Rich Countries Are Buying up Medical Supplies, Leaving Poor Countries Stranded
The supply chain that provides medical supplies to the world is favoring the U.S. and Europe, which are outbidding poorer nations for masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic, according to NPR.
The Trump administration is accused of modern piracy for effectively hijacking shipments of masks and additional crucial supplies meant for other countries, including allies. The administration has also used its leverage to strong-arm private firms to prioritize America over other parts of the world, according to POLITICO.
Last week, Trump announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act to restrict U.S. exports of key medical supplies, leaving many poorer countries scrambling for supplies as they too try to contain COVID-19 and also protect their healthcare workers. The order restricts companies from selling respirators, masks or gloves overseas.
Scientists in Africa and Latin America received the unfortunate news that vital testing kits that they ordered will not be delivered for several months since everything in the supply line is headed to the U.S. and Europe. Furthermore, the increased price in all supplies from testing kits to masks has strained the fragile budgets and borrowing ability of poorer countries, according to The New York Times.
UNICEF has seen an uptick in countries turning to the agency for help. UNICEF is trying to secure 240 million masks to help people in 100 countries. So far, the global relief agency has only sourced 28 million masks, less than 12 percent of its target, as The New York Times reported.
"There is a war going on behind the scenes, and we're most worried about poorer countries losing out," said Dr. Catharina Boehme, the chief executive of Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which collaborates with the World Health Organization in helping poorer countries gain access to medical tests, to The New York Times.
The global demand for supplies and the hoarding from rich countries has led to pernicious trade wars as new rules around the world place restrictions on the export of medical supplies.
"All it takes is some other country out there to say, 'Oh, you're going to impose a limit on what you sell to us, [say] masks? Well, then, we're going to restrict our exports to you of gloves. Or gowns. Or thermometers," said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to NPR.
While many poorer countries have reported far fewer cases of the coronavirus than the U.S. and Europe, experts fear that an outbreak will devastate local populations. Also, without adequate testing, it is possible that existing cases are being overlooked.
Many parts of Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia are already at a severe disadvantage to handle an epidemic. A recent study found that some poor countries have only one equipped intensive care bed per million residents, according to The New York Times. Those areas tend to have underfunded and fragile health systems that lack necessary equipment.
While wealthy nations are pushing to keep medical supplies for their own healthcare workers and citizenry, some experts believe it's important to help poorer nations prepare for a coming outbreak.
Thomas Tighe, the CEO of the medical aid group Direct Relief, told NPR that he can understand both sides of the conflict. "I think the concern is obvious," he said. "Why would anyone send anything other than to the U.S., given this is our home? But I think it's also true that countries that have very little to begin with are looking at this wave of COVID-19 cases coming with no protection."
In Brazil, Dr. Amilcar Tanuri runs public laboratories at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, half of which are "stuck doing nothing," instead of testing health workers, because he said the chemical reagents he needs are being routed to wealthier countries, according to The New York Times.
"If you don't have reliable tests, you are blind," he said. "This is the beginning of the epidemic curve so I'm very concerned about the public health system here being overwhelmed very fast."
In South Africa, Dr. Francois Venter, an infectious diseases expert who is advising the government, said to The New York Times that the struggle to acquire the reagents was endangering the country's overall response.
"We have the capacity to do large testing, but we've been bedeviled by the fact the actual testing materials, reagents, haven't been coming," he said. "We're not as wealthy. We don't have as many ventilators, we don't have as many doctors, our health system was in a precarious position before coronavirus."
"The country is terrified," he added.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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