WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s well-known disdain for foreign aid is colliding with the imperatives of fighting the coronavirus pandemic, as his administration boasts about America’s generosity for countries in dire need while still generating confusion and anger on the global stage.
The U.S. has committed more than half a billion dollars in anti-virus aid for foreign countries since January — a sign that some administration officials recognize Trump’s “America First” policy can’t fully protect Americans from a highly infectious disease that knows no borders. And, they know that if the United States doesn’t help, arch-rivals like China and Russia will gladly step in to fill void, in part to advance their narrative that the era of U.S.-led Western leadership is over.
For instance, two years after slashing virtually all U.S. aid to the Palestinians, the administration announced on Thursday it would provide $5 million in assistance to Palestinian hospitals and households for “immediate, life-saving needs in combating COVID-19.”
Yet, in just the past several weeks the administration has sent conflicting messages about its commitment to assist, suspending contributions to the very organization tasked with battling the global outbreak and reversing decisions to provide critical equipment like personal protective gear and ventilators to other countries in order to meet domestic needs. It has left aid recipients uncertain about whether grant money from the United States can be used to buy those same items, even if they weren’t intended for distribution in the U.S.
The latest in the jarring moves came Tuesday when Trump announced the suspension of U.S. funding for the World Health Organization pending a review of whether the agency bowed to Chinese demands to downplay the threat of the pandemic in its early stages for political purposes.
Just two weeks earlier, the State Department had hailed both WHO and the support U.S. provides it. “WHO is coordinating the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is on the ground in 149 countries around the world,” it said in a March 31 fact sheet touting America's generosity. “This broad-based effort would not be possible without U.S. support.”
An update to that fact sheet, released on Thursday, does not mention WHO.
The previous one, though, noted that the U.S. had provided WHO with more than $400 million in 2019, which was more than twice the next largest state contributor and dwarfed the Chinese contribution of $44 million.
Trump’s funding suspension decision was widely denounced.
“Abandoning this critical body will only put more lives at risk,” said Michelle Nunn, head of the relief agency CARE USA, one of many humanitarian groups to condemn it. “The Trump administration’s decision to halt funding to the WHO during a global pandemic is dangerous, self-defeating, and short-sighted."
Just six days before Trump's announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced the U.S. would almost double its overseas virus aid to nearly a half-billion dollars since January. He referred to the “unmatched generosity of the American people” and said “the United States has continued to lead the world’s public health and humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Pandemics do not respect national borders,” he said on April 8. “Through decades of U.S. global leadership in health and humanitarian assistance, we know that smart and strategic investments have proven critical to protecting the homeland. As history proves, we can fight pandemics at home and help other nations contain their spread abroad.”
Pompeo, however, also introduced a caveat to American aid: He said that assistance to the 64 nations identified as most at-risk would not include personal protective equipment and other essential supplies. “We will keep all critical medical items in the United States until the demand at home is met,” he said.
That was a 180-degree shift from what the United States Agency for International Development said March 18 when it announced the release of some $62 million in emergency anti-virus assistance. That aid, it said, would include “the provision of personal protective equipment and other critical commodities.”
U.S. officials are now looking for alternative places to send the more than $400 million in contributions planned for WHO in 2020. But there's already uncertainty about what aid recipients can do with U.S. funds.
An April 10 directive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency barring the export of personal protective gear made in the U.S. or by U.S. companies abroad has left many in government and aid organizations confused about what American assistance can be used to buy once it arrives at its destination.
Some groups fear that the administration may use that directive or a corollary to ban them from using grant money to purchase certain types of gloves, facemasks and other respirators, according to relief agency officials.
One group, Partners in Health, a Massachusetts-based non-governmental group that runs medical facilities in Haiti, said it had been advised through ’’official channels” not to apply for funding that could be used to purchase equipment to battle COVID-19, because the funding could be delayed by confusion over whether the U.S. would finance such purchases.
“It remains unclear whether or not the U.S. government will be accepting applications for funding that includes commodities such as PPE or tests,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Campa said. “The U.S. government seems to have a hold on anything being sent overseas out of the U.S. related to coronavirus,’’ including money to buy equipment from producers in other countries.
Neither the State Department nor USAID would comment on the matter.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.