Smuggling of Medical Supplies in American History

After weeks of the Federal government telling states they were on their own when it comes to obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) only to then seize those shipments, local officials are taking extreme measures to secure PPE for their healthcare workers, including smuggling. On April 17, 2020 Springfield, Massachusetts Baystate Medical Center chief physician executive Dr. Andrew Artenstein published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about his efforts to obtain needed PPE for his hospital. In early April, news broke about the Kraft family deploying a New England Patriots team plane to China in order to deliver desperately needed N95 respirator masks to healthcare workers in Massachussetts. And the federal government seized 3 million masks ordered by the state of Massachusetts at the Port of New York. In early-April, Illinois governor, J.B. Pritzker arranged flights from China to bring millions of masks and gloves to area hospitals. 

A New England Patriots jet arrived at Logan Airport after flying from China with a shipment of over one million N95 masks.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The American Revolution

America has a long history of smuggling. Many historians believe smuggling was an essential component in America’s early development and its transformation into a global power. And battling smuggling has been a critical element in the development and expansion of the federal government. Smuggling of medical equipment during crisis, in particular, has a rich history. During the American Revolution, the British implemented blockades, which were detrimental to the colonists. From the very beginning of the war, the Continental army was desperate for a variety of supplies, including medical equipment. One of the reasons the American medical department was inefficient and often ineffective throughout the Revolutionary War was that medical supplies were usually inadequate or absent altogether. Americans smuggled medical equipment from the French government under King Louis the XVI during the Revolution. And sometimes they seized medical supplies directly from the British, smuggling them into the states.

Revolutionary War Surgeon’s Kit, CNN

More than 100 ships reportedly smuggled various supplies into the states during the Revolution, including necessary medical equipment. In order for smuggling to be effective, brokers had to be dispatched abroad to arrange for the shipments. Maryland, Georgia, and Pennsylvania all sent agents. Even Congress dispatched its own agents. Sometimes smuggling occurred between the states. For example, when the British occupied New York in 1776, an extensive illicit trade network developed with neighboring areas. Smuggling was critical in America’s success during the American Revolution.

The American Civil War

Similarly, smuggling was crucial to the Confederate war effort during the American Civil War. Although smuggling of essential arms and medical equipment wasn’t enough to change the outcome of the war, it shaped the war’s character and timespan. Southern success on the battlefield was dependent on its success in smuggling. The North attempted to prevent the South from receiving critical supplies through an ambitious blockade known as the Anaconda Plan. But the Union frequently undermined its own blockade by extensively trading with the Confederacy. This all required the Confederacy to be innovative in its acquisition of medical supplies. More than 200 blockade runners were either captured or destroyed during the war. But most runners outmaneuvered the blockaders. And the British supplied hundreds of blockade running ships as well as their captains and crews.

The Advance, Blockade Runner, Wikipedia

Confederate agents in Europe purchased medical equipment, which was third only to arms and clothing on the Southern list of necessities. Government officials authorized commanding generals to impress the medical supplies of speculators. These commanding generals paid the cost price of any goods impressed. Even women participated in blockade running, carrying important medical supplies in their hoopskirts and in dolls. These blockade runners provided crucial supplies to the Confederacy until Union forces sacked the ports of Charleston and Wilmington. 

The Present

Recently, President Donald Trump’s handling of PPE distribution has come under criticism from frontline healthcare workers. From reusing masks to wearing trashbags, healthcare workers claim they’re being placed directly in harms’ way without proper protection. Some have also accused the White House of rerouting supplies to private companies in an attempt to spur bidding wars between states for the equipment. While forcing states to smuggle PPE in order to protect healthcare workers seems shocking, indeed there is a long history of it in America. In the meantime, states will continue to compete with the federal government in the chaotic competition for limited resources. And it is frontline healthcare workers who will pay the ultimate price.

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