USAID issues new restrictions for NGOs on buying PPE amid pandemic

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The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has notified some grant recipients that they can’t use donor dollars to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to protect against COVID-19, hurting key operations abroad.

USAID has put a “pause” on allowing NGOs to use U.S. funds to buy PPE, including a wide range of filtering respirator masks, like N95 masks, surgical masks and surgical gloves, according to an email from a USAID officer to NGOs operating abroad that was obtained by The Hill.

USAID grantees were advised they can continue to purchase sanitizing products like bleach, soap and hand sanitizer, the email said.

The directive impacts grant recipients helping communities in lower-income countries who are vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

The block on USAID funds appears to be part of the Trump administration’s effort to block exports of PPE from the U.S. in an effort to shore up supplies at home.

The New Humanitarian was first to report on the new directive.

The lack of protective gear, and the funds for it, is raising concerns among NGOs about the ability of international aid recipients to carry out key services that are already under strain because of precautions around limiting the spread of COVID-19 and preventing transmission.

The U.S. has invested over $100 billion over the past decade for health programs, treating and working to prevent tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, vaccinations distributions and the fight against Ebola, among others.

But many of the successes on these issues are at risk of being reversed if health workers without protective gear cannot guarantee their safety to operate and limit the spread of coronavirus.

In response to an inquiry from The Hill, a State Department spokesperson said, “While the interagency process on PPE procurement continues, we continue to remain sensitive to the needs of humanitarian beneficiaries around the world while balancing the urgency of the domestic requirements here in the United States.”

USAID did not immediately respond to questions from The Hill about the directive, including to what extent it applies to all grantees.

Trump issued an executive order in March blocking the export from the U.S. of specific PPE, including ventilators, and the State Department has directed its diplomats overseas to identify “excess” sources of PPE for delivery to the U.S.

Yet the president has since tweeted about shipping ventilators all over the world thanks to a surplus from American manufacturers. Trump has also boasted that the U.S. has ramped up production on key personal protective gear.

During a visit to an Arizona factory producing N95 respirator masks on Tuesday, Trump said the federal government is equipping the U.S. frontline medical workers with millions of PPE, and nearly one billion gloves.

Global demand for PPE continues to outstrip supplies, and lower-income countries are at a disadvantage against more developed countries, according to a recent analysis by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s fund.

Supply has started improving since March, UNICEF noted, as China has restarted production after shutting down in the face of COVID-19. China accounts for about 50 percent of the PPE global supply. Other countries with the ability to produce PPE include the U.S., Taiwan, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand and European countries.

Smaller, less powerful nations are at a disadvantage procuring materials to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

Last month, Caribbean nations had container-loads of PPE purchased from U.S. manufacturers seized by Customs and Border Control, the Miami Herald reported

The African Union has spoken about organizations on the continent working together on procuring needed supplies in the fight against COVID-19 and to reject “nationalist and protectionist measures and postures.”

World powers have at times collided over the procurement for personal protective equipment in the early weeks as the pandemic severity grew.

In early April, a German government official accused the U.S. of “modern day piracy” after a shipment of 200,000 masks bound for Germany was “confiscated” in Thailand.

A U.S. embassy official denied any knowledge of the shipment diversion and rejected the allegation that the U.S. blocked the export, Reuters reported at the time


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