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COVID-19 Trade Myth Debunks

Chinese exports to the U.S. of masks, ventilators and other medical goods dropped in early 2020, even as the Chinese government claims it imposed no export restrictions.

U.S. 2020 trade data show declines in U.S. imports of masks, gloves, ventilators, and other medical goods from China. The tables below show the decline in January-March 2020 relative to the same months in 2019. (See Graph below) While seasonal import drops occur each year in these months, the 2020 dip was notably larger.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Chinese exports of critical medical goods arriving in the U.S. in January would have been shipped as usual by sea before the COVID crisis hit China. (Typical sea shipping from China to the U.S. is 30-40 days.) Goods that would have shipped once the COVID crisis was escalating in China for U.S. sales in February and March appear to have been withheld.

Neither a drop in overall U.S. imports of such goods nor the impact of Section 301 tariffs on China explain the declines in these key months. Indeed, there was a strong “trade diversion” effect with growth in imports from other countries of these critical medical goods based on growing U.S. demand. (See Table below.) In fact, U.S. imports in 2019 of all critical medical and pharmaceutical products from all countries, excluding China, were up more than 25% since 2017, before Section 301 tariffs were imposed.

DateChina (constant USD)Monthly Percentual VariationRest of the world (constant USD)Monthly Percentual Variation
Jan. 2019890,320,148-11,658,158,352-
Feb. 2019691,739,046-22.3%9,649,446,437-17.2%
Mar. 2019612,879,139-11.4%12,171,780,79926.1%
Apr. 2019710,328,12715.9%13,553,140,74911.3%
May 2019796,677,35012.2%12,507,123,307-7.7%
Jun. 2019829,571,9574.1%12,154,928,313-2.8%
Jul. 2019935,274,79712.7%13,862,149,52614.0%
Aug. 2019933,642,135-0.2%13,687,492,173-1.3%
Sept. 2019864,330,224-7.4%12,139,557,805-11.3%
Oct. 2019776,796,235-10.1%13,514,406,74511.3%
Nov. 2019684,371,716-11.9%12,265,048,213-9.2%
Dec. 2019714,169,8184.4%12,088,471,559-1.4%
Jan. 2020756,861,0756.0%12,059,228,242-0.2%
Feb. 2020563,563,584-25.5%12,501,433,7453.7%
Mar. 2020500,430,383-11.2%16,195,735,38329.6%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, monetary values are inflation-adjusted to Jul. 2020

With respect to Section 301, ventilators, oxygen masks and other medical goods were never covered by the tariffs against China imposed in July 2018 or those imposed later. So, the significant fall off in imports of goods in these categories during February and March of 2020 is entirely unrelated. The September 2019 additional Section 301 sanctions did cover some face masks, protective garments and other medical supplies. Some opponents of the Section 301 China enforcement actions have claimed that the significant decline in monthly imports from China of medical-related goods was entirely caused by Section 301 tariffs. But a review of the same months over past years show a significant “seasonality” effect: Every year there is a falloff in Chinese imports of these goods during the last quarter of the year.

Furthermore, a close review of the data year-over-year reinforces that the Chinese government deciding not to allow exports of goods it needed to handle a growing coronavirus crisis at home at the beginning of 2020 caused a drop in imports from China of medical goods that was greater than the usual seasonal effect. While imports of critical medical goods from the rest of the world (excluding China) during the first quarter of 2020 grew 21.74% compared to the same period in 2019, imports from China fell 17% comparing the same periods.

As the COVID-19 crisis started in the United States, in early March 2020 the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office began excluding additional COVID-related items via a “List 4” of exclusions from Section 301 tariffs, with duties lifted retroactively to September 2019. When USTR launched a March 25, 2020 request for additional exceptions related to COVID-19, additional medical goods and medicines were not among the items proposed, as they already had been excluded.

That China’s government would prioritize residents’ needs and withhold exports is understandable. That the Chinese government was not forthcoming about doing so created new difficulties for countries that were reliant on Chinese imports and did not know to find alternative sources. However, the main problem that the COVID-19 crisis exposed is that the United States is overly reliant on imports in general and imports from China in specific to meet domestic needs for basic medical goods. This was true even before the coronavirus epidemic. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 90% of surgical masks and 70% of respirators are imported. China produces 50% of masks globally. The U.S. is also heavily reliant on imported medicine and active medical ingredients. The COVID-19 crisis has generated calls from across the political spectrum to increase U.S. production of such goods and to also diversify the source of imports of essential goods.

The United States starting reviews of COVID-19 response exports did not cause other nations to cut sales to us. Most nations had prioritized domestic needs and imposed export reviews or restrictions months earlier.

BACKGROUND: U.S. was among the last to review or limit exports for COVID-19 domestic needs.

Defenders of corporate-rigged trade are outraged that governments worldwide enacted policies to try to meet domestic or regional needs for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other COVID-19 response products. Instead of governments reviewing local needs for or restricting exports of such goods, they want the “market” to decide where goods go. Given there are shortages, that would result in goods only going to wealthy nations or wealthy individuals in poor nations who can pay the most. Most people think that governments have a role–and indeed a responsibility–to meet their residents’ needs. And there is no global health agency to distribute PPE and other COVID-19 response goods. So, defenders of hyperglobalization have  concocted arguments for why governments should not intervene. Their attack on the April 7 U.S. decision to begin reviewing exports of COVID-19 response goods is among the most absurd: They claimed doing so would cause other countries to retaliate and stop sending goods to us. Except, as the table below shows, most countries were screening for domestic needs and already had imposed export restrictions or reviews months earlier. And the trade data here shows China started limiting exports of masks, gloves, ventilators and more in January.

CountryCategories of GoodsCOVID-19 Export Restriction TakenMeasureStart DateEnd Date or Open Ended
ChinaFace masks, personal protective equipmentExport ProhibitionChina stops exporting masks and PPE to stockpile medical supplies and tried to obscure its actions by withholding trade data according to media reports and DHS.1/1/2020Unknown
TaiwanMasksExport Prohibition Taiwan's government announced a one-month ban on the export of specialist masks designed to be used for medical personnel1/24/2020Open Ended
IndiaFace masks, gloves, clothingExport ProhibitionFace masks, protective clothing; 02/09 India removes some masks and gloves from export ban list1/31/2020Open Ended
IranMasksExport prohibitionIranian government has banned export of protective face masks for a three-month period.2/3/202005/03/2020
KyrgyzstanMedicines and medical equipmentExport prohibitionTemporary export ban on medicines and medical equipment from the Kyrgyz Republic.2/3/202008/02/2020
ThailandMasksExport ProhibitionThailand bans the exports of masks.2/5/202002/04/2021
OmanMasks, hand sanitizersExport ProhibitionDirectorate-General of Pharmacy and Drug Control bans exports of masks and hand sanitizers.2/26/2020Open Ended
TurkeyMasksLicensing or permit requirements to exportTurkey regulates the export of masks and personal protective equipment.2/28/2020Open Ended
KazakhstanMasksExport prohibitionKazakstan bans export of masks.2/29/2020Open Ended
EcuadorMasksExport ProhibitionTemporary export prohibition on protective masks3/2/2020Open Ended
Saudi ArabiaMedical supply products, masksExport ProhibitionSaudi Arabia stops all exports of coronavirus detection and prevention products.3/2/2020Open Ended
KenyaMasksExport prohibitionKenyan firms banned from exporting face masks.3/3/2020Open Ended
Czech RepublicMasksExport ProhibitionThe ministry of health ordered a ban on exports of masks3/4/2020Open Ended
RussiaMedical supply products, masksExport ProhibitionRussia bans export of masks and personol protective suits.3/4/2020Open Ended
MoroccoMasksExport ProhibitionThe Moroccan Ministry of Industry and Trade has imposed an export license for medical protective masks.3/5/2020Open Ended
MalaysiaMasksExport prohibitionThe government imposes a temporary ban on the export of face masks to meet local demand.3/7/2020Open Ended
AlbaniaMedicines and Medical devicesLicensing or permit requirements to exportProhibition of export of medicines and medical devices. It will be allowed only upon the authorization of the Minister of Health.3/9/2020Open Ended
South KoreaMedical supply products, masksExport ProhibitionA new law completely bans the exports of South Korean masks and requires producers to distribute 80 percent of masks through official public channels.3/9/2020Open Ended
BulgariaMedical supply products, masksExport ProhibitionBulgarian government immediately banned the exports of personal protective equipment.3/11/2020Open Ended
MoldovaMasks, gloves and disinfectantsExport ProhibitionApril 10: Measure has been extended to May 15. March 11: Export ban on masks, gloves and disinfectants.3/11/202005/15/2020
UkraineLaboratory suits, medical gloves, medical masks, goggles, protective shields, respiratorsExport ProhibitionThe government of Ukraine has temporarily restricted exports of anti-epidemic supplies.3/11/202006/01/2020
VietnamMasksLicensing or permit requirements to exportExport licenses for medical masks3/11/2020Open Ended
KuwaitFoodstuffs, medicines, medical supplies and equipmentExport prohibitionExport prohibition for all foodstuffs, medicines, medical supplies and equipment, unless authorized by Ministry of Trade and Industry.3/12/2020Open Ended
IndonesiaMedical supply products, masksExport prohibitionIndonesia to ban face-mask exports3/13/2020Open Ended
BangladeshMedical supply productsExport ProhibitionApril 02: Ministry of Commerce has lifted the ban on export of locally-made face masks and hand sanitizers. March 14: The commerce ministry has imposed a ban on the export of locally-made face masks and hand sanitizers as a part of precautionary measures taken in response to the growing domestic demand for the items amid the global coronavirus outbreak.3/14/202004/02/2020
ParaguayHand sanitizer and face masksLicensing or permit requirements to exportExport licensing requirement on hand sanitizer and face masks3/14/2020Open Ended
SerbiaEssential commoditiesExport ProhibitionTemporary prohibition of exports of essential commodities.3/14/2020Open Ended
European UnionPersonal protective equipment, medical suppliesLicensing or permit requirements to exportThe Commission has taken immediate steps to protect the availability of supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), by requiring that exports of such equipment outside of the European Union are subject to an export authorisation by Member States.3/15/202004/26/2020
IsraelAlcohol, face masks, oxygen, swabs, lithium batteries, non-woven fabricsLicensing or permit requirements to exportTemporary export licensing requirements on personal protective and medical equipment.3/15/202004/30/2020
BelarusMedical supply productsExport ProhibitionTemporary export ban on medical supply products3/16/202006/01/2020
LibyaFace masks, respiratory ventilation aids, sterilizing productsExport prohibitionThe Minister of Economy and Industry of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Ali Al-Essawi, issued a decree forbidding the export of sterile and non-sterile face masks, and also that of respiratory ventilation aids along with sterilizing products of any type or size.3/16/2020Open Ended
UzbekistanMasks and medical suitsExport ProhibitionExport ban on masks and medical suits.3/16/2020Open Ended
EgyptMasks, gloves, disinfection alcoholExport prohibitionEgypt bans exports of medical masks and rubbing alcohol3/17/2020Open Ended
AustraliaFace masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizers, goggles, eye visors and alcohol wipesExport ProhibitionTemporary export ban on certain personal protective equipment. Effectiv for 3 months.3/18/202006/18/2020
BrazilMedical and hospital productsLicensing or permit requirements to exportTemporary implementation of special export licensing requirement on certain products.3/18/2020Open Ended
Costa RicaFace masks, disinfectants and medical equipmentExport ProhibitionTemporary export control requirements for statistical purposes on certain personal protective equipment (e.g. face masks, gloves).3/18/2020Open Ended
ArmeniaMedical supplies and equipmentLicensing or permit requirements to exportExport restriction on a range of medical supplies3/19/2020Open Ended
United KingdomMedcines, drugsExport prohibitionExports of more than 80 vital drugs have been banned by ministers to prevent NHS shortages of medicines needed to treat coronavirus.3/19/2020Open Ended
ArgentinaMedical VentilatorsLicensing or permit requirements to exportTemporary implementation of export licensing requirement on medical ventilators.3/20/2020Open Ended
Sri LankaMasksExport ProhibitionApril 14: Regulations, No. 2 of 2020 published in the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2167/17 of March 20, 2020 are hereby rescinded March 20: Exports of all types of surgical masks are prohibited.3/20/202004/11/2020
AlgeriaFood products, medicines, medical supply productExport ProhibitionList of products tempoary suspended from export3/22/2020Open Ended
ColombiaMedical supply, medicinesExport ProhibitionTemporary export ban on certain personal protective equipment.3/22/202009/21/2020
LebanonPersonal protective equipment, medical supplyExport ProhibitionLebanon suspendeds export of certain personal protective and medical goods.3/22/2020Open Ended
NepalMedicines, masks and sanitizersExport ProhibitionGovernment has banned the export of the medicines, masks and sanitizers.3/22/2020Open Ended
Eurasian Economic UnionProtective equipment, protective and disinfectants, medical suppliesExport prohibitionA temporary ban has been introduced on the export of personal protective equipment, protective and disinfectants, medical supplies and materials from the EAEU.3/24/2020Open Ended
PakistanMasksExport ProhibitionPakistan bans the exports of masks.3/24/2020Open Ended
HungaryHydroxychloroquine drugsExport prohibitionHungary has banned the commercial export of hydroxychloroquine sulfate.3/25/2020Open Ended
El SalvadorBeansExport prohibitionTemporary export ban on certain dried leguminous vegetables (frijol rojo en grano).3/26/202012/31/2020
FranceHydroxychloroquine medicamentsExport prohibitionFrance has banned exports of hydroxychloroquine.3/26/2020Open Ended
Switzerland & LiechtensteinPersonal protective equipment, masksLicensing or permit requirements to exportMedical protection products need export authorisation when exported outside EEA. Affected: Non-EEA countries.3/26/2020Open Ended
CyprusMedicinesExport ProhibitionThe export of all medicines from Cyprus to any other country has been banned with immediate effect.3/27/2020Open Ended
Ivory CoastHand SanitizersExport prohibitionMinistry of Commerce bans the export of hydro-alcoholic gels3/27/2020Open Ended
PhillipinesRiceExport prohibitionThe province of Bukidnon will stop exporting rice to ensure food security during its lockdown period. This measure is only applied by Bukidnon.3/27/2020Open Ended
BotswanaFace masks, hand sanitizerLicensing or permit requirements to exportThe DTIC will need to be consulted prior to the export of certain selected goods including face masks and hand sanitizer.3/28/2020Open Ended
EswatiniFace masks, hand sanitizerLiscensing or permit requirements to exportThe DTIC will need to be consulted prior to the export of certain selected goods including face masks and hand sanitizer.3/28/2020Open Ended
LesothoFace masks, hand sanitizerLicensing or permit requirements to exportThe DTIC will need to be consulted prior to the export of certain selected goods including face masks and hand sanitizer.3/28/2020Open Ended
NamibiaFace masks, hand sanitizerLicensing or permit requirements to exportThe DTIC will need to be consulted prior to the export of certain selected goods including face masks and hand sanitizer.3/28/2020Open Ended
South AfricaFace masks, hand sanitizerLicensing or permit requirements to exportThe DTIC will need to be consulted prior to the export of certain selected goods including face masks and hand sanitizer.3/28/2020Open Ended
NorwayPersonal protective equipmentLicensing or permit requirements to exportAn export permit issued by the Directorate of Health is required for the export of personal protective equipment.3/30/2020Open Ended
HondurasBeansExport prohibitionTemoporary export ban on certain dried leguminous vegetables3/31/2020Open Ended
North MacedoniaWheat, meslin, wheat flourExport ProhibitionMeasure on the prohibition of exports of wheat and meslin, as well wheat flour, is taken in the emergency situation due to the COVID-19.4/1/2020Open Ended
MyanmarRiceExport ProhibitionMinistry of Commerce is temporarily suspending the issuance of rice export permits.4/3/2020Open Ended
United States of AmericaRespirators, surgical masks and surgical glovesLicensing or permit requirements to exportAdministration issued executive order directing federal emergency management and health officials to use the law’s authority to preserve respirators, surgical masks and surgical gloves for domestic use.4/3/2020Open Ended
CambodiaRice, fishExport ProhibitionCambodia bans some rice and fish exports to ensure local food security during the coronavirus crisis.4/5/2020Open Ended
SyriaFood commodities, sterilization and cleaning materialsExport ProhibitionSyrian Ministry of Economy decided to prohibit exports of a series of food commodities, sterilization and cleaning materials.4/5/202005/04/2020
JordanFood productsExport prohibitionThe Jordanian Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply decided to stop granting export and re-export licenses for food products.4/6/2020Open Ended
BahrainFace masks, face shieldsExport ProhibitionBan to export of all types of protective face masks without prior permission of the Minister. The decision valid is 3 months.4/9/202006/08/2020
AzerbaijanMedical supply products, sterile gloves, masks and goggles, disinfectantsExport ProhibitionTemporary export ban on certain medical supplies products.4/10/2020Open Ended
RomaniaCereals, flour, sugar, vegetable oilExport ProhibitionRomania suspended/banned the exports of cereals, flour, sugar, oil and other agri-food products. Affected: Non-EEA countries.4/10/2020Open Ended
SudanMaize, sorghumExport ProhibitionSudanese Ministry of Industry and Trade has temporarily banned exports of maize.4/15/2020Open Ended
MaliPersonal protective equipment, food productsExport ProhibitionThe government bans exports of personal protective equipment (e.g.masks, gels) and certain food products (rice, millet, sugar, milk, pasta).4/17/2020Open Ended
ZimbabweMedical supply productsExport ProhibitionZimbabwe bans exports of medical supplies.4/22/2020Open Ended
TajikistanGrains, beans, wheat, flour, rice, eggs, potatoes and meatExport ProhibitionExports of certain food products such as grains, beans, wheat, flour, rice, eggs, potatoes and meat are prohibited.4/30/2020Open Ended

Data Notes

The critical goods trade flow data is sourced from the U.S. International Trade Commission and media reports. The trade flow data is adjusted for inflation to base month April 2020.