Now, the bad news: Even more concerning, and uncertain, are the ripple effects that might happen if the coronavirus strikes the very workers who run the paper mills, hand sanitizing factories, and shipping distribution centers. Because a single worker’s illness may mean quarantining co-workers who’ve come into contact with him, a case of COVID-19 could hobble an entire operation.
It’s not an entirely unrealistic proposition. GoJo, which manufactures Purell hand sanitizer, reported a worker with COVID-19 at one of its two Ohio plants. Boeing halted production at its aircraft plants in Washington state after at least one worker there died of the disease. In Malaysia, officials shut down several palm oil plantations after workers contracted the coronavirus.
Outbreaks aboard freighter ships could pose a problem. Maersk, the world’s largest ocean shipping company, said in late March five crewmembers on of one of its ships had contracted the coronavirus and disembarked in Ningbo, China, for medical evaluation.
Some are worried enough to sound alarms: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned widespread quarantines or export restrictions, combined with outbreaks among farm workers, could disrupt the supply chain and spark a food crisis. (There is no food shortage yet, it noted.)
For American consumers, disruptions to ocean shipping would probably have a minimal effect on food supply, says Andrew Novaković, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University. Because America is a major agricultural exporter, it has plenty of its own food. The bigger problem for U.S. farmers would be if they can’t export and sell the food they’ve already grown, leaving them with “product you can’t sell and then having prices go in the tank.”
With government-mandated shutdowns of many retail stores, and with consumers unenthusiastic about making large purchases, industry experts do expect the economic downturn to deal a blow to the shipping industry in the coming months. Some trucking companies have already announced partial layoffs, and Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which ships automobiles across the ocean, announced it would lay off 2,500 employees and place up to 10 ships in “cold layup,” according to shipping news website FreightWaves. Some current product shortages aren’t primarily due to shipping problems but to unprecedented demand. Facemasks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and ventilators have, in a matter of weeks, become vitally needed goods in the global fight against the coronavirus. There simply haven’t been enough to go around.
Manufacturers say they are making these products as quickly as they can. Gojo said its Purell-producing operations were running 24/7. It has added shifts, with some employees working overtime. 3M said it had doubled its global output of N95 masks to nearly 100 million per month.