crisis.

CHANG: That was Peter Navarro. He's a economic adviser to President Trump. If we were to just take him literally there, how would a truly made-in-America approach play out in this crisis?

GONZALEZ: There's no possibility of having a truly made in America...

CHANG: Why do you say that?

GONZALEZ: ...Because production of parts and pieces takes place all over the world. So it's also very important to bear in mind that medical gear depends on supply chains. The supply chains are well established and actually work in favor of consumers - you know, in this case, patients in the U.S. and elsewhere.

CHANG: You know, right now, the coronavirus pandemic is making the world question a lot of different systems, whether the systems as they work now should remain the same because this pandemic is exposing a lot of weaknesses in different systems. And it feels like the same is true about global trade now. What this virus is exposing is how interdependent countries are on each other for various products and components, et cetera. Is that a good thing, our interdependence?

GONZALEZ: In situations like this, it's not about retrieving from the world as we knew it before, but it's actually to identify where are some of the critical points that need to be addressed. And what we are learning right now is that we need to facilitate trade because a patient cannot wait for five days until a new protective equipment can come through customs. It is about, really, the world coming together to fight a global crisis.

CHANG: Anabel Gonzalez, former trade minister of Costa Rica and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, thank you very much.

GONZALEZ: Thank you very much for having me.