Sometimes the movies ill-prepare us for reality. I always figured the government had Raiders of the Lost Ark-style giant warehouses filled with everything we would need for a pandemic, or an alien invasion for that matter. I think everyone not on the inside of the “business” of preparedness probably assumed that if they thought about it at all.
It turns out, yes, the military has some stocks of N95 respirator masks and ventilator equipment, but far short of anything required to support the whole nation. They have enough to support a massive military operation–full mobilization–for a short time. The nation, they assume, will shift to a war production footing and just make everything we need.
Most people alive today have no memory of World War II. They barely teach it in the schools anymore. The entire U.S. economy, during that war, converted to a wartime production footing. In late 1941, the U.S. Pacific Fleet (short of the carriers) was devastated by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. In 1941, the U.S. Navy had 7 aircraft carriers. By war’s end, they build about 160 more, including two dozen Essex class fleet carriers.
Think about that: the United States built 24 of the most technologically advanced warships in the world in just over two years. It takes ten years today just to make a single Ford class carrier (given, there’s no comparison, but we’re talking about two different eras).
It’s amazing how quickly American industry, when directed by the government in a crisis, can ramp up. “In a crisis” means exactly that, when everyone knows the stakes and voluntarily participates. This is not an endorsement of a planned economy. There must be room for entrepreneurship, invention and capitalist profits.
President Trump just invoked the Defense Production Act, a 1950’s holdover from the Korean War that allows the government, in support of national security, to direct civilian businesses to make what the government needs. Right now, the government needs respirator masks and ventilators–lots of them.
ResMed is one of the top five companies making this kind of equipment, and the top five companies hold 50% of the world’s market share. Don’t you think the government, a la The Andromeda Strain, could pull up some black sedans in front of ResMed HQ in San Diego, grab their top engineers and designs, and do likewise with other companies? Bring them to a large, secure manufacturing facility–or Tesla’s Fremont factory –and set them up to make whatever quantity of ventilators we need.
The Defense Production Act gives the federal government that power. I’m certain there’s a bunch of very smart, data rich planners looking at maps and lists of companies, products, and people right now to do exactly as I described. Phones will ring, people will be assembled, factories will be quickly ramped up and converted, and unheard-of production levels of respirator masks and ventilators will begin to flow.
The question is–will there be enough when we need them? The answer depends on the next 15 days. If we flatten the curve now, we will be able to meet the demand later, no matter how short we appear now.
It turns out we don’t need giant warehouses filled with every possible thing to meet any contingency. We are pretty good at making what we need when we need it.
Trump is correct that the no country on earth can do what America can do in productive capacity when we put our minds (and our wills) to it. This is one occasion that we can prove it.