The corona crisis must not make us shut the world out

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of global supply chains and our over-reliance on just-in-time delivery models. While some may argue for more insular approaches and increased governmental control, the free movement of data and international collaboration has enabled rapid responses, such as genome sequencing and 3D printing of medical equipment. The crisis highlights the potential for global collaboration to impact health outcomes positively.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

We frequently attribute our current levels of global prosperity to the interconnectedness of the modern economy. Much has been written about the power of global supply chains and the emergent order that keeps our economy chugging along without active intervention. Leonard Read, in his seminal essay I, Pencil, evocatively described the complex, international inter-dependencies that go into manufacturing something as mundane as a lead pencil. Russ Roberts’ poem, It’s A Wonderful Loaf laid bare the inner workings of the modern market economy, pointing out how all the activities that go into getting food onto our table take place emergently without a “Czar of Bread" to orchestrate it behind the scene.

And yet, it is these very features of our economy that ensured that when Wuhan caught covid-19, the entire world sneezed.

The magnificent trans-continental supply chains that are the circulatory system of the global economy proved deadly efficient in spreading the virus rapidly to the far corners of the planet. Since the infected were contagious well before they were visibly symptomatic, measures like mandatory airport quarantines, travel bans and eventually city and nationwide lockdowns ended up being too little too late. Our over-dependence on our emergent, just-in-time delivery models showed just how vulnerable these systems are to single points of failure. Before the epidemic, China was the global manufacturing capital of sanitary masks—responsible for about half the world’s production (7 billion in a year). With China taken out by the virus, our over-reliance on the supply of an essential medical product by one country has left us short when we need masks the most.

In due course, this epidemic too will pass and life will limp back to normal. When that happens, we will no doubt look to learn lessons from this experience. We could conclude that as economically attractive as it might be to create smooth, efficient supply chains that are optimized to move goods across the planet just in time to meet demand, if we build some friction into these systems, it will buy us the time we need to forestall such catastrophes. Or that we should focus on supporting local manufacturing, even if it comes at a higher cost compared to the outsourced alternatives, so that we are never again forced to rely on a single foreign source of supply.

As they reflect on the effect that the pandemic has had on them and their economy, nation-states might decide to hunker down, closing in on themselves and ramping up internal capacities to reduce their reliance on the outside world. They could decide to continue border controls for the foreseeable future, choosing to run health checks on everyone entering the country long after the threat of the virus dies down. In the most extreme cases, governments could leverage the fear instilled by covid-19 to assume more authority unto themselves, arguing that it was because of the over-reliance on the invisible hand of the economy that the virus overwhelmed us in the first place.

If these are the only lessons we learn from the pandemic, it will be unfortunate. As much as the free movement of people might be the reason why covid-19 spread as quickly as it did, the free movement of data could well be the single biggest reason why we will be able to overcome this disease.

It is thanks to the internet that, literally within weeks of being identified, the complete annotated genome sequence of the novel coronavirus was made public on Genbank for the entire global biomedical community to access—allowing biotech and pharma companies around the world to develop a better understanding of how and why this disease differs from other coronaviruses we have encountered, and quickly come up with test-kits to identify the infected. This is also why so many pharma companies have been able to produce vaccine candidates in record time, some of which have already advanced to human trials.

It is thanks to the designs being made available for free on the internet that innovative products like splitters for ventilators and alternate forms of personal protective equipment for front-line medical staff are being 3D printed by small and medium-scale businesses around the world to augment our medical capabilities in the face of national shortages of these much-needed items. It is also how large manufacturing facilities around the world have been able to re-purpose their production lines to start making ventilators, using various open-source designs made freely available over the internet.

It is a fact that because the world has become smaller, we have all been brought closer together, and as a result are more susceptible to virulent disease outbreaks like this than ever before in history. But that same connectedness has given us an unprecedented arsenal of technology tools that we have been able to deploy during this crisis. Rather than let the pandemic make us more insular, I hope the lesson we take away is that when the countries of the world agree to widen and enlarge international scientific collaboration, we can have a truly spectacular impact on global health outcomes.

The covid-19 pandemic has been truly global, both in its effects on society as well as in the response it has prompted. I hope that we can find ways to keep this spirit of global collaboration alive long after the immediate crisis is over.