COVID – Time to swallow pride

Every day, the story of COVID becomes more alarming. Americans will die … the only question is how many, how fast and who they will be. Will we be like China and South Korea … or will we be like Italy? We expect an explosive growth in the number of patients combined with worsening shortages of key equipment and consumable and I see two main determinants of our prospects:

  • Can we coalesce and strip away the cacophony of division to put a laser focus on doing what needs to be done?
  • Can we innovate workable solutions to get the supplies we desperately need?

I don’t have a good answer to the first question. The best I can suggest is to hammer home a scientifically accurate picture of the reality we face and slap down any idiots that peddle self-serving alternative nonsense. The truth is simple, scientific, and brutal. It doesn’t need Game of Thrones sub-plots or Machiavellian subterfuges to amp up the drama. We need to channel Joe Friday: “Just the facts, Ma’am” and that should be motivation enough.

The second question may require a gut check of a different kind … a whole lot of humility. Job One is to stay alive. Fist pumps, national pride and trophies come a remote second. To make that point, consider the following photos:

To meet desperate supply shortages (masks, gowns, gloves, tube assemblies, etc.), will demand this type of high volume manufacturing: highly flexible, semi-automated fabrication with lots of assembly labor. Setting it up quickly will take a LOT of engineers and running it will take a big workforce. There’s little space for physical distancing or time for careful wiping of items and surfaces. I know the attraction of “made-in-America”, but how many Americans will work in these settings when this looks like a perfect Petri dish for COVID?

Worse, these production settings will soon be too dangerous almost everywhere in the world: Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. There are places that COVID hasn’t hit hard yet (e.g., Mexico), but their turn is coming soon. They might produce for a few weeks or a month, but at some point, they’ll have to go into lock down or dramatically restructure their production methods.

That leaves one place where factories like this can operate with some degree of stability and safety for an extended time … China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore … because COVID has (at least mostly) been brought under control. They aren’t home free, but they’ve proven they can get the curves to turn over and go down. That brings them at or close to the point where they can risk resuming mass production. They have the testing and medical capacity to watch their workforce like a hawk and respond in an instant if COVID pops up again.

In WWII, the entire developed world was pummeled to rubble by artillery and bombers. The only place you could build stuff with any stability was North America … mostly the US … and America earned the nickname: “Arsenal of Democracy”. In the war’s aftermath, American manufacturing pumped out the goods that rebuilt every other developed nation on the planet.

IMO, for at least a little while, it will be China’s turn. The Chinese government knows it. Our supply chain professionals know it. Our factory managers know it.

With this logistical and geographic reality, we need to be politely snuggling up to our Asian neighbors. Like it or not, its a sellers’ market and if America doesn’t get its share of Asian production, everyone else in the world will.

… and pretending otherwise will get more Americans killed.

Let me put it another way. If I had the means, I would go to Wuhan right now for at least a 4 month vacation … or maybe Seoul or Singapore. They’re the places in the world that have proven they might know how to keep me safe from COVID.