Briefing With Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services; Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee, Bureau of Consular Affairs On COVID-19: Updates on Health Impact and Assistance for American Citizens Abroad
MR BROWN: Hey, everybody. Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown here. Thanks for joining the call. The State Department continued its 24/7 unprecedented mission throughout this past weekend to bring Americans home from all corners of the world. We have flights coming in from Peru, India, and Egypt, among other places, and we brought home over 43,000 American citizens since January 29th.
To help us delve into some of the statistics and – we’ve got three briefers joining us for this on-the-record call: Ian Brownlee, our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Consular Affairs; Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations; and Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary for our Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
You’ve been introduced already to PDAS Brownlee and Dr. Walters. Ambassador Wells has joined the call for the first time today to shed particular light on the historic repatriation effort from South and Central Asia. Dr. Walters will begin with some opening remarks and turn it over to Ambassador Wells. Following that, PDAS Brownlee will give the latest repatriation figures. Then we’ll take a few of your questions.
Dr. Walters, go ahead.
MR WALTERS: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks again for the opportunity to brief. I want to sort of credit our health units overseas for the work they continue to do both in support of our embassy communities in over 220 locations around the world, as well as their support to the ongoing consular effort to bring American citizens home. Current cases – domestically we’re looking at 41 cases and no deaths. And overseas, in our overseas community 190 cases with one additional death bring total death overseas to three, all within locally employed staff. We would like to extend our deepest condolences to the families of those as well as the extended families – embassy family and all that are impacted. That’s all I have.
MR BROWN: Ambassador Wells, please, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR WELLS: Thank you, and appreciate the opportunity to update you on how we’re working with our partners in the South and Central Asia region. And I’ll start off with the repatriation efforts, which in our countries present unique challenges. As of today, the United States has organized 13 flights from South and Central Asia, including special flights home for about 2,900 U.S. citizens from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
In India, we’re responding to requests for assistance from thousands of Americans located in cities and villages spread across a vast area. And so far, we’ve supported the repatriations of about 1,300 American citizens there despite what are lockdown conditions. In Nepal, we’re bringing home Americans who have been located in remote and highly mountainous areas; for some of these Americans, coming out of the mountains after two or three weeks and seeing a transformed world. In addition to the heroic work of U.S. Government personnel throughout the region, we’re really very grateful to our counterparts in South and Central Asia. Whether it’s local, regional, national governments, health officials, customs and migration services, law enforcement agencies, civil aviation authorities, and airport workers, it really is a team effort.
In addition to protecting U.S. citizens, the U.S. Government is leading the world’s humanitarian and health assistance response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 21 million in a first tranche has been provided to at-risk countries and peoples in South and Central Asia. But I think even more importantly, the United States has been investing in health systems across the region for decades. And it’s that longstanding cooperation on health care that’s the backbone of our current efforts to help SCA countries control the pandemic.
In Central Asia, our USAID and CDC regional missions are providing assistance and sharing information. In addition to the CDC regional hub in Almaty, Kazakhstan, we also have CDC offices in New Delhi, Dhaka, and Islamabad. And we’re in close coordination with our South and Central Asian partners to ensure that global supply chains producing lifesaving drugs and protective equipment are optimized to meet rapidly changing needs around the world, including in the United States.
I would just add another issue we’re tracking closely is food security. As countries around the world implement new measures to limit COVID, we’re tracking whether interruptions to cross-border trade and logistics could threaten food security for some of the region’s more vulnerable areas and groups. And we’re certainly advocating that countries in the region keep their cross-border trade in basic foodstuffs and other humanitarian goods going in a safe manner so that this public health emergency doesn’t become a food security emergency.
Finally, I would note we’re working in close coordination with the IMF and other international financial institutions on the process of providing emergency response funding to countries in need of such support. And we’re very pleased that the World Bank announced April 2nd a total of 1.9 billion in COVID-19-related emergency response loans, of which 1.46 billion will be extended to countries in South and Central Asia. The United States annually contributes nearly 16 percent of the overall World Bank funding.
For decades, really, the United States has been a reliable partner, investing in the people and economies of South and Central Asia, and we’re certainly going to be there when the process of social and economic recovery begins as well. Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Ambassador – oh, sorry. Thank you, Ambassador Wells. Good afternoon to you all. As you’ve been hearing, our repatriation efforts continued worldwide over the weekend, including flights from Peru, India, Egypt, Nepal, and Burundi, to name a few. To date we’ve brought back more than 45,000 Americans, about 8,000 more since I last spoke to you all last Friday, just three working days ago. These numbers represent the unprecedented and heroic efforts of department staff around the globe working to get these folks back here.
And while the demand numbers continue to fluctuate, as you’ve heard me say before, I can tell you that we’re seeing the scales tip mightily toward the number of Americans who have been already brought home as opposed to those who still seek our assistance, which is why I want to remind everyone today that if you are an American overseas and you’re still on the fence about whether to come home or not, it’s time to get off that fence. Come home now or be ready to remain where you are. The Department of State always stands ready to assist our fellow citizens overseas, but we cannot guarantee that this worldwide repatriation effort will continue indefinitely. Some Americans are waiting to see how bad it’s going to get before making that call. I cannot stress this enough: Make that call now.
You’ve heard me talk about step.state.gov. An example of why it’s so important to be enrolled in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP: Last Friday, one of the last commercial flights out of Moscow was canceled as the flight was sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of what happened with that flight, but in the meantime, the U.S. embassy in Russia, including Ambassador Sullivan, have been doing a great job of communicating with U.S. citizens there about all the possibilities to come home and what the situation on the ground really is. They’ve been publicly updating U.S. citizens on the situation daily since March 26th. This includes important COVID-19-related information, travel restrictions, repatriation flight information, and other safety and security information. These messages are sent to all U.S. citizens enrolled in STEP at step.state.gov and are posted daily to the embassy website. Consular officers share the same information with all concerned U.S. citizens and their loved ones when they contact the embassy for assistance.
Right now we’re working on over 80 flights worldwide. We’re continuing to see heavy demand from South Asia, as the ambassador just said, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. We’re working to get everyone who wants to come home a seat on a plane. We’ve repatriated about a thousand U.S. citizens from India alone. I’m glad the ambassador can join us today to talk about how the Department of State and the U.S. Government are working with our partners in South and Central Asia to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are also still seeing continued demand from Latin America and we continue to run multiple flights a day from Central and South America. We’ve repatriated over 5,600 Americans from Peru alone and we’re working hard to get everyone – to get – we’re working hard to get more flights scheduled from there beyond today. We’ve got flights leaving from Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and others this week.
The message remains the same for U.S. citizens the world over: Enroll at step.state.gov to get the latest information from us. Keep checking your embassy’s website and don’t put off the decision to come home until it’s too late. With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MR BROWN: Just a reminder, everybody, if you want to get into the queue to ask a question, press 1 and 0. For our first question, can you open the line of Matt Lee?
MR BROWN: Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay, you can hear me? Good. Thank you. I just have one very brief question for Doc Walters: When you talked about the deaths overseas and you said three because there was an additional one, I thought there was three last week, but then I remembered that one of them was determined not to have been COVID-related. So does this mean now, with the three that a new – there was a new fatality, and that was confirmed to be COVID? Thanks.
MR WALTERS: Yeah, Matt, that’s – you got the facts right. There were – originally there was a report of three. On further details, the third case last week was found to be non-COVID-related. We regret to state that there has been a third death overseas. It’s not dual reporting; it’s a new fatality.
QUESTION: Okay, all right. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our second question, can you open the line of Shaun Tandon?
QUESTION: I had a question for Assistant Secretary Wells. You’re mentioning the food security issue. I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit. You’re talking about cross-border trade, how that could affect things. Are you seeing that already? Are you seeing concerns about food security, and are there particular countries that might be at risk? I guess knowing South Asia, Nepal, for example, comes to mind with lots of the cross-border trade with India. Are there particular points of concern that you see with food security? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR WELLS: It’s an issue that we’re watching throughout the region, because it’s natural as countries close – go into lockdown in response to COVID that unintended consequences can happen as countries prioritize domestic consumption, the repercussion or potential repercussion of those decisions.
And so whether it’s the Government of Kazakhstan temporarily or potentially rationing exports of wheat and wheat flour, whether it’s the closure of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, whether it’s blockages that have taken place on other borders in the region, our encouragement to all is to manage the trade, to keep trade open to vital necessities, and to do this in a cooperative spirit. We all share the same health concerns and have to meet also the basic needs of our populace, and so this is an issue that we’re engaging on, again, throughout the broader South and Central Asia region. Over.
MR BROWN: Thanks. For the next question, can you open the line of Kim Dozier?
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, and sorry I missed the top of the call. I wanted to ask particularly about Afghanistan. I know the World Bank has pledged 100 million in aid and the U.S. has offered 15 million in aid to fight COVID-19, but I’ve had economists tell me that the budget could be up to 2 billion that should be spent. Also, I heard from Afghan officials that they haven’t had clarified to them what the U.S. aid cut of $1 billion will cover. Can you clarify?
AMBASSADOR WELLS: Sure. So I’ll leave broader issues of specific aid cuts to the Secretary, who will be speaking tomorrow, I understand. But the needs of the countries are – we’re at the preliminary stages of assessing the needs. And just as the needs in our own country are going to be extraordinary, so are they going to be extraordinarily globally. And so we’re pleased to see that the IMF, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, likeminded partners, that everybody needs to step up and to be able to provide assistance as countries deal with both the humanitarian response to the pandemic but then the knock-on effects to the economy.
Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable. This is a country where over 50 percent live below the poverty line, where you’ve had hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens return from Iran, and more recently returning from Iran under conditions where they may have been carrying the virus with them. And so Afghanistan is able to draw on what has been the two decades of infrastructure that’s been built up with the significant help of the United States. We’re certainly – and our assistance to the health care sector in Afghanistan is substantial. Our liaison with Afghanistan both through the CDC and USAID is also substantial.
And so when the Secretary traveled to Kabul and announced that we would be reducing our assistance to Afghanistan as a result of a failure of political leaders to come together to form an – to reach an agreement on an inclusive governing arrangement, at the same time he announced $15 million to directly respond to – to enhance the government’s ability to detect the disease. So we’ve never walked away from the Afghan people, but we certainly have deep concerns over the failure of the political leadership to rise to the challenge not just of war and peace, but also now this pandemic. Over.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, can we go to the line of Lalit Jha?
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this call. I wanted to ask a few questions, one about the – do you have the exact figures for repatriation from India and how many more American citizens from India are willing to come back to the U.S.?
And to Ambassador Wells, about hydroxychloroquine the President spoke about, he requesting – making a request to the Indian prime minister about orders that has been put on hold. Do you know what the quantity of that order is, and have the Indians agreed to release those quantities to India, not to the U.S.?
AMBASSADOR WELLS: As I said in my remarks, I mean, about 1,300 American citizens have been brought back as of last night, and we have five additional flights scheduled this week. It’s difficult to say with any certainty how many Americans intend or need assistance in repatriating to the United States. We’ve had over 7,000 register with the U.S. embassy and consulate.
But when it’s the day of or the day before a flight and we’re assembling a flight list, significant numbers of Americans choose not to take the seat that’s made available to them, and they have a variety of reasons for that: their own assessment of the domestic situation, their own family obligations. I can’t judge their decision making. But as Deputy Assistant Secretary Brownlee said, this is a time when we need Americans to make the decision.
So we will work through the five scheduled flights that we have, and I would note that these flights often require subsidiary flights, flights from other cities in India to reach either Delhi or Mumbai. And we’ll continue that work and then assess the situation as we move forward.
On pharmaceuticals and supply chain, I think you received a very strong sort of affirmation in the call between the prime minister and the President yesterday of the fact that the U.S. and India need to work together to respond to the COVID challenge, to be a solution to the threat posed by the virus. And so India has long been a significant partner of the United States and the pharmaceutical sector. It’s one of our top imports from India in 2018. India is obviously one of the world’s leaders in the supply of generic drugs. It represents a significant portion of the precursor pharmaceuticals that supply the U.S. market.
And so we expect this kind of cooperation to continue, and as India analyzes what it needs for its domestic market and as we seek to grow the volume of drugs and PPE that are available both in the United States and also globally to respond to COVID. Over.
MR BROWN: Great. For the next question, can we go to the line of Courtney McBride?
QUESTION: PDAS Brownlee, you said the demand figures are fluctuating, but can you give us a sense of how many Americans roughly are still seeking assistance or how many are manifested for upcoming flights? And are there particular countries that are still challenging?
MR BROWNLEE: Yeah. Thank you very much, Courtney, for that question. As the ambassador just said, we had multiple thousands who, when we put – in India when we put the call out for expressions of interest in a flight, and yet over this weekend, our staff in India literally cold-called 800 people asking if they wanted to get on a flight today. We got 10 positive responses, 10 out of 800 calls. So that’s just an indication of the uncertainty of some of these numbers we’re looking at.
With that caveat in mind, let me say we’re tracking about 24,000, maybe 25,000 people who have still – who are on our list as having expressed some interest. We’re finding the same sort of thing in Peru – I think I’ve mentioned to you guys before – we literally had people show up at the airport, suitcase in hand, ready to get on an airplane, and then say, “No, I think I’m going to ride it out here.” So very difficult to say for sure. The number we’re tracking is in that range, 24, 25,000, and we’ll see what happens as we go forward. Over.
MR BROWN: Thanks. For the next question, let’s open the line of Robbie Gramer.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. For Assistant Secretary Wells, you mentioned Afghans coming over the border from Iran. So based on what you’re tracking, is Iran actively expelling these hundreds of thousands of Afghans or are they going of their own volition? And what type of risk does this mass movement pose to Afghanistan, both for the health of the population but also for the fragile political situation there? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR WELLS: I have no information suggesting that Afghans are being expelled from Iran. I think what we’ve seen over the course of the – over – of the last year or longer, far before the emergence of COVID, a return of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan as a result of the worsening economic conditions inside of Iran. And then with the outbreak of what we understand to be a sort of a virulent outbreak of COVID-19 inside of Iran, an intensified flow of Afghans across the border, so – particularly into Herat, but then obviously with the ability to spread through and to travel throughout Afghanistan.
So it does pose a challenge to Afghanistan. The regulation of the border is not such that everybody can be quarantined. The capacity is not such that everybody can be traced, and so Afghanistan has to deal with what is a potentially quite destabilizing injection of the disease into the body – the body politic. And I think you’ve seen President Ghani speak to this publicly. You’ve seen the Government of Afghanistan institute measures to try to impose greater social distancing and lockdown in Herat and in other areas of the country. It is difficult in a country with a high degree of insecurity and low levels of literacy to be able to put out the public messages as effectively sometimes as the government would like. And so, the cases have increased in Afghanistan and – like every country in the world, and the Government of Afghanistan is now left to struggle with the ramifications of it.
MR BROWN: Okay. We have one more question in the queue. Might have time for another if someone wants to queue in, but please open the line of Said Arikat.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have one quick question. I know you talked about repatriating Americans from overseas. First of all, you mentioned the window – a window while they can. Is that window going to close at any time soon? And the second part of this question: There are literally tens of thousands of Saudi students, for instance, in the United States. Is the department helping the repatriating them to Saudi Arabia or a similar condition – similar situation? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you, Said, for your question. Ian Brownlee here. There is no single date on which the window will close. We are looking at this country by country, and as we find that the demand for assistance in returning to the United States diminishes to almost nothing, we are terminating – we are preparing to terminate flights chartered by the State Department from those countries. At the same time, we are working closely through our Economic Bureau with the commercial carriers to assist them in restoring or in setting up commercial options coming from those countries. We’ve been quite successful in this regard in central and northern South America, and we are hoping to expand this, this facilitation of the restoration of commercial flights through other areas. So while the State Department’s chartered flights are not going to go on indefinitely, while they are going to come to an end at certain dates around the world in different countries, we are seeking to move to provide that commercial service thereafter. Over.
Oh, I’m sorry, with regard to – maybe Ambassador Wells can speak better to the situation of Saudi citizens in the United States. I can tell you the repatriation task force is focused on bringing U.S. citizens to the United States. Over.
AMBASSADOR WELLS: Sorry, I don’t have Saudi in my gambit , so I’m not able to speak to their situation. Over.
MR BROWNLEE: You’re – I apologize, Ambassador.
MR BROWN: I can take that as a taken question. We’ll get back to you, Said. All right, that looks like all the questions we have for today. Thanks, everybody, for joining. And thank you to our briefers for taking the time out of their busy day to talk to each of us. This is the end of the call. Contents of the embargo – of the call are lifted. Thanks again for joining.