With finals underway, our numbers dwindle, but some hardy LEAP Ambassadors tuned in to the Bush School‘s/Scowcroft Institute’s weekly COVID-19 update, with this one focusing on the food supply chain.
Dr. Blackburn led off the show…
by introducing Brittany Segundo, a Fellow at the Scowcroft Institute specializing in supply chains (and a Ph.D. student studying engineering). Segundo discussed meat products, and the spike in coronavirus illnesses among food workers. This is largely a product of the lack of social distancing in the plants, but it’s also possible that the workers need the N95 Respirator masks instead of just the less stringent masks.
Segundo stressed that there really shouldn’t be a substantive shortage. Rather, we might see a bit of a bump in prices and less variety. Some stores might put a limit on the number of, say, meat packages a customer can buy, but that’s not because of a shortage. It’s more to prevent a run on meats, much as there was over purchasing of toilet paper early in the pandemic.
Another factor is that with the government shutdowns, the demand for many agricultural products has dropped, leading to reports of farmers ‘dumping’ some of the produce. Some have asked, “Why can’t those food items be donated to non-profits and food banks?” One of the reasons for this is that it costs a lot of money to re-distribute those items to new locations and, often, in new packaging. Suppliers who are already losing money cannot readily incur additional costs associated with the logistics of donating to new venues.
Dr. Christine Blackburn then stepped in to discuss the effect of COVID-19 on high-value commodities0–fruit and vegetables and other items that are labor intensive to harvest.
One difficulty there is that the labor for these products often comes from international sources. These workers are often either undocumented or require H2A visas, and, because of COVID-19, fewer of these visas were issued this year. This has resulted in a reduction of labor.
Additionally, many of these workers live or work in tight spaces, making social distancing difficult. This results in a higher rate of absenteeism, another factor impeding production and distribution. So, for consumers, we may see higher prices and more limited products, but the real impact will be on farmers and those who work for farmers, whose incomes are being affected.
Blackburn and Segundo then took questions.
One important question involved whether we are any closer to achieving “herd immunity”? This is a difficult question, and according to Dr. Blackburn, we still don’t know if having the disease produces immunity. If it doesn’t, then we won’t achieve herd immunity. If it does, the medical community will need to determine how long the immunity lasts. Additionally, it’s possible that a certain amount of antibodies are needed to achieve immunity, and the tests may not be sufficiently sensitive to determine this. Finally, there is the issue of false positives. If the false positive rates are high, then you have people who think they are immune, but aren’t actually immune. That makes them more vulnerable for future infections.
The big question was: is this the right time for the shutdown to end? Dr. Blackburn struggled with how to answer this, noting that the answer to this depends on factors relating to health, economics, and social aspects of our lives. She also mentioned that she has friends who are out of work, parents struggling with children at home, and she understand the impact of the shutdown.
But looking at it from a health-only perspective–from a “disease-containment standpoint,” as she said it–“now is not the right time” to end the shutdown. Blackburn noted that Texas has an increase in cases over the past two weeks, and she expects in 3-4 weeks, we’ll see much larger numbers of cases in Texas, and 3-4 weeks after that, we’ll see a larger number of deaths.
She further pointed out that different specialists look at different areas: economists look at the economic impact of a government shutdown and/or disease; health experts look at the health impact. Elected officials have to weigh those and make good decisions.