As COVID-19 spread across China in January and February, domestic demand spiked for personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators, surgical masks, hospital gloves, and medical goggles. In response, China increased its imports of PPE and reduced its exports to the rest of the world, shrinking the supply of critical medical gear available on global markets.
China imported 8.7 million more kilograms of respirators and surgical masks in the first two months of 2020 than it did in the same period last year. It also reduced its exports of that equipment by 22.8 million kilograms over that period. As a result, 31.6 million fewer kilograms of respirators and masks were available for the global market—a 24 percent drop. This trend was visible across all PPE product categories in January and February.
China’s net exports of PPE recovered slightly in March. Net exports of respirators and masks fell by only 5 percent compared to March 2019, for example. If the worst for China is over, though, domestic demand should fall, allowing more Chinese PPE to enter the global market.
This PIIE Chart was adapted from Chad P. Bown’s blog post, “China should export more medical gear to battle COVID-19.”