MSF: Shortages of Personal Protective Equipment Due to COVID-19 Leave Health Workers & Medical Activities at Risk

Global shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), specifically medical masks and gowns, will disproportionately affect already fragile healthcare systems worldwide.

The shortage is putting frontline health workers in these countries at risk of contamination and further spread of disease. This will not only hamper efforts by health workers to contain the spread of COVID-19, but also their ability to continue providing other essential medical services, like surgeries, and treatment of measles, tuberculosis and other infectious disease.

The shortages will also impact communities where other preventative measures like confinement, physical distancing and proper sanitation are just not possible. People living in camps, slums or war zones are more likely to need masks, but currently less likely to get them. The global distribution of both PPE still follows a competitive market system that de-prioritizes middle- and low-income countries.

“MSF is forecast to run out of medical masks in around 3 weeks. We find ourselves discussing whether these last stocks should for example go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we do surgeries on war-wounded, or to the overcrowded Dadaab camp, considered high risk for the propagation of COVID-19. These are the kinds of decisions we are having to make”, said Kenneth Lavelle, Deputy Director of Operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Geneva.

“Before the pandemic, medical staff needed gowns and masks for specific activities in places where infectious disease were common. Today, COVID-19 poses a threat of infection worldwide. This means almost all health workers will need to be protected. Otherwise, they may no longer be able to guarantee the continuity of regular medical activities, not to mention be infected by COVID-19 and spread it further." continues Lavelle.

"We are facing the dilemma of either accepting to work with lower-quality protective measures - therefore increasing risk of infection amongst our staff - or shutting down activities, which leaves people in even more precarious situations. We have already had to stop some activities due to supply shortages.”

MSF estimates that it needs approximately 26 million masks for the next 6 months. This is far from being an unrealistic demand. To put it in perspective, Switzerland estimates that it needs 1.2 million masks per day, and France, 3.4 million per day.”

Lavelle added: “Production of PPEs must drastically increase. We welcome the active involvement of corporations who are starting to repurpose their production lines, and we are open to working together with other actors, including the private sector, to find suitable solutions to this emergency. Governments must consider incentives to increase production, reduce taxes and custom fees, and localize production in or near the countries that need them most.”

In parallel, the distribution of PPEs continues to follow a competitive market model. Most of the stock is today concentrated in countries where confinement, physical distancing and proper sanitation are feasible as preventative measures. Whereas, stocks are not being equitably considered for places like the Greek camps where masks are one of very few options available for protection.  

Lavelle adds: “Distribution of PPEs must be along an equitable mechanism that takes into consideration the fragility of health systems and the feasibility of implementing other preventative measures like confinement, physical distancing, and proper sanitation in different places.”


  • MSF COVID-19 response focuses on three main priorities, supporting authorities in providing care for patients with COVID-19, protecting people who are vulnerable and at risk, and keeping essential medical services running.
About MSF Switzerland

MSF Switzerland
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is a worldwide movement of current and former field staff, grouped into national and regional associations. Collectively, they make sure that MSF stays true to its mission and principles.

MSF associations

Currently, there are 24 associations. All are independent legal entities, and each elects its own board of directors and president. Most associations have an executive office that raises funds and recruits staff for MSF’s operations.