Essay: How It Fell to Private Industry to Come to America’s Aid During the Coronavirus Crisis

The private sector has rallied to the Covid cause, but is that the best way to fight a pandemic?

dollar bill with George Washington wearing a face mask
Brands have led the charge in supplying the Covid-19-fighting resources the country needs.
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Key insights:

Bayard Winthrop remembers the phone call he got around the end of March that would change the direction of his company and, to a small degree, the nation itself. Winthrop is the founder of American Giant, maker of a thick-woven, domestically produced, $108 sweatshirt that’s colloquially known as “the greatest hoodie ever made.” But as Covid-19 rampaged across the country, Winthrop knew that what Americans really needed wasn’t hoodies, but medical supplies.

American Giant founder Bayard Winthrop says America is paying the price for outsourcing so many of its industries.
Courtesy of American Giant

Which is why the ringing phone was just the call he’d hoped to get. On the line was Anderson Warlick, CEO of Parkdale Mills, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of spun yarns. Warlick had himself been contacted by Peter Navarro, the White House’s director of trade and manufacturing policy, who was working to mobilize domestic manufacturers to meet the chasmal need for personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“Anderson called me and said, ‘Here’s the thing. We have a bunch of projects out of HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] and the White House—can you join?’” Winthrop said. “When you get a call like that, you drop everything and you do it.”

Winthrop did drop everything. And within a few days, he’d reworked American Giant’s lines to produce medical-grade masks. Winthrop is proud to be doing his part, but American Giant is not a huge brand and can only contribute so much to meet the endless list of requirements for supplies. “We’re only doing masks,” he said, adding that of the 30 million masks the government needs weekly, “our take of that is about 600,000—we’re a relatively small producer.”

Fortunately for the country, many other producers have stepped into the breach, including immense manufacturers like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, which formed an alliance of 11 clothing brands that are producing 1 million masks weekly in addition to other forms of PPE.

Winthrop’s story is an encouraging one, but his experience also illustrates a larger dynamic that’s become increasingly clear as Covid-19 drags on: American brands, often acting on their own initiative, are coming to the aid of the country more than at any time since World War II.

There are literally hundreds of examples of how the private sector has risen to the occasion in recent weeks. The hand-sanitizer shortage first prompted boutique distilleries to begin making the stuff, followed by larger companies including Anheuser-Busch and Bacardi. Several days ago, even ExxonMobil got into the act, retooling one of its Louisiana plants and pledging to produce 160,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, all of it to be donated to healthcare workers and other first responders. The efforts of business-to-business brands have received less media attention but have been no less significant. In Baltimore, for example, wire fabricator Marlin Steel has been turning out test-tube racks for Covid-19 screenings.

ExxonMobil, which made $279 billion in 2018, is now making hand sanitizer—and giving it away.

The tech sector, too, has volunteered its talents and money. Boston Dynamics has developed a four-legged, canine-type robot to help doctors treat Covid-19 patients remotely. Apple and Google have partnered on Project Bubble, a contact-tracing app that was expected to be ready by May 1. And then there was the much-publicized announcement by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey that he’d pledged $1 billion—nearly a third of his personal fortune—to coronavirus relief programs.

Boston Dynamics' Covid-response robot, Spot, exemplifies the tech sector's voluntary response to the pandemic.
Courtesy of Boston Dynamics

These efforts are critical and, at times, even heroic, not least because the brands involved are often taking a hit to their own bottom lines to do the right thing, even if they do get a degree of complimentary advertising out of their largesse. But looming behind these efforts are large and elemental arguments about the role of government during a national crisis and who should be taking the lead in helping a country driven to its knees by a virus. While few Americans would fail to appreciate the measures brands are taking to help out, the question remains: Is the private sector doing the job that the federal government should be doing? And if so, how did it reach this point?

Whose job was it to help?

The degree to which it is the federal government’s job to swoop in and save the nation during a health crisis is, of course, a highly political debate. In an interview on NPR earlier this month, Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates insisted that “the responsibility to protect the public and have been prepared for disasters like this—that’s totally a governmental responsibility.” But author and conservative political commentator Kathy Barnette, in an op-ed for the Washington Times on April 22, was equally adamant when she said, “It’s not the federal government’s job to purchase, ship and manage the movement of necessary PPEs in every single hospital in every single state. Even during a devastating crisis such as the one we’re contending with, it’s not the federal government’s job to make sure every request for a ventilator is fulfilled.”

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