Getting help to those who need it in a pandemic: addressing the challenges of humanitarian supply chain operations

30th April 2021

Author: Denise DP Thompson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

COVID-19 is the first massive, macro-level pandemic in recent memory, and it has provided lessons! It has proven to be an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. No corner of the globe was left unscathed, and although it has already been over a year since the first cases emerged, the pandemic still rages. During this time, the supply chain has taken center stage. A simple GoogleScholar search on 4/26/2021 using the search term 'COVID 19 and humanitarian supply chain' (HSC) surfaced nearly 10,000 scholarly articles from multiple disciplines. A similar search on Google returned almost 6 million articles, essays, news reports, technical papers with over 900,000 focused on 'COVID 19 and humanitarian supply chain disruptions'. This scholarship and knowledge building took place in only one short year!

Among the many lessons to be learned, one stands out – the complexity of impacts on the supply chain and the complexity of responses required to handle them. The multiple embedded vulnerabilities and cascading effects visible in more frequent and longer-term disruptions and instability along the supply chains highlight the pandemic's profound and interlinked challenges. For instance, empirical evidence now shows the vulnerability of our food and medical supplies, the vast majority of which rely on shipping, another vulnerable sector in the COVID pandemic. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, ships transport 90 percent of traded goods (see Gallagher, 2020). When ships are stalled for whatever reason, shipping businesses must increase their prices to cover costs. These increases are then passed on to companies selling products, who then pass them on to customers, including aid agencies. The result is a delay in goods production and setbacks in humanitarian response operations that rely on these goods to mount their response.

In the Case of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals experienced great difficulty in treating patients and keeping their staff safe. The inputs (ventilators, protective equipment, therapeutics, and vaccines) were delayed or could not be quickly sourced as production grounded almost to a halt. These delays resulted in significant delivery backlogs and intensified the humanitarian crisis. In addition, the inability to get flexible, faster, and cost-efficient transportation worsened the humanitarian challenges. Compounding these, once production came back online, mounting shipping backlogs ensued. Recently the Suez Canal experienced a traffic jam caused by the stuck ship, Ever Given. This single incident led to considerable backlogs in the delivery of goods and products globally. That one incident highlights the urgency of the shipping transportation crisis for humanitarian response.

The embedded nature of supply chain challenges had ripple effects on humanitarian supply chain and logistics management. This realization has already led to a paradigm shift in how we think about about supply chain architectures and planning for their resilience. The Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management has just released a special issue on 'Preparing the Humanitarian Supply Chain for Epidemics and Pandemics Response', which addresses some key issues. This special issue is the first collection of scholarly articles on the operations management side of humanitarian logistics and supply chain management. This work, In my estimation, is significant.

  • First, it strategically positions humanitarian operations as a complex issue, especially when viewed through the lens of large-scale mass disruptions that pandemics and epidemics cause. In this regard, the contributors have brought their comprehensive theoretical and practical knowledge to aid our understanding of some of the critical HSC and logistics management issues on which we must now grapple.
  • Second, in doing so, the contributors show how intertwined humanitarian response systems and serving vulnerable populations under the threat of epidemics and pandemics in those systems are.
  • Third, the research approaches the contributors use, set the special issue in complexity studies realm, and give it an operations management twist.

The bottom line is this: strategic thinking around getting our humanitarian supply chains and logistics management to work effectively requires concerted efforts at multiple levels and scales of operation. It must place a keen understanding of complex systems at its core. There is much more work to be done in this area. Still, the Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management special issue is an early contributor to that discussion.

Access the special issue: 'Preparing the Humanitarian Supply Chain for Epidemics and Pandemics Response'

Denise DP Thompson
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Department of Public Management
524 W 59th Street. New York, NY 10019


Gallagher, Mary Beth (2020, May). Protecting seafarers and the global supply chain during Covid-19. MIT News.