Thousands line up to receive food handouts in the Olievenhoutbos township of Midrand, South Africa, on May 2.

Thousands line up to receive food handouts in the Olievenhoutbos township of Midrand, South Africa, on May 2. Jerome Delay / AP

State Dept. Reroutes Peacekeeping Gear To Coronavirus Fight In Africa

The move shows how the virus has refocused U.S. security policy.

The State Department has authorized African nations to use U.S.-provided peacekeeping equipment in a bid to keep the continent from becoming the next epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, Africa appears to have been spared the worst of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 — perhaps because some African governments familiar with infectious disease quickly closed their borders as the virus began to spread, or perhaps because more than 98 percent of Africans are under 65, lowering their susceptibility to the coronavirus.

But U.S. officials are skeptical that relief will last on a continent that is battling weak governance, terrorism, and widespread poverty. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has estimated that anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million Africans could die in the pandemic. 

As a first response, the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs sought to identify countries that had already received equipment such as field hospitals and ambulances that could be shifted from peacekeeping and counterterrorism missions to coronavirus response. 

The message was simple, according to the bureau’s Assistant Secretary Clarke Cooper: “Please do not let these sit mothballed and by all means do apply them where you can.”

Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda have already deployed U.S.-provided expeditionary hospitals with 20 beds each. The State Department has also notified Congress that it has authorized Burkina Faso, Chad, Malawi, Niger and Mauritania to “temporarily use other types of previously delivered equipment…toward their domestic COVID-19 response efforts,” according to a State Department official. “Such equipment was purchased for mostly counterterrorism purposes along with some for peacekeeping purposes.”

Much as in the United States, where some states are using military-provided assistance to treat overflow COVID patients, while others reserve it for COVID-negative patients, African nations are using the equipment in various ways. Rwanda is using its hospital unit as an overflow hospital for COVID patients, Cooper said, while Senegal is using theirs to ease the strain on the healthcare system by treating non-COVID patients. 

“Every partner has a different posture on distancing. Some states are a little more strict on what is open, what’s not open and the movement of population. In some of these states, there’s already a disparity in access to healthcare to begin with,” Cooper said. “We are not mandating or instructing on how they apply them.”

It’s also only a first step, Cooper said. The initial notifications went to countries with whom the U.S. already has a well-established security assistance relationship, like Ghana or Senegal. But “it’s not the end of what we’re doing,” Cooper said. “We’ve been working across the board to identify opportunities to repurpose assistance [and] peacekeeping and security sector capacity building.”

Although Cooper emphasized that the opportunity cost of repurposing these assets was limited — most of the equipment was intended for training purposes, he said, and was already deployed in the country in question — the move has still highlighted the degree to which the spread of the virus has refocused U.S. security policy on a continent as vulnerable as Africa, where the need is almost always greater than the available resources. Asked what new assistance might be redirected to Africa that wasn’t already in the pipeline, Cooper said that his bureau is looking within. 

“Identifying flexibilities in accounts is ongoing,” he said. “What monies have been committed where that allow for federal agencies to shift how they’re programmed… There’s a good set of eyes collected on what else could be done.”

U.S. Africa Command, the military’s combatant command responsible for the continent, has also been forced to adjust mid-outbreak. 

“As it started coming to Africa, many shut down their borders, really limited transit and movement of cargo and personnel, which is helpful for preventing the virus but makes it even more challenging to move cargo and personnel to places that we need to,” said Brig. Gen. Leo Kosinski, the head of logistics at AFRICOM. 

Koskinski is now working closely with medical logisticians to direct needed testing materials and personal protective equipment to ensure the thousands of U.S. personnel scattered around the continent — some in small teams in remote locations — are protected. The command is dusting off so-called “transportation isolation systems,” an infectious disease containment unit used during the Ebola outbreak that can be loaded onto a C-17. 

Like State’s Political-Military Bureau, AFRICOM has also looked first to countries like Senegal and Ghana with whom the United States has a longstanding security relationship, Kosinski said. 

“Africa is late in the game in getting COVID. People are concerned it might be the new epicenter for lots of reasons — large groups of people, cultural practices, lack of sanitation — and in Africa you also have malaria and dengue fever and other things,” Kosinski said. 

“I wouldn’t say so much with our troops, because we’re trying to do everything with distancing and disinfecting and deliberate decisions, but Africa writ large, the experts say as it moves down there’s a likelihood for Africa to be the next epicenter of this. If that’s the case, how do we help our partners?”

As of May 4, Africa has recorded 45,000 confirmed infections and 1,800 deaths. Public health experts say that number is almost certainly undercounted because of a lack of testing.