What Really Caused the Supply Chain Mess Over PPE Last Year
Automation and complex distribution software created a nightmare scenario we’re still unpacking
Welcome to No One’s Driving, a column by novelist and tech writer Tim Maughan about how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiraling out of control.
“The mask is the perfect prism with which to understand the world in 2021,” John tells me on a Zoom call from California. John is the co-founder of a mask company that manufactures its product in China, and that is not his real name; he’s asked for anonymity because he’s worried that discussing these topics would ruin his business there. “Politically, economically, culturally… it explains so much of the dysfunction in the world, especially if you start with just the basic supply chain side of it. It’s insane. It’s really insane.”
It’s hard to think of a symbol that better encapsulates the past 12 months than the face mask — an object we were all forced to become familiar with overnight. It’s an object that represents security and safety for some as much as it has become a misguided symbol of oppression for others. But as our everyday mask use has been normalized — and as the news cycle has grown increasingly relentless — it’s easy to forget how such a seemingly simple object caused so much headline-grabbing panic and confusion in the early months of 2020. But during the onset of the pandemic, everyone from private individuals to large hospitals and all the way up to national governments scrambled and competed to secure supplies of medical-grade masks.
Even though N95 or equivalent masks are back on store shelves and in the warehouses of online retailers, lots of questions remain unanswered — especially around our control over the systems of manufacturing and distribution that the pandemic has made clear we are so fundamentally reliant on. How did we — an advanced, high-tech civilization — find ourselves unable to efficiently produce and distribute a simple yet vital item during an international emergency? What does this mean for governments’ ability to protect their citizens? And how many lives were lost due to the failure of these systems to deliver essential…