MUCH OF THE panic-buying provoked by the covid-19 pandemic seems overblown. Grocers insist they are not about to run out of food. But in one category of product, scarcity is all too real. Overwhelmed health services are desperately short of mechanical ventilators to help the roughly 10% of sufferers with severe symptoms to breathe. Political leaders are urging existing specialist producers to ramp up production. Germany’s government ordered 16,000 new machines from two domestic producers. Others, like Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, want manufacturers of all stripes to retool and help out. That is easier said than done.
It is hard to pin down how many ventilators health-care systems have on hand. The last survey of ventilator capacity in America was ten years ago. It tallied 62,000 sophisticated machines and 100,000 basic ones. American health authorities are now hastily counting anew. They are likely to find fewer than 200,000, 80-90% of which are typically used by non-covid patients. A rough calculation by The Economist suggests that, if the virus keeps spreading at the current rate, America would run out of spare devices in four weeks. The situation is worse in other countries (see chart).
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