Facing a crisis that rivals Pearl Harbor, world's superpower pleads for coronavirus aid

Facing a crisis that rivals Pearl Harbor, world's superpower pleads for coronavirus aid

WASHINGTON – As U.S. health care workers scrounged for life-saving medical equipment last week to protect frontline staff against coronavirus, President Donald Trump made a jarring claim: the U.S. would soon have an over-supply of ventilators – enough to distribute across the globe to other needy countries.

"We're going to be distributing them – the extras – around the world," the president said on April 1 during a White House press briefing. He listed Italy, France, and Spain as likely destinations for America’s sudden bounty as the pandemic ravages the planet.

What Trump didn't mention: Earlier that same morning, the Trump administration was preparing to receive a Russian military cargo plane – loaded with 60 tons of masks, ventilators and other items – to distribute to besieged American doctors and nurses.

"The plane is en route," the Russian foreign ministry tweeted on the morning of April 1, posted along with a video of the packed aircraft. With the hashtag #RussiaHelps, the Kremlin said the supplies would "save the lives of American citizens."

The Russian government tweet was a crafty propaganda coup – one that highlighted the stark disconnect between Trump's promises of American super-preparedness and generosity, and his administration's obvious scramble to secure supplies from abroad.

Experts say that it is an uncomfortable and humbling spot for the U.S. to find itself in – the world’s richest and most powerful country, one that plays a huge outsize role in global security issues and international affairs, suddenly turned supplicant.

"The optics of it are that we are failing as a national government to have a plan and have a mechanism for managing markets," said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

But Morrison said the situation also shines a fresh spotlight on a decline in U.S. global leadership that has been years in the making. Championing his "America First" policies, Trump has derided multilateral institutions, withdrawn from international accords and treaties, and attempted to slash funding for U.S. foreign aid. 

"The United States has been moving off the stage of being a traditional leader in foreign assistance and in global health," Morrison said.

Still, that hasn't stopped Trump administration officials from appearing to play politics at a time of national crisis and portraying the U.S. as a coronavirus white knight.

'We know how to help people around the world'

The day before Russia's delivery of medical equipment, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo trumpeted America's contributions to multilateral organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and pointedly noted the U.S. had given far more to those institutions than China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged. 

"We know how to help people around the world," Pompeo said. "Since 2009, American taxpayers have generously funded more than $100 billion in health assistance and nearly $70 billion in humanitarian assistance. That’s billion with a B."

Yet Pompeo failed to note that the Obama administration was in charge for eight years of that time frame and that the Trump administration has tried to slash global health funding. In 2018, Trump's White House also dismantled the National Security Council’s global health security office, a pandemic team, in an effort to streamline the agency.

And in January and February of this year, as U.S. states scrambled to secure surgical masks, respirators and ventilators because they expected a crush of coronavirus patients, the Trump administration effectively looked the other way as U.S. companies exported millions of dollars worth of personal protective equipment to China. 

Still, even as Pompeo has touted American benevolence, the State Department has quietly asked allies and foes alike for assistance in combating the public health crisis.

Diplomats instructed to ask foreign governments if they have gear to sell

In March, State Department leaders directed U.S. diplomats overseas to ask foreign governments if they have any extra medical equipment or personal protective gear to sell to the U.S., according to senior State Department officials.

“We’ve actually reached out to missions ... to determine whether certain countries may have excess capacity of the ability to manufacture supplies," and whether companies in those countries would consider exporting supplies to the U.S., this official said. 

The State Department official said he could not name specific countries that have offered to help the U.S. but said the responses are being tracked and forwarded to FEMA and other U.S. federal agencies in charge of managing America’s supply chain.

"We’re doing our best effort to reach out to any country and any private business overseas that might be able to contribute," the official said. A second State Department official emphasized that the U.S. is seeking to buy these items, not seeking donations.

Indeed, after Russia's splashy delivery last week of medical supplies to the U.S., the State Department issued a statement emphasizing it was a purchase. 

"We are a generous and reliable contributor to crisis response and humanitarian action across the world, but we cannot do it alone," Morgan Ortagus, the spokeswoman said. 

"Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future," she said.   

Meanwhile, as countries such as Italy and Spain have reeled from coronavirus outbreaks, China has stepped in with testing kits, protective gear and other medical aid critical for fighting the respiratory disease. Beijing has also dispatched doctors and teams of specialized medical experts, although some of the equipment has turned out to be faulty and critics say its motives, like Russia's, may not be a wholly selfless act. 

"During the coronavirus pandemic, the two most energetic Samaritans – Russia and China – are using their ostensible assistance for geopolitical gains," wrote Elisabeth Braw, a security and defense expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine.   

"Beijing is using the deliveries as a public relations opportunity," she wrote. 

But Martin Thorley, a China expert at the University of Nottingham, in England, pointed out that it was important not to attach such motives to individuals in China who have offered to send life-saving equipment. "Much of this is altruistic and kind-hearted behavior," he said, noting a donation of 1,000 ventilators to New York state by Ja Ma and Joe Tsai, the billionaire founders of the Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba. 

Competition for supplies leads to accusations of 'piracy'

In recent days, the Trump administration has stepped up its hunt for medical supplies. 

A German broadcast outlet reported Friday that 200,000 respiratory masks, slated for delivery from China to federal police in Berlin, had been redirected to the U.S.

"We regard this as an act of modern piracy," Germany's Interior Senator Andreas Geisel told the outlet, accusing the U.S. of using underhand tactics to procure the supplies.

"This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners. Even in times of global crisis, no Wild West methods should be used," Geisel said before German authorities walked back his comments and said the country has launched an investigation. Germany has now deployed its military to help secure the transport of such key medical equipment. 

In France, it was being called "La Guerre des Masques" – "the war of the masks" – by one news site. A French politician, Renaud Muselier, said masks ordered by France had been bought in cash by Americans "on the tarmac" in China. Muselier alleged that consignments of supplies from China had been "diverted" and "hijacked" by unspecified American purchasers who paid three or four times the price agreed by France.   

The U.S. Embassy in France sharply denied Muselier's accusation.

"The United States government has not purchased any masks intended for delivery from China to France. Reports to the contrary are completely false," it said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the Trump administration's coronavirus response, did not respond to questions about whether his task force has a coherent strategy for acquiring much-needed medical supplies from abroad, while still helping foreign countries seeking U.S. aid for the same reason. 

A few media outlets have reported the White House has ordered a freeze on U.S foreign aid or at least a review, so the Trump administration can determine what the U.S. needs before sending materials abroad. A spokesperson for the United States Agency for International Development sidestepped a request for confirmation or clarification. 

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, the agency's acting spokesperson, said the U.S. would "lead the global response" to coronavirus "even as we battle it on the home front."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams predicted Sunday this week "will be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans' lives." He compared the pandemic to some of the darkest moments in U.S. history, including the two worst foreign attacks on American soil: the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings. 

"This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country," Adams told Fox News Sunday.

So far, the White House has failed to clearly articulate how it's going to balance the competing domestic and international demands for coronavirus equipment.

Asked in the April 1 media briefing about reports that the U.S. will no longer ship personal protective equipment to allies overseas as the U.S. grapples with critical shortages of supplies and coronavirus cases continue to soar, Trump said there was "no truth whatsoever" to them.

"Whatever we have, whatever we've committed to, we commit," Trump said, adding that "we also need a lot for ourselves. Obviously, we're not going to be shipping too much."

Published on: Apr 07, 2020 17:21:49

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