Learning from COVID19

The global pandemic of Covid19 has been a mixed blessing. Many have lost their lives or at least their health. but it has brought about a much wider understanding of how fragile our supply chains and support systems can be. I mean in no way to diminish the pain and suffering of those that have fought COVID19 or the loved ones that have buried those that lost the fight. I simply want to examine that in a sense we are “lucky” to have only experience this level of pandemic. I say that because it could have been MUCH worse. If COVID19 had shown its same infection rate but a fatality rate the same as, say Ebola, which is up to 90%, we would be in a very different outcome. So let us use this as a learning tool to help us not only reduce the risk of future pandemics, but also to improve the resilience of our supply chains and support systems such as hospitals.

In normal times Just-In-Time inventory works both for the business and the consumer. It allows the business to reduce the inventory cost on its books, lessen the chance of damage or spoilage while being warehoused, and reduce the cost of warehouse space. From the business side this is a very attractive way to do inventory. From the consumer side, again in normal times, it works well also. It helps to keep prices down and if you buy all the widgets the store has today, then more than likely they will have more tomorrow. So there is no need to worry. What we saw during COVID19 was that this system is easily broken and can take a very long time to recover.

There are 3 major factors that affected the inventory supply. The first is panic buying or hoarding. For a multitude of personal reasons people became afraid and bought items in large quantities. Some examples were toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes.  Some of this was purely psychological and based on seeing others buying large quantities of the same stuff. In some cases, people ended up with 3000 rolls of toilet paper, but only a few days of food, and possibly even less water.  This sudden bulk buying drained the store shelves and whatever small on-hand back stock they had. Since the panic buying lasted more than a few days, stores ramped up ordering from either their central warehouse or suppliers. In some causes the automated store inventory systems made these orders. All of those orders came into the warehouses and were filled from stock on hand there. Within a short time the warehouse stock, which is based on normal demand,  was depleted by all of the increased ordering.

These warehouses then reached out to the production facilities and requested more stock.  This is where the second factor comes in. Whereas stores having to order more stock might have delayed the shelves being stocked by a few days, this bottleneck caused a much longer delay. The production facility might be running near 100% production capability for its normal ordering quantities. Idle machines and workers cost money, so most facilities do not want them setting around. So the production could not be ramped up quickly to restock the warehouses. In fact, due to workers being out with COVID19, most actually fell to a lower production rate. Hiring fill in workers and adding machinery needed to up production takes time.

The third factor is the distance from the production site to the store shelves. Some of these goods are made in other parts of the world and then shipped, more than likely by container ship, to the U. S. The average shipping time via container ship from China to the U. S, is 20 to 30 days. This meant that any increased production that could be done would lag behind by 30 days. The same was true of the machinery needed by the production sites to increase the production.  Unfortunately, just like the manufacturing facilities, the shipping and dock sectors took a large hit due to worker illness. This lead to shipments sitting while they waited for a ship to transport them and ships full of containers waiting much longer than normal for their turn to dock and be unloaded.

Some of these same things worked against the medical sector as they tried to care for all the patients coming in with COVID19. Due to cost most hospitals are sized and staffed based on “normal” patient load.  Remember,  most hospitals are part of a for profit business, just like the widget factories. With the massive increase in inbound patients, they began to run out of beds, ventilators, or at least the staff to take care of those patients. They found that when they ordered more ventilators, beds, and supplies that they were stuck in the same production nightmare as everything else. So they saw lack of stock, a fixed production capacity, and long leads times to get the items to them. In addition to the supply issue, medical facilities saw a decrease in staff as some of them fell ill. Something different here is that due to the stress of the situation and fear for their own health, some additional staff simply quit. It is hard to blame them after all they see and are asked risk. Then you had those that took advantage of the situation and moved to other facilities that were paying incredible wages to attract more staff immediately just to keep their door open. In the end everywhere ended up with patients lining the halls and far too few staff on hand to care for them as usual. Honestly, most did their best to give every patient good care, but obviously it was a very strained existence at that point.

Taking a look back at what has happened, we can use these events to focus our planning. First, we can see that just having a plan and some supplies set back put us way ahead of many. Still, stuffing some ramen in the cabinet next to a bottle of water and aid first aid kit is not enough. We really must sit down and analyze what we use and what of that we need or want when things go bad. What gets used in an average week? That will give you a baseline to look at. Food, paper goods, hygiene items, and medications are a beginning. Having this evaluated we can know what we need instead of madly loading buggies down with toilet paper at the last minute.

Secondly, we need to evaluate what skills we have or can lean that can be put to use in bad times. I am not talking about gardening or blacksmithing at the moment. In the short term things like basic medical skills can be very helpful. At the height of COVID19, going to the emergency room was very risky and it could take hours to get care. So being able to deal with minor medical issues at home is very valuable. Things ranging from minor burns and simple cuts can be taken care of with minimal supplies and skill. I know most people can deal with the most minor ones, but evaluate if you could put in 3 stitches to close  up a cut. What about setting a broken bone? Know your limits and you can make a clear line in the sand as to when you need to look for outside care in troubled times. Unless all medical facilities are totally offline, there are things you are just not ever going to be equipped to handle adequately at home.

Third, evaluate the resources in your area so you know where to go in the event you do need last minute items or care. When panic buying started, pictures from Sam’s Clubs and Costcos across the U. S. showed huge crowds all rushing to clear out the shelves. While these might have been the place to buy the bulk packs of items, they were also the first places with bare shelves. So these places might have not been the best to use as a go to for topping off your pantry.  One personal example is that my household needed a few items we do not use a lot normally, but had ramped up since we were all home full time. Instead of rushing off to Sam’s Club, which was already reportedly empty, I stopped by the out of the way Dollar General in my area. Things that coworkers supposedly could not find, were on the shelf. No huge packages, but smaller ones, many with no limit. So take a look at the places that might have the supplies you need and make a list. Then think outside the box about places that are either off the beaten path or would be overlooked because their main business does not deal with what you are looking for. These places may just be where you find the items. For example, if paper towels were cleared out in most grocery stores, do you know Advance Auto Parts carries them? They just call them shop towels and they are blue. They are more expensive, but also are much better than the $1 rolls you might normally buy. The same thought can be applied to medical care. If you must go in, you might find the local ERs and large walk-in clinics packed to the gills. There may very well be small independent doctor’s offices in the area that would treat you. They might not be “in network” on your insurance, but in an emergency I would rather be treated in 30 minutes at a higher cost , than wait 5 hours just to get the budget rate. You also risk being exposed to other diseases in the larger setting.  Knowing these places ahead of time will allow you to get in and out before the crowds spill over to them.

So I hope you can see that we have lessons to learn that can better prepare us. So take a look at what plans you already have set forth. Does anything that has happened expose a weak point in them? Do you see supplies you need to add? If not, that is great, but I am betting you are in the minority.  I am not saying it is possible to cover EVERY contingency, but we may better cover for things we have never seen as issues before. So many things have happened in the last year that none of us have had to deal with in our lifetimes.

Stay safe out there and take the precautions seriously. Hopefully we will be out of all this sooner than later.

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