September 15, 2021

Pandemic-Related Shortages Reveal the Need to Break with Global Supply Chains

Global supply chain disruptions have been behind most of the changes we’ve witnessed in our daily lives during these two pandemic years. The lack of toilet paper and basic food necessities during the early days of the pandemic, are an example. That was followed by extreme shipping delays, microchip shortages, shortages of other electronics including laptops, tablets, hard drives and security cameras. Even the global supply of new cars has taken a hit. And then there are the price spikes.

The pandemic-induced economic downturn has disproportionately impacted low-income and emerging economies. Those countries had fewer resources stockpiled, and struggle to stimulate their economies to pre-COVID-19 levels. These unprecedented times have challenged the wealthiest nations, still trying to revive their faltering economies. Meanwhile, the increase in automation has reduced the need for low-cost labor and turned companies away from off-shoring manufacture. The result has been job cuts in developing economies.

Food security is a sector that has deeply felt the impact of the pandemic. The damage to agriculture and its satellite sectors has severely affected labor-intensive economies focused on manufacturing and agriculture sectors such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Guinea and Djibouti.

Exports in developing countries are not the only industries that have been affected. Many of these countries have not been able to import necessary goods or raw materials for daily necessities due to export bans imposed by governments across the world as they prioritize their own market needs. These policies are leaving behind millions of people, reducing food security and increasing malnourishment.

Governments, non-profits, businesses and engineers — everyone in a position to make a difference — needs a wake up call. We need to break from the complete dependence on global supply chains. It’s the right time to start crafting and implementing economic policies that foster self-sustainability, diversification and a focus on increasing efficiency through educational programs and awareness campaigns.

Programs that establish distribution systems of healthy food supplies will be necessary to fix shortcomings in global supply chains. A great pilot program that was implemented recently in the Los Angeles, California (USA), area is a great proof of the viability of such initiatives. The problem should be addressed from all angles and at each node of the supply chain, starting with the farmers by providing them with proper training, awareness and resources to encourage agility and adaptability to changing circumstances. This would be followed by establishing distribution channels that do not rely on large transportation chains, and do not exclusively focus on large wholesalers and grocery stores. Empowering small local transportation businesses to take on this mission would be a crucial step towards achieving supply chain sustainability. Finally, local grocery stores, which are, in fact, the last node of this chain, need to be trained and equipped to handle perishable foods that are typically more delicate to manage and store due to their short shelf life.

COVID-19 was not the reason behind the fragility and unsustainability in the global supply chain. The pandemic has only accelerated deficiencies that were already there. The weakest links, in this case low- and middle-income countries, as well as the underserved and rural communities in the global West, have always been hit hardest whenever the slightest inconvenience occurs. Thus, the necessity to focus on sustainability and independence from global value chains is paramount.

About the Author

Omar Kheir is an expert in process improvement, optimization and inventory management at EPCOM, and a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He creates innovative solutions to engineering and business challenges.

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