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An ISU professor explains why disruptions to the supply chain were 'inevitable'

A worker climbs a ladder at the Port of Philadelphia on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Matt Rourke
Intan Suwandi is an ISU professor and author of Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism

Supply chain disruptions have been a hallmark of the COVID-19 pandemic. From toilet paper to car parts, product shortages have affected nearly every corner of the marketplace.

In “normal” times (remember those?), the average consumer wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about concepts like a global value chain. But as the holidays approach and cargo containers clog the ports, we’ve all become armchair economists, making supply chain chaos a trending topic.

A supply chain comprises every element involved in the production and distribution of a commodity, from design phase to delivery. Supply chains are complex, fragmented systems that often operate across international borders. One “kink” in the chain can disrupt the entire enterprise.

Intan Suwandi is an ISU professor and author of Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism
Illinois State University
Intan Suwandi is an ISU professor and author of "Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism."

Given the interconnected nature of supply chains, it’s little surprise that the pandemic wreaked havoc on global production. Intan Suwandi, an ISU professor who studies global economies, said supply chain disruption was inevitable. She traces the origin of our current problems back to the early days of 2020, when lockdowns and social distancing first took effect in Wuhan, China. Those mitigation measures quickly interrupted manufacturing. And with so many tier one suppliers located in Wuhan, Suwandi said, companies began experiencing production problems almost immediately.

“By mid-April 2020, 81%, of global manufacturing firms were experiencing supplies shortages,” Suwandi said.

So, those “kinks” that formed in the early days of the pandemic went on to cause snarls further and further up the chain. And now those problems are now compounded by labor shortages that complicate logistics and delivery, leading to fewer products on shelves and longer wait times for goods.

But for all the attention paid to the effects of supply chain disruptions on the consumer, there’s comparatively little paid to effects on workers who are often poor inhabitants of the global south. Suwandi said the global working class, dependent on wage labor, is suffering on account of the pandemic. As production is disrupted, so is the livelihood of millions of laborers.

Conversely, when production ramps up to meet increased demand, workers are expected to work longer hours with fewer breaks. Suwandi cites the recent example of Michigan-based Kellogg’s, which cranked up production to meet a growing demand for cereal during the pandemic.Plant workers have gone on strike to protest conditions, leading to narrowing cereal options on some store shelves.

For critics of capitalist systems of production, these problems in the supply chain point to systemwide structural flaws.

“This system is never structured or designed with the wellbeing of the working class in mind,” Suwandi said. “It’s not designed with the wellbeing of our environment in mind.”

“The whole system is not sustainable,” Suwandi said, adding, "It's exploitative, I would argue.”

Sarah Nardi is a correspondent at WGLT. She rejoined the station in 2024.