Caribbean nations struggling to save lives and prevent the deadly spread of the coronavirus in their vulnerable territories should not look to the United States as they seek to acquire scarce but much-needed protective gear to fight the global pandemic.
In the past week, three Caribbean nations —the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Barbados —have all had container loads of personal protective equipment purchased from U.S. vendors blocked from entering their territories by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A spokesperson from U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed to the Miami Herald that the agency is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent distributors from diverting personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks and gloves, overseas. Ventilators also are on the prohibited list.
“We are talking about personal protective equipment; we’re talking about durable medical devices and gloves, gowns, ventilators as well,” Bahamas Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands told the Miami Herald.
The blockade experienced by Caribbean nations followed President Donald Trump’s April 3 signing of the little-known Defense Production Act. While the order gave the federal government more control over the procurement of coronavirus-related supplies, it also allowed the administration to ban certain exports. Trump invoked the act following a Twitter attack against U.S. manufacturer 3M over the export of its highly sought N95 respiratory face masks.
In a press release, the Minnesota-based company said the Trump administration wanted it to cease exports of the masks to Latin America and Caribbean nations. Pushing back on the request, 3M said such a move carried “humanitarian consequences.”
Soon after the president’s order, Caribbean governments and shippers started hearing from Customs and Border Protection, learning that shipments of vital supplies had been blocked.
On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection informed a shipping company that its Nassau-bound shipment of medical supplies could not be offloaded in the Bahamas and the containers had to be returned to Miami “for inspection.” But even before that, Sands said the Bahamian government had already been fielding multiple “complaints from freight forwarders and shipping companies that they were having challenges clearing certain items.”
In respect of Barbados, it was a shipment of 20 ventilators purchased by a philanthropist that were barred, Health Minister Lt. Col Jeffrey Bostic told his nation in a live broadcast on April 5.
In the Cayman Islands, it was eight ventilators and 50,000 masks that were produced and purchased in the U.S. and removed from a Grand Cayman-bound ship in Miami — also on Tuesday.
Like Cayman, the Bahamas was also forced to turn to diplomatic channels for help. Following the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, Sands said, it appeared they “were fairly close to a resolution.” But on Friday, the shipments were still being held by Customs and Border Protection, said a source familiar with the situation.
Earlier in the week, the State Department suggested to the Miami Herald that media reports about seized medical exports might not be accurate. Late Friday, the White House issued a different statement after the ministers went public.
“The United States, like many other nations, is currently experiencing a high demand for ventilators, masks, gloves, and respirators that is straining available supplies and production capacity,” a senior administration official told the Herald. “President Trump has made clear that this Administration will prioritize the well-being of American citizens as we continue to take bold, decisive action to help slow the spread of the virus and save lives.”
The official went on to say that the administration “is working to limit the impacts of PPE domestic allocation on other nations. The United States will continue to send equipment and supplies not needed domestically to other countries, and we will do more as we are able.”
During Friday’s Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House, President Trump acknowledged the high demand for the United States’ ventilators and testing kits, which Caribbean health officials have said are also banned from export.
But when asked by a reporter about the Caribbean and the accusation that the U.S. was blocking personal protective equipment in certain cases, Trump implied that the shipments were being caught up in drug trafficking and seizures.
In his address Trump said:
“We’re the envy of the world in terms of ventilators. Germany would like some, France would like some; we’re going to help countries out. Spain needs them desperately. Italy needs them desperately,” he continued.
“Well, what we’re doing, we have a tremendous force out there, a Naval force, and we’re blocking the shipment of drugs,” he said. “So maybe what they’re doing is stopping ships that they want to look at. We’re not blocking. What we’re doing is we’re making sure; we don’t want drugs in our country, and especially with the over 160 miles of wall, it’s getting very hard to get through the border. They used to drive right through the border like they owned it, and in a certain way, they did.”