Ambassador Brian A. Nichols interview with ZiFM Stereo on U.S. COVID-19 Response in Zimbabwe

Ambassador Brian A. Nichols

Public Affairs Section
United States Embassy

TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Nichols interview with ZiFM Stereo on U.S. COVID-19 Response in Zimbabwe ( April 29, 2020)

START:

Martha Mamombe (Martha): What do you think will be the impact of the coronavirus on how people travel and socialize? Can we expect life to go back to normal at some point? And if so, what will the new normal be in your opinion?

Ambassador Brian A. Nichols (Amb Nichols): Well, those are big questions that everyone is asking themselves. In terms of travel right now, the U.S. government is recommending against international travel and even against some domestic travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.

So I expect that until we have a better handle on coronavirus I think that travel will be very limited, only for essential purposes.   It would involve some use of voluntary quarantines for quite some time, and maybe mandatory quarantines in some cases. Social distancing will continue to be important, so it will be difficult to pack planes with all the passengers that could fit in normal times.

And I think the global economy is vastly reduced because of COVID-19, so the reasons that many people travel are reduced. Obviously, Zimbabwe is an incredibly beautiful tourist
destination and we have seen a global drop in tourism and that’s very difficult.

How do we get out of this? I think there are a few things that we need to do. We need to flatten the curve. That means right now social distancing, hand washing, wearing a face covering if you are able to do so. Those things will help slow the transmission of COVID-19 and help keep ourselves and others safe.

The next step will be contact-tracing, something that scientists and doctors call surveillance, broadly. And that means, if someone ends up being infected with COVID-19, finding all the people they could have possibly infected and making sure those people have not come down with the disease.

The third part, I think, is going to be coming up with more effective treatments. The entire medical community around the world is working to find some of the effective treatments for COVID-19.

And finally, a key step will be the development of a vaccine so that there will be much greater immunity around the world to COVID-19. So as we look at those options, those steps, that’s how we get out of this. But I think many of those things are still months away. So we have a lot of work to do between now and then.

Martha: So, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the world’s obvious unpreparedness to deal with a catastrophic health crisis- this is according to experts. We’ve seen first world countries as well as developing countries battle and scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus. What lessons can be drawn from this pandemic?

Amb. Nichols: I think there are a number of lessons. First, our basic investment in health care and I think that is something, as you say, that’s a global challenge. For Zimbabwe in particular we were already seeing big problems with the investments in the healthcare sector in terms of equipment, supplies, salaries for healthcare workers, repairs to hospitals, building of new hospitals and clinics. So, those were all significant challenges here and they are much more acute now that COVID-19 is here.

Martha: How do we prepare ourselves in the future?

Amb. Nichols:   I think that for all countries we need to increase investments in all the areas that I mentioned and the United States has been a leading health partner around the world. And certainly in Zimbabwe we’ve provided over a billion dollars in health care assistance to the people of this nation that has been focused largely on HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

We have also cooperated on many other health issues over the last two decades, or really I should say since independence, and we’re going to continue to do that.  We have just announced yesterday (Wednesday, April 22) additional assistance for COVID-19 which brings our bilateral assistance for COVID-19 for Zimbabwe up to about US$3 million. I expect that we will be announcing further assistance in the coming days.

We are very much focused on using the assets that we have in place in Zimbabwe to support the COVID-19 response. We already have a U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) office here with epidemiologists, physicians and health experts across a full range of issues who are working on COVID-19 now, providing training, for example, on how to follow up contacts of someone who has tested positive; laboratory preparedness; treatment options.  Five of them are working in the WHO (World Health Organization) and Ministry of Health and Child Care working groups. So, they are there every day providing their technical expertise to sharpen and improve the COVID-19 response here in Zimbabwe.

Martha: So, speaking of the WHO, the U.S. President Donald Trump has been obviously criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; particularly how he has looked for “scapegoats” and “villains” to blame in this whole fight. First, he called it the “Chinese virus” on numerous occasions, on record, possibly fuelling xenophobia; and the U.S. withdrew funding for the WHO again over its perceived poor handling of the coronavirus. Would you say this was justified? Was it necessary?

Amb. Nichols: When you look at the WHO response there have been serious problems with their response from the beginning. And I think the President was fully justified to demand a better performance and an investigation for 60 to 90 days to figure out exactly what happened at the beginning.

Let’s keep in mind that the United States has been the largest donor to WHO for its entire history, and what we are talking about is future funding for WHO while this investigation is going on. But if you look at some of the things that happened, obviously China did not report –as it was required to do –  that it had a health crisis of international concern within its borders. The WHO did not accept the red flags that were raised by Taiwan as they observed what was going on in Wuhan. And the WHO was very slow to move on this at the global level going forward. So I think the President was absolutely correct to take the steps that he has taken.  But you know this is a temporary measure, 60 to 90 days, so we are going to have to see what happens after that.

Here in Zimbabwe we were going forward with the programming that has already been funded for WHO implementation- US$470,000 in COVID-19 response. We will continue to work with them on the response here as well as working with the Ministry of Health and Child Care and other development partners. We are all in this together, but we all have to uphold the standards that are necessary in professionalism and that’s all we are asking.

Martha: You don’t think, in your opinion, that the WHO was professional enough in its handling of the pandemic, when it first broke out in China, is that what you are saying?

Amb. Nichols: Well, I think there was a lot of dissembling by the Communist Party of China and what they reported to the WHO. And I think the WHO was under an obligation to look into that more carefully and to hold them to a higher standard, well, to the high standard that all countries are held to at the time.  So I think that’s the concern that our President has expressed and I fully support those concerns. I think that there are a lot of questions that still remain to be answered at the global level.

Martha: You mentioned earlier that the U.S. availed funding worth US$3 million (USD) to Zimbabwe in response to COVID-19. How will these funds be released and what areas of need will they be channeled towards?

Amb. Nichols:  We are working in a number of areas: laboratory strengthening and preparedness; training for laboratory officials, making sure they have the things that they need. One of the advantages of our major investments on HIV/ AIDS is that we have some of the machines that can analyze viral loads and viruses and people’s blood already in laboratories that we support all over the country. So the decentralization of laboratory testing is something that’s being intensively supported by our existing investments, and we’re providing the training and oversight so that, that can go forward. As I mentioned earlier, contact tracing; some of our experts have already participated in training two weekends ago in Mutare, for example.

The other areas, trying to help people better understand how they can protect themselves and others.  Communication strategies, we are doing that through the hospitals and clinics that we support as well as communities of faith that we are in touch with: churches, community organizations around the country. We are working through our existing PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) partners to do that. That is helping us already use the people we have.  They are getting additional training in how to protect themselves and others with the right equipment and the right techniques for treating people who might have COVID-19 in addition to any other health problems that could have brought them to the clinics or hospitals that we are working with.

We are buying soap. We are creating hand-washing stations. We are providing hand sanitizer for all the locations and partners that we have. So those are some of the things that we’re doing so far.  In addition to that US$3 million in funding that we are using, we are also modifying our existing programming. For example, we are working to feed over one million Zimbabweans with the World Food Program (WFP). In order to do that safely, with social distancing and the hand sanitizing and the personal protective equipment, is a challenge.  We have totally revamped the system that we use for feeding with the WFP. Just in the last two weeks, we fed over a million people and have done so in a way that they are able to get information about COVID-19.

People can get screened if they have any of the symptoms or warning signs; we can refer them to a clinic for follow-up. So we are doing a lot of things with our existing programs as well to ensure that Zimbabweans can be as healthy as they can be.

Martha: The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously a global health threat and emergency and we have seen governments ordering lockdowns and other measures including forced or voluntarily quarantines for individuals from abroad with all those with suspected cases of COVID-19.What has been the situation in your diplomatic mission here in Zimbabwe? Have you maintained your staff, or some have gone back home? What has been the situation?

Amb. Nichols: Even in advance of the lockdown, we took measures to create social distancing in our staff. The vast majority of people in our embassy are now working remotely if they can. Some people obviously have to go in. We are up, we are functioning and we are providing our diplomatic services and consular services to people who need them and to our government. But if you go into the offices, you are not going to see very many people there; there are just a handful of people in a very big campus in the Westgate-Bluffhill area. So, that’s been a first step.

In terms of our staff in the embassy and who is here, about 40 percent of our staff have departed the country with their families, which thins out our presence here in the country. We want to make sure that all of our staff is safe and healthy, so a number of them have returned to the United States, but we are fully operational and able to take on any of the challenges. We want to make sure that we are here to support our Zimbabwean friends and we are going to keep working very hard in order to do so.

Martha: Has the U.S. closed its borders to outsiders as has been reported in some sections of the media? And when will that likely change?

Amb. Nichols: We haven’t closed our borders. We have taken a few steps.  One, we are discouraging international travel. So international arrivals to the United States are down, but we continue to accept international visitors; many people have important reasons to go to the United States and we want to make sure that we facilitate that.  But we will not be processing immigrant visas and immigration to the United States for people who want to go there and live permanently for a few months until the situation with regard to COVID-19 is a little bit more normal.

Martha: What provisions have you made for U.S. citizens here in Zimbabwe?

Amb. Nichols: We have said to our citizens here that they should strongly consider returning to the United States while there are commercial options to do so. Fortunately, there are a few commercial flights in and out of Zimbabwe. Obviously, this is a very unpredictable disease and we believe we have the best health care in the world in the United States and we encourage our citizens to strongly consider returning there to take advantage of it.

That being said, for those who are here, we are providing them with our normal consular and American citizen services. I just had a meeting with some of our wardens – that is what we call the people who provide support to private Americans who are out the community who are in touch with larger groups of Americans. I had a good conversation with them like this, virtually, not in person, to talk about how they are doing. We are in close contact with them. We want to make sure that any American who needs assistance gets it. They can call the embassy. They can e-mail us, and we will attend to any concerns that they might have. The safety and welfare of Americans is our top priority and we will continue to focus on that.

Martha: One last question. With over 855,000 COVID-19 cases in the United States, your country has been hit the hardest. So, being a super-power; I’m sure you know the world will be watching, inevitably to see how you will survive this. Are you confident that the U.S. will flatten the curve and open up its economy this year?

Amb. Nichols: Absolutely! You know Americans are tough; we are resilient. You look at the response, we have done a great job of surging resources to the places that need it in our country.  The United States has a large population, over 335 million people, and the epidemic inside our country is very much focused in some specific geographic areas – the New York urban area has been very hard hit as well as upstate, Washington, California and some other areas. So the President has surged resources to those communities that have been hard hit. For example, he has deployed hospital ships to support medical care, used the Army Corps of Engineers to build temporary hospital facilities, and done a lot of things nationally to support our response.

Ambassador and Dr. Deborah Birx, whom you may be familiar with from her work on PEPFAR, is leading the response from a medical standpoint.  We have the top physicians in the United States working on this, and the top researchers. We have repurposed many of our factories and industrial capability to produce needed items like ventilators, surgical masks and N95 respirators. So I’m fully confident that we will bounce back from this and that we will have the measures in place to safely re-open.

The President has said that’s going to be a phased process depending on local conditions in the different parts of the United States. We are a continental-sized country. From the Atlantic to the Pacific you have different conditions, so some parts the United States will open up sooner than in other parts. In the meantime, we are providing support to our citizens and we are focusing very hard on their health and their economic wellbeing and we are going to continue to do that.

Martha: Lastly, Ambassador, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate this. I know that you know many Zimbabweans are insecure and are uncertain about the future. I think a lot of us are looking for hope where ever we can get it. So for Zimbabweans out there thinking- what are we going to do? We are a small country, we are not as big as the United States, we are not a super power and we don’t have the capacities that your country has. What is your message of hope to ordinary Zimbabweans?

Amb. Nichols: Well, the world stands with you. We have provided so much assistance; over US$3 billion in assistance to Zimbabwe since its independence and of that, over a billion has been in the healthcare sector. We are going to stand with the people of Zimbabwe. And I think you are seeing others in the international community working to do that.

I would encourage Zimbabweans to focus on the things that you can control. Among those are social distancing. Please, I see folks maybe lining up outside a store or something like that, to buy needed items.  If people can just space themselves out a little bit more, that will help a lot.

Hand-washing – I know not everyone has access to running water, but wash your hands as frequently as you can. If you can cover your face, that helps you and others stay safer when you are not able to distance yourself as much. Those things can really help.

For the kids out there, if there are any books that you have and can read or study while you are at home, do that. Those are all things you can do for yourselves in this incredibly difficult time. It’s a global challenge, but we are going to get through this and the American people will stand with the people of Zimbabwe always.

Martha: Thank you so much Ambassador Nichols for your time with us today. I hope you are safe. I hope that your Embassy staff is safe; and I hope to have you again sometime when this is all over so that we can discuss how Zimbabweans can prepare themselves for any possible future health emergency…so thank you very much.

Amb. Nichols: Thanks so much Martha, stay well.