Heavy industry and individual workers have arrived as backup to accelerate the production of masks and ventilators desperately needed by medical professionals. Both in France and the United States, a wartime economy has developed to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
On the banks of the East River opposite Manhattan, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is back to work. The former naval shipyard once employed 70,000 people during World War II, before being abandoned in the 1960s and then transformed into an industrial park. Today, it has been commandeered for the national defense. A promotional furniture producer has converted his showroom into an assembly line for medical face shields. And in the neighboring building, a distillery renowned for its bourbon is now turning its hand to disinfectant.
Initiatives like these are appearing everywhere. In France, luxury giant LVMH has repurposed its production line for Guerlain, Givenchy, and Christian Dior perfumes and is now producing hand sanitizer. The same efforts have been seen at cosmetics brands Yves Rocher and L’Oréal, the Hermès perfumery department, alcoholic beverage company Pernod Ricard, and the Danone group, which has shifted from producing Evian bottled water to deliver 100,000 bottles of liquid disinfectant.
The textile and fashion industries have stepped forward to make masks. The French health minister estimated the country needed 25 million masks per week for medical staff alone, far more than the 8 million produced currently. Chanel has mobilized 150 seamstresses from its Haute Couture, Ready-to-Wear, and Maisons d’Art departments, while Lorraine-based brand Linvosges, renowned for its bedsheets and home linens, has been producing washable, reusable fabric masks since last week.
Chargeurs, a group specialized in technical textiles for the luxury and fashion sectors (which also owns France-Amérique), is also producing masks in its factories in Picardie and Alsace. Its main focuses are fabric masks for non-medical personnel, but also FFP2 surgical masks. “We decided to acquire a number of production lines, which will be operational within a few weeks,” said the group’s CEO Michael Fribourg in an interview with French news channel LCI. “We will be able to produce 3.5 million extra masks every week.”
The War Against the Virus
“We are at war,” repeated Emmanuel Macron in his speech to the nation. It is therefore unsurprising that the mobilization of industry players is akin to the full-scale wars of the 20th century, conflicts fought both on the front line and in factories across the country. More than 15,000 French companies contributed to national defense during World War I, including the Schneider steelworks in Le Creusot and automobile manufacturers Citroën, Peugeot, and Renault, which produced shells, cannons, and tanks.
Thirty years later in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt launched a commission tasked with converting the American economy to meet the country’s needs during World War II. Factories previously used for producing radios, refrigerators, cars, and tractors were soon making rifles, machine guns, bombs, tanks, and planes. This was the time of Rosie the Riveter when Detroit was known as the “arsenal of democracy.”
Rallying U.S. Industry
Donald Trump has not yet passed the Defense Production Act, a relic from the Cold War that would have enabled him to requisition national industry, but businesses have not waited for the presidential green light to get to work. Tesla, General Motors, Ralph Lauren, Jack Daniel’s, and department stores Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus have already started. Boeing is using its 3D printers to make masks, and employees at Ford and General Electric in Michigan will soon be assembling 7,200 ventilators per week.
On a smaller scale, amateur sewing groups are popping up across social media to make fabric masks. While they are not accepted by all hospitals, they have been welcomed by caregivers, bus drivers, cashiers, and delivery workers. The initiative harks back to the socks and gloves knitted by “war godmothers” and volunteers for French soldiers in the trenches during World War I.
In the same vein, a French nurse at a hospital in Houston has created a group of some 600 seamstresses on Facebook. “Now that the city has announced a lockdown with all non-essential travel forbidden, we are adapting to collect our masks,” says Natalie Jones, originally from Paris, one of the group’s administrators. “We have made more than 1,800 masks so far, and have started distributing them to medical centers, oncology wards, and retirement homes.”