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U.S. Appeals to Aid Recipients for Help in Fighting Coronavirus

Request undercuts Trump’s claim that the U.S. has enough tests and medical equipment.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps off a plane in Kyiv, Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo steps off a plane upon arrival in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 30. Kevin Lamarque/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department is instructing its top diplomats to press governments and businesses in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to ramp up exports and production of life-saving medical equipment and protective gear for the United States, part of a desperate diplomatic campaign to fill major shortcomings in the U.S. medical system amid a rising death toll from the new coronavirus.

The appeal comes as European governments are themselves struggling to cope with one of the worst pandemics to spread around the globe since the 1918 Spanish flu. It represents a stark turnaround for the United States, which has traditionally taken the lead in trying to help other less-developed countries contend with major humanitarian disasters and epidemics. 

The request could also undercut claims by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that the United States can handle demands for tests and medical equipment on its own, declining to fully implement the Defense Production Act to mandate that U.S. companies produce these products. “We have so many companies making so many products—every product that you mentioned, plus ventilators and everything else. We have car companies—without having to use the act. If I don’t have to use—specifically, we have the act to use, in case we need it. But we have so many things being made right now by so many—they’ve just stepped up,” Trump said at a press conference on March 21.

China, meanwhile, is pushing to refurbish its image by sending its doctors and tens of thousands of medical kits abroad to the countries hit the hardest by the coronavirus, after botching the initial response to the virus, helping lead to its spread across the globe. 

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Trump’s third-ranking diplomat, David Hale, has asked all bureaus to report on what foreign countries would be able to sell “critical medical supplies and equipment” to the United States, according to an internal State Department email sent to officials at embassies across Europe and Eurasia on March 22. The email was obtained by Foreign Policy

“Depending on critical needs, the United States could seek to purchase many of these items in the hundreds of millions with purchases of higher end equipment such as ventilators in the hundreds of thousands,” the email reads. The email stresses that the request applies to host countries “minus Moscow,” indicating the United States will not call on Russia for support.

The email underscores the severity of the ballooning coronavirus health crisis for the United States, as U.S. officials brace for a worst-case scenario based on how the pandemic has ravaged overburdened health care systems in countries like China and Italy. It sheds light on the State Department’s behind-the-scenes role in responding to the crisis even as it scrambles to evacuate U.S. citizens stranded amid a new wave of international travel restrictions.

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Several diplomatic sources familiar with the matter say this new directive reflects a sharp reversal in traditional U.S. foreign-policy posture, as the State Department is now calling for help from countries including those the United States has delivered vital foreign assistance to for years. The email comes from an official at the Office of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia—an office that under normal circumstances coordinates delivering U.S. aid and assistance to countries in Europe and Eurasia, not the other way around. 

The White House has sought to deflect criticism of its own sluggish response to the pandemic by highlighting the virus’s apparent origins in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Trump and other top officials have taken to referring to the COVID-19 virus as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” dismissing criticism from the World Health Organization and others that naming the virus after a specific country will stigmatize its inhabitants. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emerged as a top critic of Beijing’s mishandling of the crisis, further inflaming tensions between the United States and China. “Early on we offered to have America’s finest experts travel there to assist them, to assist the World Health Organization. We weren’t permitted in. These are the kind of things that the Chinese Communist Party has done that have put the world and the world’s people at risk,” he said in an interview with Fox News earlier this month.

China, which appears to have tamed the virus domestically, has begun to send shipments of medical supplies and protective gear to countries hit by the pandemic, including Italy and Iran. In the latest example, Beijing has sent planeloads of millions of masks and other medical supplies to the Czech Republic, according to ABC News. Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said China is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.”

Meanwhile, diplomats at embassies in Europe and Eurasia appear focused on scrounging up sorely needed supplies for the United States wherever they can, as the email indicates.

“The fact that many countries are managing a COVID 19 outbreak should not/not necessarily dissuade posts from approaching host country officials and, as appropriate, the private sector, on this matter as there have been instances where such countries have signaled a readiness to sell the U.S. surplus equipment and supplies,” according to the email, sent to deputy chiefs of mission, political counselors, and economic counselors at embassies in Europe and Eurasia. The email encourages diplomats to weigh the requests against those countries’ own local needs and their requests for support from the United States and other foreign countries.

It also encourages diplomats to obtain exceptions to U.S. export bans to expedite the delivery of medical supplies where possible. “Please also note any relevant restrictions or export bans, and if it is possible to obtain a potential exception or exemption,” the email reads. 

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

The directive comes as the United States faces the prospect of a severe economic recession—with the Trump administration facing a grim trade-off between lifting health restrictions to help the economy and risking more lives or maintaining health restrictions and risking U.S. jobs.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is making an urgent appeal to governments around the world for its own donations to address the next wave of coronavirus infections that could spread across the developing world, including some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and conflict zones. 

Top U.S. health officials have warned that as the coronavirus spreads across the United States, hospitals and first responders are already facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment needed to safely manage the pandemic.

The internal State Department email lists out the following series of supplies and medical equipment, indicating what diplomats should ask foreign countries if they can supply and shedding light on the specific shortages the United States could be facing: biohazard bags, N-95 masks, shrouds, gloves, gowns, elastomeric respirators, powered air-purifying respirators and visors, surgical-level masks, Tyvek clothing, ventilators, metered dose inhalers, swab kits, protective eyewear, face shields, shoe covers, surgical caps, hand sanitizer, specimen transport bags, and sharps containers.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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