As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, nurses and doctors are struggling with a massive shortage of personal protective equipment like masks and gowns.
“We need them now. We have people dying in our hospitals now. We have health-care providers risking their lives now,” said Michelle Diaz, a critical care nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area.
To help, Amazon is allowing only hospitals and government agencies to order items like N95 masks and COVID-19 diagnostic kits.
Now, third-party sellers on Amazon are shifting their businesses to meet the need, supplying health-care providers and first responders with everything from masks and gowns from China to hand sanitizer made with leftover ingredients for toy putty.
“Within 72 hours, we were mixing the first batch of hand sanitizer and about an hour after that was finished, we had people lined up at the door to take that to local police departments and ambulance corps,” said Aaron Muderick, who owns toy company Crazy Aaron’s.
For many sellers, it’s a matter of survival.
In March, Amazon prioritized essential goods such as hand sanitizer and household supplies over other products as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated.
When that happened, Kunal Chopra saw more than half the items on his Amazon seller page impacted. So he switched to finding masks for over-taxed hospitals.
“Right now, the focus is not on getting supplies. The focus is really on taking care of patients. So that’s the reason folks like us who have the expertise in logistics, have the connections, are just stepping up.”
“Imagine from selling branded goods to becoming, in essence, a medical supply company in a week,” said Leo Friedman, owner of iPromo, which sells custom swag for events — all of which have been canceled for the foreseeable future. After he initially laid off 15% of his staff, weekly revenue shot up 300% when he started selling medical supplies to hospitals and state agencies.
“I’m up every day until 4 a.m. working with China, talking to customs, figuring out availability, finding jets to put this stuff on. It’s backbreaking work, but it has to be done because the availability is there, the stock is there.”
He added, “Masks in general are only to be sold to hospital and government agencies. We will not sell them to anyone else. … And we have taken a hard line against price gouging.”
Rabbi Avi Berkowitz, a senior advisor for the fundraising arm of the CDC, made a plea to Amazon sellers to do the right thing when it comes to pricing.
“If it’s yours, then give it for nothing. If not, make a penny if you have to make the least amount. But people are dying and it’s in your hands to give them something that’s worthless to you and worth their life and all of their patients’ lives that they’re protecting.
Berkowitz said 17 members of his community have died because of COVID-19. He fields hundreds of calls a week, on a volunteer basis, to secure medical supplies for some of the largest hospitals in New York through the Afya Foundation.
“It was groups like that that allowed me to make a clarion call to tens of thousands of sellers, saying to them, we need your donations right now and we’ll get it within 24 hours.”
Watch the video to find out how some Amazon sellers have become experts at accessing overseas supply chains, and how they’re using that to answer this call while also repositioning their businesses to survive the pandemic.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Rabbi Avi Berkowitz in July 2019
Rabbi Avi Berkowitz