Supply chains and COVID-19: An opinion piece

Recently, I engaged in a robust debate over the perceived, or otherwise, lack of preparedness of our supermarkets and pharmacies to meet the demand of anxious customers, and their obligation and responsibility to provide basic necessities to our communities. Particularly to our most vulnerable. A proportion of the community feels that they are falling short in their social responsibility to ensure that we all have safe access to essentials.

Those of us who work in procurement know that we constantly assess our supply chains for risk. We look at macro risks, supply risks, demand risks, financial risks, transportation and logistics risks, manufacturing risks, sustainability risks, human rights risks and many more. We model scenarios, we calculate worst case, we assess impacts, and we take steps to mitigate those risks. But very rarely do we anticipate a scenario that considers all the risks at the same time.

Procurement teams are working through the responses and looking to minimise disruptions to the supply chain in a scenario where the worst case worsens daily. And hopefully this time next year, we will be sharing the stories of how we made it through this state of emergency, the lessons we’ve learned and how, as a result, we build more resilient supply chains. One of the learnings is that many of our ‘best practice’ procurement models, where we seek to optimise and reduce cost – for example just-in-time manufacturing – can be at odds with planning for resilience and continuity in a world of emergency and uncertainty. How we strike that balance will be a key focus.

When shoppers walk into supermarkets and are confronted with empty shelves, it’s easy to see why it feels supermarkets are falling short of their obligations. But the reality is that these supermarkets have been taking some extraordinary measures to meet the unprecedented levels of demand – both on the supply and demand side. They have been restricting quantities for individual shoppers to ensure more people have access. They are broadening supply bases, increasing deliveries, and HR teams are busy recruiting casual staff to assist in stores. Alongside this, the individuals working in stores are dealing with frustrated and sometimes abusive customers, whilst also mindful of the fact that they are ‘frontline’ and, as workers in the community, have a heightened chance of contracting COVID-19.

The role of government in assisting with these specific challenges also needs to be acknowledged. Local government legislation placing curfews on truck deliveries restricted the ability for supermarkets to restock quickly as shelves were being stripped bare. While Queensland lifted these restrictions early last week, other states have been slower to follow, with several joining Queensland only in the last couple of days.

Supermarkets are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances. But, what about our social responsibility as individuals to each other, and to our own communities? Can we really place the burden on organisations who are made up of individuals, and generally hard-working, well-intentioned individuals, and abscond our role in this? Why are we hoarding hand sanitiser and soap, when it’s in our best interests to ensure everyone is kept safe? Why are we purchasing extra freezers to stock months’ worth of meat when we wouldn’t otherwise? Why are we forcing the elderly to line up at 7am to buy groceries? Several people have criticised the latter, but realistically, it is the only time when supermarkets can ensure that the shelves are as full as they are going to be that day. Remember, we as a community, with our panic-buying, have also forced our more vulnerable into this position.

While companies work to fulfill their responsibilities, preserve jobs within their business, preserve jobs for workers within their supply chain and generally work to keep the lights on, I hope we also remember that we have a responsibility to each other. Remember to be kind despite the uncertainty and worry. We’re all in this together.

This article was written by Sujata Karandikar, Senior Manager at Point Advisory with a focus on sustainable procurement and social impact.