PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP'S trade war with China has been costly for Americans--and the COVID-19 outbreak reveals that we might be paying with more than just our money.
What's worse, the White House knew the risk it was running. "These products are essential to protecting health care providers and their patients every single day," Matt Rowan, president of the Health Industry Distributors Association, told the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in August 2018. At the time, the office was considering a wide-ranging set of new tariffs targeting hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of annual imports from China. Among the products that would be hit with those higher duties were thermometers, breathing masks, hand sanitizer, patient monitors, and medical-grade personal protective equipment, including masks and sterile gloves. Those products "are a critical component of our nation's response to public health emergencies," Rowan warned.
Other medical professionals at the hearing similarly pleaded for the Trump administration to drop the proposed tariffs. Alternative suppliers could not be found quickly, they said, in no small part because Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval was required before other sources could be used. The likely result of Trump's proposed tariffs would be higher prices for medical gear and decreased availability of critical supplies.
The warnings went unheeded. The tariffs did what tariffs do.
In 2017, the last full year before Trump's tariffs were imposed, more than a quarter of all medical equipment imported to the U.S. came from China. By 2019, imports of Chinese-made medical products had fallen by 16 percent, according to an analysis from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), a trade-focused think tank. While U.S. imports from the rest of the world increased during the same period, according to PIIE, the increase was not sufficient to offset the tariff-induced decline in imports from China. It's likely that hospitals drew down on existing inventories, hoping that the...