Extending Tariff Exclusions on Face Masks and Medical Goods Gives China an Unfair Advantage

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jun 01 2022 |
Florence and Joseph McGinn of Getty Images

The exclusions on PPE, medical gowns, surgical gloves and medical devices now run through Nov. 30, 2022.

Remember the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the country went into lockdown, it became clear that the United States was ill-prepared to cope with the brand new respiratory virus. Hospitals quickly ran out of the personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical devices needed to protect medical workers and help treat patients. It was nearly impossible for hospitals to find new supplies, as China’s government halted all PPE exports from its shores. Doctors and nurses reused masks and wore trash bags while on duty.

And because the United States had spent 30 years championing policy that offshored critical production of things like PPE, medical equipment, and other desperately needed supplies, we were basically stuck.

But then something happened: America’s manufacturers and workers answered the call. Apparel makers like American Roots and American Giant stopped making hoodies and started making face masks; other companies built factories from scratch to make surgical masks and badly needed N95 masks. We even kept a running list of Made in America options.

Policymakers also seemed to get a wake up call, with Members of Congress from both parties agreeing that the United States must reshore critical manufacturing, especially for the equipment we need to survive a future crisis. Things like PPE and medical devices and medicine. That sort of stuff.

Now we’re in year three of the COVID-19 pandemic… and it’s increasingly looking like the United States learned nothing!

On Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) announced it is extending tariff exclusions on Chinese imports of 81 medical care products. These exclusions were put into place by the Trump administration in the very early days of COVID — you know, back when there wasn’t any PPE to be found — and have been extended ever since.

The problem, of course, is that there is a steady supply of PPE now, and plenty of it is Made in America. American mask manufacturers, by the way, had urged USTR to drop the tariff exclusions, noting they give an unfair advantage to Chinese companies, which price their products far below fair market value, as low as a penny per mask. Many also have been accused of using forced labor to make their masks.

All of those cheap imports are a big threat to American manufacturers, who abide by U.S. labor and environmental guidelines. It’s hard enough for U.S. companies and workers to compete against Chinese companies, many of whom are owned or controlled by the Chinese government. Why is the U.S. government going out of its way to give China an edge?

For its part, USTR says it is extending the exclusions because these products are “needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.” And it did previously let some exclusions expire, including for imports of things like “cloth face masks, hand soaps, sanitizers and some disposable gloves,” according to Politico.

COVID-19 unfortunately remains with us, but the United States is far better equipped to handle it than we were in spring 2020. We have multiple vaccines that, despite new variants, remain effective at mitigating the worst health impacts of the virus (vaccines made by U.S. manufacturers, we’ll point out).

Thankfully, we also have new production capabilities to make PPE and other medical equipment needed to protect health care workers and treat patients. But for how much longer? Extending these exclusions gives China an unfair advantage, and puts the progress we’ve made at risk.

President Biden and his team frequently say the right thing about the value of Made in America. Now it’s time to make good on all of those big promises. When these tariff exclusions expire in November, USTR should leave them alone.

Oh, and by the way — there’s a continued chorus of pundits arguing Biden should lift tariffs on other Made in China products to help address inflation. We’ve written at length on why that’s a bad idea, the AFL-CIO wrote Biden in opposition a few weeks ago, and a bipartisan group of Members of Congress also recently raised their voice against such a move (read here).

But, we’ll repeat it once more for posterity: Lifting tariffs on China will do nothing to address inflation, and instead will reward the Chinese Communist Party for failing to meet any of its promises to abide by global trade rules and undercut American workers and manufacturers, making it harder to reshore critical production. The tariffs must remain.