Supply Chains Increase the Likelihood of Pandemics


I think in general the way we respond to this COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic will position us to manage the next pandemic. I know that isn’t something anyone wants to be thinking about as we’re barely into this pandemic. Deaths are rising. We have political leaders making choices around managing the stock market which isn’t the economy. If you want proof of that look at the stock markets response to 3.3 million unemployed in a single week in the US. The Dow Jones Industrial Average increase by 17%.

By having ample supply for treating patients and building strong robust processes we can manage the current pandemic. We can minimize the impact to the overall economy and come back stronger than before. Especially if we make some structural changes that make the direct impact of getting sick survivable. This article isn’t about what those should be.

Instead I’m looking at the forces that increased the likelihood of spreading this disease. Shareholder Value, or more precisely the impact that focusing on shareholder value had on business decisions. Since the Friedman Doctrine was introduced in 1970, we have a steady movement for outsourcing and offshoring. Both of these helped reduce the direct labor costs and environmental regulatory burden on manufacturing companies. It’s helped economies like South Korea, China, Taiwan, portions of Eastern Europe, and most of South East Asia move dramatically from a more agrarian and textile economy – similar to what we see in Africa today – to a modern economy. We can see this through trade, Cesar Hidalgo has dome some amazing research on this and I highly recommend reading his book Why Information Grows, because he outlines some of the reasons why economies mature over time from agrarian to producing semiconductors.

To summarize it, it all starts with trade patterns. You are able to see the knowledge gain in specific sectors in how the trade patterns evolve over time. For example dye making eventually leads into manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other chemical businesses. Eventually this leads to the capability to manufacture semiconductors as all of these use the same sort of fundamental sciences. Hidalgo argues this capability has to mature over time and local expertise must mature. Through the types of items a given country exports we can see how that knowledge is growing and changing over time. Eventually, these countries will create their own businesses to compete with mature companies.

This last part isn’t much of a surprise for anyone that’s read any of the Innovator’s Dilemma books. This is a common practices of dropping “value” functions to lower cost countries and companies from those countries. AsusTEK is an example of this. They started as a supplier to Dell and eventually pushed Dell (for a time) out of a number of markets. In some markets Dell hasn’t been able to reestablish itself and likely never will.

So what does all this have to do with a pandemic? Well as we increase the amount of trade with countries outside of our own region we increase the amount of connections between our country and that country. Those connections must be maintained by people. Since China is a significant trade partner and has manufacturing capability spread out all over the country, it was inevitable that a virus in one part of the country spread quickly through out. In fact the highspeed rail made it incredibly likely. Furthermore, with all the manufacturing in Wuhan, that increase the likelihood of people outside of China coming in contact with the disease.

Since our business leaders have decided to invest so heavily in China, we have something of a weakspot in our supply chain for any future pandemic that starts there. However, for other countries the US or portions of Europe would equally be as likely as source of pandemic source. There’s just a lot of business being done in these countries.

The larger problem will be that because there are zones of high concentration for specific industries in specific countries, that people will be traveling very frequently to those areas. How do we address this, since this is basically what trade is all about.

Well, I think that there’s a solution in the idea of regional production capability. For example, Zara has a lot of regional locations for manufacturing. This can help with supply across both that region and other regions for when there’s a crisis. This minimize the economic impact on Zara as the the crisis moves across the world. Furthermore, this is a good business strategy because regionally disparate countries have different fashion tastes and desires for a given time of the year.

In other cases, the idea of Reverse Innovation can play a key role in this. Reverse innovation is where creating a product that’s profitable in, say, rural India, could be brought back to a place like the United States and sold for an even larger profit. This allows for continually lowering costs, as the product itself would naturally be cheaper, and probably lower total cost of ownership, as the Indians using the equipment may have different skills or tools available and may not be able repair the high tech stuff we can in the US.

An example of where this approach would be highly beneficial to the entire world is with Ventilators. In the US a new one can cost upwards of $25,000, which is obviously out the of the price range of most hospitals in Rural India. If you make on cost effectively in India (which MIT just released plans for a $100 ventilator) you could make it very affordable and would easily allow governments to create stockpiles. It would also allow businesses to quickly tool up and make them, since it looks like they use off the shelf parts.

If business leaders and governments focus on regionalizing supply chains and encouraging reverse innovation, we can work to slow the effects of the next Pandemic. We’d be more positioned to flex supply to meet the increase of demand during the crisis. We’d reduce the amount of travel to potential hotspots, as fewer people would need to travel internationally to meet with suppliers. No more long haul trips to Asia for most people.

In the end, we’d end up creating more share holder value doing this, because we’re meeting customer demand while continually improving products and responsiveness to changes. We will have another pandemic. We will have other market crashes. Planning for them during this one will reduce the impact of the next one.

One thought on “Supply Chains Increase the Likelihood of Pandemics

  1. Pingback: A Post Crisis, Economic Recovery and Crisis Mitigation Proposal | Science, Technology, + Culture

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