azmeh4_JACK GUEZAFP via Getty Images_coronavirusdoctorhospitalventilatorrespirator Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The Perverse Economics of Ventilators

By relying excessively on market forces, we have all but ensured that technologies such as ventilators become more complex and expensive over time, putting access to them out of reach for most of the world's people. It didn't have to be this way.

MANCHESTER – As the coronavirus has spread around the world, the need for ventilators has soared. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service estimates that it will need at least 30,000 more of these critical devices. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo also has called for 30,000 more, warning that New York City will soon run out.

Ramping up production to meet this demand is a huge challenge. In Italy, the only ventilator manufacturer, Siare Engineering, has been asked to increase its production from 125 per month to at least 500 per month. Likewise, Ventilator Challenge UK, a consortium of firms that includes some of the biggest names in British manufacturing, is desperately trying to scale up production. And in the United States, President Donald Trump has finally invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act and ordered General Motors to make ventilators.

Not surprisingly, the situation is far worse in poorer countries, where the supply of available ventilators is minimal and money to acquire more is scarce. In the Central African Republic, for example, there are just three ventilators for the entire country; in Liberia, there is reportedly only one. Bangladesh has fewer than 2000 ventilators for a population of more than 160 million.

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