Coronavirus: Chronic global shortage of personal protective gear, says World Health Organisation

As the coronavirus rampages across the planet, governments and hospitals are desperate for personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with a rising flood of ill people putting healthcare staff at risk.

“The chronic global shortage of personal protective gear is now one of the most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives,” World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday in Geneva. “When health workers are at risk, we’re all at risk.”

He told leaders of the Group of 20 (G-20) countries they must “ignite the industrial might and innovation of the G-20 to produce and distribute the tools needed to save lives”.

It is not only PPE that is in short supply. US President Donald Trump on Friday ordered General Motors to make life-saving ventilators – his first use of special powers invoked over a week ago.

As of yesterday morning, there were more than 104,000 confirmed cases and over 1,700 deaths from the coronavirus in the US, with healthcare facilities from Seattle to Atlanta to New York overwhelmed; on Friday at least 100 healthcare staff in Boston had reportedly tested positive for Covid-19.

“Our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course,” Mr Trump said in a statement. “Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.”

Globally, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 has surpassed 600,000, with over 28,000 deaths as of yesterday.

Businesses and citizens have been responding to the crisis. Britain’s Royal Mint said it would start mass production of visors for medical staff on the weekend.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19 – had spoken to companies to “discuss ways that the government could support them to build ventilators more quickly and in greater quantities for the front line in the coming weeks”, his Downing Street office said.

Dyson, known for its vacuum cleaners and air purifiers, said it had received an emergency order from the UK for 10,000 ventilators. It said it would produce a “new device (that) can be manufactured quickly, efficiently and at volume”.

In the US, over a dozen companies, including Ford, Unilever, Tesla and 3M, were either making or donating equipment.

In India, carmaker Maruti Suzuki is reported to be working with AgVa Healthcare, a manufacturer of ventilators, to scale up production to 10,000 units per month. There are an estimated 30,000 ventilators in India, but health experts have said it will need 80,000 to 100,000 more by mid-May.

There are multiple causes for the shortages, including lack of foresight, the sudden shock to the supply chain from China, which normally produces half of the global face mask supplies, and governments having to compete in open markets, in many cases paying exorbitant prices.

Health experts are warning that the Covid-19 surge has yet to peak in many countries.

On Friday in the US, 33 state attorneys-general wrote to Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Facebook and Craigslist saying their efforts to crack down on overpriced items on their platforms had so far “failed to remove unconscionably priced critical supplies”.

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