Coronavirus ventilator shortage: Once arsenal of democracy, now we can be world's hospital

In this era of complicated diplomacy, what more precious gift could we offer to the world than the breath of life?

In this era of complicated diplomacy, what more precious gift could we offer to the world than the breath of life?

When it comes to the coronavirus, the math simply does not add up. The number of expected to be infected vastly surpasses the number of available intensive care unit beds with oxygen ventilators. That is true in the United States but also abroad. 

We have faced shortages of vital supplies during crises before. Ahead of World War II, Americans lacked enough planes, tanks, ships and munitions to mobilize the kind of war effort to take on the Nazis. But thanks to a countrywide effort spearheaded by President Franklin Roosevelt, American mobilized and manufacturers churned out enough equipment to fuel the war effort and ultimately defeat the Nazis. 

A similar war-like footing is required today. “Powerful enemies must be out-fought and out-produced,” FDR told Congress weeks after Pearl Harbor. “It is not enough to turn out just a few more planes, a few more tanks, a few more guns, a few more ships than can be turned out by our enemies. We must out-produce them overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war.”

The threat of Nazis and COVID-19 are far from identical, of course, but there are similarities. Both are harrowing global struggles.  And there is a useful common strategy: “a superiority of equipment.”  Today our country only has some 160,000 ventilators, yet an outbreak similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918 would require more than 740,000 at a minimum. 

The Pentagon has offered to supply the health care system with 5 million masks and 2,000 ventilators. But that is still not enough. Nor would it cover the vast swaths of the developing world likely to be swamped by the virus once it spreads. 

Only the private sector can leverage this kind of quantity in such short order. To that end, President Trump just announced he would invoke the Defense Production Act, or DPA, on Wednesday. This act allows the federal government to call on private companies to ramp up their production of emergency medical supplies during a crisis, whether it is a natural disaster, a pandemic or a war.   

Focus on global market

This is a good start. But the government should even go beyond that act and move to mass-produce the supplies needed for the global market. 

We have by far the largest economy in the world. Just a tiny fraction of our WWII mobilization could flood the world with ventilators or respirator masks. Is this not a problem we can solve?

When we entered World War II, we lacked the military hardware needed to win. By the end of the war, after mobilizing private industry, more than half of all industrial production in the world would take place in the United States. Half. In the world.  

We would supply our own hospitals, but also hospitals all over the world. Iran, for example, is poised to be overwhelmed by the virus. Despite our well-publicized differences, can you imagine the good, and the goodwill, it would create to deliver 50,000 ventilators? The majority of the world’s countries have imperfect healthcare systems, and will be hit hard. In this era of complicated diplomacy, what more precious gift could we offer to the world than the breath of life? Just as WWII cemented America’s leadership role for the next century, with the Lend Lease Act, which leased war supplies to our allies, this could go a long way to restoring American prestige and goodwill during these times of turbulence and uncertainty.

Ventilators are sophisticated machines, often consisting of hundreds of moving parts. It will not be easy to simply and speedily roll out orders of magnitude more. But nobody said it would be easy. By 1944, American factories were churning out almost 100,00 warplanes a year. The B-24 Liberator long-range bomber had 1,550,000 parts, yet one rolled off the production line virtually every hour. We should also consider making more rudimentary ventilators, where appropriate.

This WWII mobilization didn’t happen by accident, of course. It required competent, decisive leadership, sacrifice by citizens, and the re-purposing of existing industrial facilities. The United States — not China or Russia or the EU — can, and should, lead this fight. Are we no longer capable of such grand acts?

Using industrial might

Ventilators are only one part of the larger picture. They stand out because drowning as one’s lungs fill with fluid is cruel and unnecessary. American scientists and medical community, as President Trump has correctly noted, are second to none and should dictate the overall strategy and approach. But using our industrial might to solve the shortage of equipment to battle this disease is a concrete step we can take right now.

On a recent conference call with governors, Trump addressed the shortage of ventilators by saying, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.”

To fight the corona virus globally but also to restore American leadership in the world, we should flood the world’s markets with emergency medical supplies. We cannot be the world’s policeman, but at least we can be its hospital during the current crisis and alleviate untold suffering.  

Lionel Beehner is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow and member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.Stephen Ruddy works for The Moth, the Peabody Award-winning storytelling organization and has worked on public health issues in Guantanamo Bay, Western Sahara, and Zambia. 

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