Shortages in Essential Goods: Are Global Value Chains Part of the Problem or the Solution?

The School of Public Policy Publications, Volume 14:17, May 2021

12 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2021

See all articles by Ari Van Assche

Ari Van Assche

HEC Montreal; Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis on Organization (CIRANO)

Date Written: May 27, 2021


Supply chain disruptions did not cause the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential goods that the world experienced in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, the cause was manufacturers’ inability to step up production of PPEs to meet the demands of the crisis. The accepted wisdom that the pandemic exposed serious structural problems in international supply chains, such as an over-dependence on China, and that it would be better for countries to source supplies domestically, is inaccurate. The companies that produced PPEs and other essential goods were experienced when it came to developing risk-management strategies. Manufacturers have understood the risks related to international supply chain shocks at least since 2008’s global recession and have long since responded by diversifying supplier bases, increasing manufacturing capacity and creating stockpiles. Many firms also relied on the China Plus One strategy as a buffer, which entailed duplicating production in China and at least one other country to protect against supply chain disruption and currency fluctuation.

Far from exposing a weakness in global value chains, the pandemic instead revealed their resilience. So well did the face-mask industry rebound from its initial shortage in fact, that industry revenues grew by 450 per cent from 2019 to 2021. Rather, the shortages arose because of limited stockpiles, governments’ lack of preparedness and constrained production, such as the difficulty in accelerating the melt-blowing process that creates the masks’ non-woven fabric. Exacerbating the situation – but only temporarily – were export bans of the type the Trump administration imposed on manufacturers, which required them to obtain federal approval before exporting PPE.

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic the world experiences. Governments can prepare for the next one by establishing stress tests that assess a country’s ability to deal with demand spikes and other disruptions. The tests should consider the government’s level of stockpiling, the speed with which domestic and foreign production can be ramped up, the diversification of import sources and the limitations created by foreign export restrictions. If the market fails to pass these stress tests, then government must design policy tools to deal with the shortcomings the tests reveal. Limiting export restrictions to strengthen resilience, conducting joint procurement and drafting agreements to share essential goods are ways countries can work together to promote resilience.

Self-sufficiency, which looked to be the solution in the early days of pandemic shortages, only increases vulnerability to local disasters that can curtail domestic production. It also creates higher production costs and reduces the ability to ramp up production. Selfsufficiency forces countries to absorb the shocks themselves, resulting in large price swings and production changes.

It is now up to governments to learn the hard lessons that COVID-19 taught and improve preparedness for future pandemics.

Suggested Citation

Van Assche, Ari, Shortages in Essential Goods: Are Global Value Chains Part of the Problem or the Solution? (May 27, 2021). The School of Public Policy Publications, Volume 14:17, May 2021, Available at SSRN:

Ari Van Assche (Contact Author)

HEC Montreal ( email )

3000, Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine
Montreal, Quebec H2X 2L3

Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis on Organization (CIRANO) ( email )

2020 rue University, 25th floor
Montreal H3C 3J7, Quebec

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