June 15, 2020 | COVID-19, Health Justice


With COVID-19 Pandemic Accelerating in Africa, Activists Demand Full Reversal of Trump Administration Ban on PPE Purchases for Front-line Healthcare Workers

Jessica Bassett (Health GAP): 1 347-378-5583| jessica@healthgap.org
Eric Hansen (Partners in Health)| ehansen@pih.org

Playing Politics with the Coronavirus Response is Costing Lives as New Data Indicate People Living with HIV and TB are at Increased Risk of Dying from COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates exponentially in Africa, the Trump administration’s arbitrary and deadly limits on the use of U.S. aid to procure life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators has come under harsh rebuke by health activists. These restrictions affect billions of dollars specifically allocated by Congress to help fight the pandemic globally.

New guidance from the State Department about the ban on purchasing PPE with U.S. aid dollars continues to put up barriers to PPE for front-line service providers working right now to treat people with COVID-19. The administration claims the ban is needed to protect PPE supplies for U.S. healthcare workers but those familiar with the global supply chain affirm that it is “political nonsense” and that PPE supply shortages in the U.S. are not due to demand in other countries. Activists are urgently calling for a total repeal of the ban and a rapid acceleration of the release of funds intended to control the spread of COVID-19 around the world.

Furthermore, new data released last week from Western Cape, South Africa, indicate that people living with HIV and TB are at a two- to three-times greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

“The Trump administration is more interested in helping countries buy body bags than personal protective equipment,” said Asia Russell, Executive Director of Health GAP.  “Continued limitations on PPE procurement are particularly callous in this moment, as the pandemic is rapidly intensifying in Africa, healthcare workers are getting sick and dying, and people are avoiding seeking care for COVID-19 and HIV, TB, and other urgent health needs. If the Trump administration really wanted to end COVID-19, they’d overturn this ban today and start getting funding out the door so it can start saving lives.”

“As a physician in the U.S., I am appalled that the Trump administration is making it harder for healthcare workers to access the masks and other equipment that will save their lives and the lives of their patients and families. This ban doesn’t help American healthcare workers like me, but it is a death sentence for doctors and nurses on the front lines in Africa,” said Dr. Marguerite Thorpe, a physician in Los Angeles who has worked in Malawi and Mozambique and a Health GAP member.

State Department guidance released last week on the Trump administration policy banning aid recipients from purchasing PPE with U.S. dollars clarifies that PPE can be purchased from regional suppliers producing the items in the part of the world where they will be used. This is not a solution for doctors, nurses, and other frontline healthcare workers treating the rapidly growing number of people getting sick in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere where regional supply chains do not exist or are completely bottlenecked by extensive and bewildering restrictions on transport due to COVID-19.

The guidance comes nearly two months after the initial policy was released. Many organizations that purchase PPE for healthcare workers have already removed PPE from grant budgets, often at the suggestion of local USAID staff who themselves were waiting for further guidance on the specifications of the ban. Now, as more people, including healthcare workers, are getting sick and dying, a total reversal of the ban is urgently needed to allow aid groups full flexibility in purchasing the PPE required to save lives.

Additional Context: The World Health Organization (WHO) last week announced that the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading more rapidly in Africa, noting that it took 98 days for 100,000 people to test positive and just 18 days more days to double to 200,000 people. The Trump administration has been under criticism for unprecedented and devastating delays in releasing COVID-19 humanitarian aid, even as the pandemic rages around the world. The delays, coupled with arbitrary limitations on using the funds to purchase urgently needed masks, gowns, goggles, and ventilators, create a perfect storm that is allowing the pandemic to grow.