Updated: May 4, 2020
But the possible gesture won't do much good unless it's part of a larger strategy, aid experts say.
U.S. officials are drafting a plan to donate ventilators to African countries battling the novel coronavirus, an effort that comes as President Donald Trump boasts of how recently ramped-up production has made him the “king of ventilators.”
The still-preliminary plan, confirmed by two Trump administration officials, could save lives on a continent sorely lacking such machines and enhance America’s standing in the face of Chinese efforts to gain diplomatic dominance across Africa.
At the same time, it underscores Trump’s haphazard approach to foreign aid during the pandemic. For one thing, even as Trump has promised to share ventilators with other nations, he’s cracked down on the export of cheaper yet arguably more vital items needed to stop the spread of the virus: masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment that are in shortage in the United States. He’s also halted funding to the World Health Organization, whose expertise is highly sought in many African countries.
The moves have raised concerns among current and former U.S. officials that the administration isn’t being strategic in its virus-related aid plans.
“There’s a need for ventilators, but there’s also a need for a systemic response,” said Gayle Smith, who oversaw the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration and now heads the ONE Campaign. “You need a functioning supply chain that is providing what’s needed, where it’s needed, when it’s needed.”
Trump in recent days has used his daily coronavirus news conferences to brag about a rise in the production of ventilators by U.S. firms, some of whom have reconfigured their businesses to produce the breathing machines.
The president has pledged to send excess ventilators to other countries, but he’s primarily mentioned European states, such as Italy and Spain. He’s also said he’d send some to Mexico and even U.S. adversary Iran, if it requested it.
“Last year, America manufactured, from a dead start, 30,000 ventilators. And this year, the number will be over 150,000 ventilators,” Trump said a week ago. “It could be as high as 200,000 — far more than we’ll ever need.”
The rise in numbers follows weeks of criticism directed at Trump over what state officials had warned was a looming ventilator shortage. The president clashed repeatedly over the matter with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose escalating cries for more federal help irked the White House, which insisted he was overstating the need.
Trump has since claimed vindication, hailing Cuomo’s own statements affirming that the federal government had provided everything he had requested.
Much of the plan for donating the ventilators to African countries is being pulled together within the National Security Council, the two administration officials said. A spokesman for the NSC, John Ullyot, declined to confirm that. “We don’t comment on or verify rumors of internal deliberations at the NSC,” he said.
The plan, which the officials stressed could still be scuttled, is for manufacturers to sell the machines to requesting African countries, with the United States stepping in to cover the cost. There are fewer than 2,000 ventilators in 41 African countries that reported the data, according to WHO statistics. Some media accounts say there are African countries with fewer than 10 ventilators.
Ventilators are complicated machines that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and can require training to operate. The devices help people breathe, making them useful for the many Covid-19 patients who develop severe respiratory problems.
Worldwide, there are over 2.5 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, with more than 170,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has by far the largest number of known cases, around 790,000.
But health officials have warned that the worst may be yet to come, especially in poorer parts of the world where health infrastructures are weak and populations are often densely packed and undernourished.
African countries are among those most at risk; there are around 24,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases across the continent, and more than 1,100 deaths linked to the virus, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon are among the hardest hit countries thus far, according to the Africa CDC. But health officials fear the known African number may be an undercount given limited access to medical facilities and limited Covid-19 testing in many of the countries.
U.S. officials view stopping the coronavirus from engulfing developing countries as critical not just because it’s the nice thing to do but because it lowers the odds that the disease could rebound in other parts of the world, including America.
There’s also a question of geopolitics.
The Chinese government has invested greatly in relationships with African governments, and Chinese charities have donated medical equipment to African countries in recent weeks. At the same time, the relationship has been rattled by widespread reports that African immigrants were mistreated in China.
The Trump administration has criticized China for its treatment of Africans, but it too has had a rocky relationship with the continent. The president’s imposition of travel bans on some African countries — including one that severely restricts the ability of Nigerians to immigrate to the United States — has soured relations. He’s also reported to have described some places in Africa as “shithole” countries.
While current and former U.S. officials said sending ventilators to African countries is a generous and helpful gesture, some warned that such machines often require training for medical professionals, as well as maintenance.
They also said what’s more urgently needed — especially to prevent infections in the first place — is personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“The bigger gap is PPE — and the more pressing one — because that’s what puts health care workers at risk,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior Obama administration USAID official who specializes in disaster response.
The Trump administration has effectively halted U.S. agencies from sending masks, gloves and other PPE abroad because there are shortages within the United States. Trump has also used various legal authorities to compel some U.S. manufacturers to increase production of such items for American use.
A draft memo that lays out when such PPE can be sent overseas is still being circulated within the administration. U.S. officials had hoped that memo would have been finalized and released days ago.
Adding to the overall confusion is Trump’s decision to block funding to the WHO, which he has accused of being too willing to cover up the mistakes made by China, where the virus originated. Officials with the USAID have been told to find partners beyond the WHO to help implemented aid programs. But in many countries, especially in Africa, the WHO is the most realistic partner available.
The WHO says it has provided testing kits to dozens of countries in Africa and trained health care workers to respond to the outbreak. The organization also says its efforts in Africa include helping local authorities craft radio messaging to inform their citizens about the disease, while also countering disinformation.
By NAHAL TOOSI POLITICO