African field hospitals donated by US for combat injuries converted for coronavirus treatment

By CAROL MORELLO | The Washington Post | Published: April 29, 2020

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As the coronavirus spreads around the world, countries that have received medical equipment donated by the U.S. for peacekeeping and counterterrorism missions are converting it to civilian use during the pandemic.

Four expeditionary hospitals in Africa, each comprising 14 tents that can handle operations from surgery to dentistry, have been moved from military bases where doctors train in treating battlefield casualties to cities where coronavirus outbreaks have stretched health-care systems.

The State Department this week notified Congress that it plans to allow seven additional countries engaged in U.S.-backed counterterrorism operations to use donated ambulances, tactical vehicles, cots, tents and other equipment in their domestic response to the virus.

The arrangements are in place until the pandemic ebbs, but scientists say cases of COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, will continue to rise in countries with weak health care systems, including many in Africa.

“As global response evolves, we will continue to seek opportunities to temporarily repurpose previously delivered assistance to enable U.S. partners to meet domestic needs as required,” said a State Department representative.

The idea of converting equipment already on the ground to civilian use was part of a State Department effort to identify creative and speedy ways to respond to the health crisis.

The donated field hospitals were a straightforward target. All were already in place in countries that contribute troops to peacekeeping operations for the United Nations or the African Union.

“There’s been a dual benefit of some of the programs that we put into place well before pandemic,” said Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs. “We’re really getting the maximum out of it. It is a win-win, not just on security cooperation but also bolstering capacities for some of these partners.”

Ghana, which has 2,775 peacekeeping troops deployed to nine U.N. missions, sent one of its two 20-bed expeditionary hospitals used to treat casualties in raids and rebuilt it in a stadium in the suburbs of Accra, the capital, to treat COVID-19 patients. Senegal, with 2,250 troops on five U.N. missions, moved a field hospital to the city of Touba to help free up space for coronavirus patients at the local hospital.

Uganda erected a field hospital in the town of Bombo to treat COVID-19 patients; Rwanda deployed its hospital in Kigali to handle overflow capacity.

The changed usage of the hospitals, each of which cost $3.5 million, requires the approval of Congress, which authorizes the money. The State Department also has told lawmakers that Mongolia is likely to need a U.S.-donated hospital for its coronavirus response, though it has not requested it yet.

In addition, the State Department plans to authorize for coronavirus efforts a field hospital purchased for counterterrorism purposes in Mauritania. It also intends to authorize the civilian use for medical equipment used in counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, Malawi, Niger, North Macedonia and Sierra Leone.

The field hospitals each provide almost 7,500 square feet of tent space. Most are categorized as offering less care than a general hospital but more than a typical emergency room. Each is equipped with an intensive care unit, an operating room, a radiology lab and beds for 20 patients. They have separate laundry facilities and wash-up stations, smoke detectors and doors marked by red-and-white exit signs.

Their construction time is measured in hours — usually, 24 to 72.

Cooper, who has held diplomatic and military posts in Africa and the Middle East before coming to the State Department, said he is accustomed to hearing family and friends ask why the U.S. gives foreign aid when the need at home is so great. The coronavirus, he tells them, knows no borders.

“The answer to that is, this is part of who we are as the United States,” he said. “We collectively as a nation have sought to provide meaningful assistance to our partners all over the world. And especially now, to those who may need it in a place that’s much more extreme than we can even fathom in the United States.”

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