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Despite Big Promises, U.S. Has Delivered Limited Aid in Global Virus Response

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has lauded itself as leading the world in confronting the coronavirus. But it has so far failed to spend more than 75 percent of the American humanitarian aid that Congress provided three months ago to help overseas victims of the virus.

In two spending bills in March, lawmakers approved $1.59 billion in pandemic assistance to be sent abroad through the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development.

As of last week, $386 million had been released to nations in need, according to a government official familiar with the spending totals that the State Department has reported to Congress for both agencies. That money was delivered through private relief groups and large multinational organizations, including United Nations agencies, that provide health and economic stability funding and humanitarian assistance around the globe.

Of that, only a meager $11.5 million in international disaster aid had been delivered to private relief groups, even though those funds are specifically meant to be rushed to distress zones.

The totals reflected spending on the global coronavirus response as of June 3 by the State Department and the American aid agency and were shared with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity because the figures were intended to be private.

Relief workers said they were alarmed and bewildered as to why the vast majority of the money was sitting unspent.

“Little to no humanitarian assistance has reached those on the front lines of this crisis in the world’s most fragile context,” executives at 27 relief organizations wrote to the aid agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, in a letter dated Thursday.

“In spite of months of promising conversations with U.S.A.I.D. field staff, few organizations have received an executed award for Covid-19 humanitarian assistance,” the letter stated.

Most of the money is provided through the U.S. aid agency. A spokeswoman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, said on Friday that the total amount made available so far to relief groups was $595 million, including $175 million in international disaster aid. But that included projected reimbursements for money that would be provided later — not funding that had already been delivered. The aid agency declined to disclose how much money had been delivered as opposed to promised.

Ms. Jhunjhunwala also described a rigorous review before releasing the funding to make sure it would be properly spent.

“We want to ensure that we are accountable for the effective use of Covid funds and are good stewards of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars,” she said in a statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has for months praised American generosity in helping the rest of the world respond to the coronavirus.

“America remains the world’s leading light of humanitarian goodness as well amidst this global pandemic,” he said in April. In May, Mr. Pompeo said, “The State Department is very focused on saving lives” in curbing the coronavirus. And on Thursday night, he said, “We have truly mobilized as a nation to combat the virus, both at home and abroad.”

Collectively, the aid agency and the State Department have committed more than $1 billion in pandemic assistance to more than 100 countries since April. But the vast majority of that has yet to go out the door, tied up in what people with knowledge of the funding described as a complex grant process that had been slowed by micromanagement and delayed decisions.

More than $500 million in additional funding — the balance of what Congress approved — has yet to even be committed to a humanitarian need, meaning it is likely to be months more before it is released.

“The funding pipeline is there — it’s ready to go,” said Bill O’Keefe, an executive vice president for Catholic Relief Services, one of the nongovernmental organizations that is delivering the humanitarian aid to needy nations. “But it is taking too long to turn on the tap.”

His organization has received about $10 million so far to help front-line coronavirus responders in the West Bank, Italy and Haiti. But he said the aid was being released “demonstrably slower” than in past global health crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015.

“We’re trying to get ahead of this situation; our goal is to get the prevention going early,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “Because the fewer cases there are, before things develop, the fewer people are going to suffer and die.”

The money provided by the State Department and the U.S. aid agency largely is to pay for messaging campaigns to educate people on how to protect themselves from the virus, to provide water and sanitation services like hand-washing stations, and to offer health services to refugees, migrants and other homeless people. Some of the funds have been spent on infection prevention and control.


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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Part of the delay in delivering the funds has been blamed on what officials in the Trump administration and in Congress described as an unresolved debate over whether the money can also be used to buy masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment for health workers who are treating coronavirus patients abroad.

Since April, the White House has been weighing whether to ban funding for protective medical gear overseas while the equipment is needed by health providers in the United States. Last month, the U.S. aid agency told some relief groups it could not use the money for personal protective equipment until the White House issued its policy.

Mr. Barsa has for weeks told relief groups that a decision is expected imminently, but until then, the ban applies to new aid contracts on a limited basis.

Nazanin Ash, a former senior official at both the U.S. aid agency and the State Department, said it had generally taken 30 to 45 days for humanitarian assistance funding to be delivered to relief organizations during the Ebola outbreak across West Africa and parts of Europe.

“Now it’s stretching to three to four months for funds to reach front-line responders, for a pandemic orders of magnitude greater that Ebola and for which prevention is the essential approach,” said Ms. Ash, who is currently a vice president at the International Rescue Committee.

The delay also comes as government officials and relief groups are trying to predict how much more money will be needed to confront the virus in the months and years to come, especially in poor and unstable nations that depend on American support.

Officials are considering projections of $5 billion to $12 billion for future global coronavirus response efforts that the United States funds. Congressional officials and relief workers voiced concern that vast amounts of additional resources would not be approved if the money that had already been appropriated continued to sit unspent.

Ms. Ash worked as a top staff member for foreign assistance at the U.S. aid agency under President George W. Bush, and later as a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama. She said the agency had long been recognized as among the world’s most effective disaster aid responders, no matter its political leadership.

“Their absence on Covid response is a gaping hole,” she said.



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