COVID-19 & Global Medical Trade

Chanel Turner

PPE is a topic of global discussion; why are there shortages? why aren’t our NHS protected as they should be through a pandemic? Well we put the science, the press and the politics aside, and let the data do the talking.

For many of us through lockdown, it’s seemed as though the world has been put on pause. Lockdown has slowed our lives, has stopped commutes, has increased leisure time, has increased stress, and has ultimately adjusted our lifestyles hugely. Daily traffic has been replaced by daily press conferences and daily anxiety over a virus that has swiftly taken hold of our world.

Amongst the press, the science and the politics, have been harrowing stories of our NHS Heroes – of people fighting on the frontlines for the public good. Our Thursdays have become an opportunity to applaud those who are putting their lives on the line, and our windows are adorned with rainbows to show strength and support to them all.

But another story in the press is also surrounding our NHS Heroes, and that’s the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to keep them safe while they’re doing their incredible work. And this made us think, what other medical supplies are moving across the world? What countries are importing and exporting the most? And what are the most active supplies needed through the COVID-19 pandemic?

We wanted to learn more about the global supply of medical equipment, of PPE and of other healthcare related exports and imports. Because to us, complex global data can tell truly potent stories with a completely borderless view – and this is a story worth telling!

Export vs Import

No surprises that the busiest within this category are two of the world’s biggest economies.

Germany and the United States of America are the greatest import and export nations in the world when it comes to overall medical goods, according to medtrade data.

In 2019, Germany exported a whopping 136.183Billion worth of medical goods, with the United States close behind at 116.567Billion. And according to that same data, they swapped places when it came to the import of medical goods – with the United States importing 193.053Billion, versus Germany importing 86.681Billion.

Check out the numbers for yourself, here.

Personal Protective Products

When we break that data down further to Personal Protective products (PPE) specifically, Germany and the United States remain dominant; but in 2019, China was top of the table for the greatest export of PPE with a figure of 25.373Billion. Not a shocking figure to see as China is the leading producer of these products worldwide, but what about imports of PPE? The United States were the top nation in the world in 2019, with an import figure of 18.421Billion.

Then when we jump to 2020 figures and tackling COVID-19, those same three nations export 40% of the world’s PPE; with Germany, the United States and Switzerland alone supplying 35% of the world’s medical products. (WTO)

What’s interesting, is while these nations aren’t surprising to see at the top of these tables – nations like the UK, Russia and Australia don’t show in these top figures. The UK is only number 7 in world imports through 2019 with a share of only 6%. A lot of import and exports are to/from European countries however, with Switzerland and the Netherlands showing big figures for medical exports.

Face Masks

With the PPE data we’ve seen above, the numbers surrounding face masks tell a similar story. China dominates when it comes to world export of face masks: “China supplied 25% of world exports of face masks in 2019, and together with Germany and the U.S., the three contribute to almost half of the world face mask supply.” (maritime-executive) As we can see in this visualisation of 2018 data, China has dominated in PPE production for some time and their key market of export is the United States.

COVID-19 TRADE

The World Trade Organization’s data, specific to COVID-19 medical products, tells an interesting story too. Unlike the nations who dominate import and export figures above, “Breathing apparatus, including respirators and ventilators, are supplied by a relatively small number of countries: Singapore which has 18% market share, followed by the U.S. with 16%...” (maritime-executive) As we can see in this visualisation of 2018 data, Singapore holds a huge market share in this sector for such a small country.

Other medical products in severe short-supply relating to the COVID-19 pandemic; “totalled about $597 billion, or 1.7 percent of total world trade, in 2019. These include: disinfectants/ sterilisation products; face masks; gloves; hand soap and sanitiser; protective spectacles and visors; ventilators, oxygen masks....” (maritime-executive) As we see in this visualisation of 2018 data, disinfectants alone saw huge global movement even before COVID-19 - with the United States and Canada seeing the greatest movement.

Global data is a truly commanding storyteller. These figures showcase a clear dominance in developed countries taking the greatest numbers, and supplying the greatest numbers, of medical supplies; with lesser developed countries falling off those top tables and lacking in protection and healthcare as a result.

Ultimately, we are still operating in a truly unprecedented time, and this data will change more as the pandemic continues across the world. But what we can say, is with the UK at the bottom of those top 10 tables for both imports and exports, it’s no wonder PPE is lacking for our NHS workers on the front line… lets hope with China back at full production strength again following their lockdown, those 2019 figures can be achieved and all nations can get the medical supplies they need to both survive COVID-19, but also to prosper following isolation.

Thank you to our GIS Cartographer, Heiko for his input to this Lab!

For more information on our data sources, please see the following links:


  1. MedTrade

  2. World Trade Organisation

  3. WTO’s report on ‘Trade in Medical Goods in the context of tackling COVID-19

  4. Maritime Executive

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