Of COVID and condoms: knock-on effects in supply chains

COVID-19 continues to slash through international supply chains that were previously much lauded for playing to the comparative advantage of different economies, increasing efficiency, and generally laying rich offerings on the altars of shareholder value.

The pandemic has underlined not just the fragility of our supply lines, but their interdependence. So I couldn’t help but smile at the juxtaposition of the shelves either side of me, as I walked through the aisles of a large chain pharmacy in the suburbs of New York last week.

Condoms in stock on drugstore shelves
Photo: Elizabeth Pisani

On my right, despite panicked reports from Malaysia that coronavirus will cause a global shortage of condoms, a dizzying array of rubbers to suit every taste. With the bars empty and even Tinder warning people off meeting in real life, demand for condoms (at least in the suburbs of New York) seems to be slowing.

Meanwhile, on my left, directly opposite the shelves groaning with condoms:

Shelves with stockouts of nappies
Photo: Elizabeth Pisani

Supply chains for baby products are clearly struggling to keep up with demand, even now. That rather begs the question: if there’s no run on condoms and other contraceptives, will it mean that nine months from now, the shelves that should hold nappies will be swept barer still ? It seems likely that the reverse could hold equally true: shelves and pharmacies cleared of contraceptives might reinforce the pressure on wet-wipes and baby powder. Data analysed by The Economist, which offset the birth rate by nine months from the time of a major epidemic, suggest an “N” curve: major epidemics seem to lead to a fall, then a rise.

The shutdown will probably also have a knock-on effect on demand for treatments for other sexually transmitted infections. My own guess is that COVID will lead to a rapid fall in STIs, followed by a rapid rise the moment restrictions on movement are lifted. Unless, of course, the shelf on my right very quickly begins to look like the one on my left.