German Officials Accuse US of COVID Mask Piracy

APFELSTAEDT, GERMANY - APRIL 03: German Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (R) wears a protective mask as he talks to the managing director Jens Fiege (L) in a warehouse on April 3, 2020 in Apfelstaedt, Germany. Germ... APFELSTAEDT, GERMANY - APRIL 03: German Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn (R) wears a protective mask as he talks to the managing director Jens Fiege (L) in a warehouse on April 3, 2020 in Apfelstaedt, Germany. Germany is struggling to supply its health workers with sufficient numbers of protective suits, masks, goggles and other equipment they need in the race to treat the growing number of patients sickened with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Germany has so far registered approximately 85,000 cases of Covid-19 infection and 1,123 people have died. (Photo by Jens-Ulrich Koch/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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April 3, 2020 4:29 p.m.

Here’s a wild story out of Germany, or maybe Bangkok. There’s enough uncertainty here that I wouldn’t take this story as necessarily accurate but rather as accusations that themselves capture the breakdown of trust and uncertainty gripping the world today.

The Interior Minister of Berlin’s regional government said that the government had purchased either 200,000 or 400,000 protective masks (depending on which report) for the Berlin police. But the shipment was “confiscated” by US officials at a Bangkok Airport and sent to the United States. Was this one of these Air Bridge flights organized by the US military? No idea.

The masks were reportedly made (and thus owned) by 3M in China. German officials say they believe the incident is tied to the US export ban. In other words, even though they were in China, the US sees 3M as a US company and thus says they can’t go anywhere but the US. At least that’s what the German official says. It seems consistent with reports about the US’s squabble with 3M. “We consider this an act of modern piracy,” said Andreas Geisel, the Interior Minister.

Another reported incident involves France. According to French officials another consignment of masks had already been placed on a plane in Shanghai to be shipped to the Grand Est Regional Council in France when US buyers showed up, offered three times the price and got the product rerouted to the US.

This isn’t a story I would expect Americans to be terribly upset about. Our need is desperate and people want leaders to pull out all the stops. I also would not take these reports necessarily at face value. Everyone is buying and everyone is clearly desperate. When someone loses out there is an obvious tendency to blame another party’s pocketbook or treachery. I have heard a number of what I believe are reliable reports of Italian buyers outbidding US buyers for masks currently in the US and shipping them to Italy. If we credit the essence of the German report, the US appears to be saying that 3M was breaking the law in the first place by selling them anywhere but into the United States.

My point here isn’t to impugn or exonerate. It’s simply to put a significant asterisk after all these reports. They are, however, a sign of international cooperation and trust fraying in ways that will likely have reverberations after the crisis is over.

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