Getting humanitarian supplies where they need to go is a game of precision and meticulous planning under normal circumstances. Try adding a global, rapidly evolving pandemic to the mix, and you’ve described the current reality of World Health Organization (WHO) Operations Support & Logistics Chief Paul Molinaro. He is WHO’s point man for procuring life-saving COVID-19 equipment and supplies destined for countries hit hardest by the virus.
“There are a lot of pieces of a puzzle that have to be put into place at the same time,” Molinaro said.
In normal times, WHO fulfills country requests by placing orders through long-term contracts with vendors who ship cargo via freight forwarders. The COVID-19 pandemic turned the process upside down. Disruptions in Chinese manufacturing fractured global supply chains, creating shortages in the face of soaring demand. Market competition increased, trade restrictions were implemented, and commercial flights were grounded. These challenges created a whole new level of complexity.
“We’re sort of sailing the ship while building it at the same time,” Molinaro said. “Right now we have a ship, and there’s a lot of holes in it. But we have a ship.”
In early April, the United Nations launched the UN COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force – coordinated by WHO and the World Food Programme (WFP) – to massively scale up the procurement and delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and diagnostics supplies, and biomedical equipment like ventilators and oxygen concentrators. The Task Force leveraged the capabilities and expertise of each partner into a mega-consortium to identify procurement needs and better negotiate with suppliers. Members include the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs), the World Bank, The Global Fund, the United Nations Office for Project Serves (UNOPS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), NGOs, Red Cross and Federation and other WHO health cluster partners. The goal: to make supplies available to everyone, wherever they are needed.
“We need to approach the market in a way that can give us success because unfortunately it’s unbalanced,” explained Molinaro. “Those who have the means and the means to pay, and the means to pay it very quickly and upfront benefit the most.” Those without means, could easily be left out. Medical supplies are a “global good,” Molinaro said, which WHO can make accessible by using its leverage to secure large quantities.
“We’re trying to bring some kind of order to a very fragmented, duplicative, and competitive procurement process,” Molinaro told us.