WHO builds up COVID-19 airlift capacity to help Africa

Cargo loaded onto a big white cargo plane.

Commercial cargo aircraft are criss-crossing the globe with humanitarian relief to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced it is organizing flights to Africa, while other governments and private entities continue to arrange airlifts of their own.

A United Nations “Solidarity Flight” was scheduled to leave Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today to transport urgent medical supplies to other countries in Africa, where the WHO says resources are desperately needed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

The WHO cargo is being transported by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), and includes face shields, gloves, goggles, gowns, masks, medical aprons, thermometers and ventilators.

The cargo also includes a large quantity of medical supplies donated by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Jack Ma Foundation Initiative to reverse COVID-19 in Africa. The African Union, through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is providing technical support and coordination for the distribution of the supplies.

“Commercial flights are grounded and medical cargo is stuck. We can stop this virus in its tracks, but we’ve got to work together. WFP is committed to getting vital medical supplies to front lines and shielding medical workers as they save lives,” said David Beasley, WFP’s Executive Director. “Our air bridges need to be fully funded to do this, and we stand ready to transport frontline health and humanitarian workers as well as medical cargo,” he added.

The Solidarity Flight is part of a larger effort to ship lifesaving medical supplies to 95 countries. 

The WHO said its logistics hub in Dubai, staffed by a team of seven, has been working around the clock to dispatch over 130 shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) and laboratory supplies.

The WHO set up an air hub in Addis Ababa this week to help transport protective equipment, medical supplies and medical workers across Africa, and to evacuate responders from work zones.

A team of 25 WFP aviation and logistics staff is based at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, managing the 24-hour operation. The team manages warehouse space for dry bulk, temperature-controlled and cold storage cargo and its onward transport by air. WFP also provides dedicated cargo tracking, warehouse management and customer service to countries across Africa in collaboration with the Africa CDC. 

“The medical supplies are timely as the continent still has a window of opportunity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC. 

The WFP is calling for $350 million to establish vital humanitarian hubs around the world to facilitate the storage and dispatch of essential medical cargo, set up air transport links for cargo and personnel, contract charter vessels for shipping services, and provide passenger air and Medevac services for humanitarian and health workers. Currently, WFP says it has received only 24% ($84 million) of the requested amount. 

Project Airbridge

In related news, eight flights under the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Project Airbridge landed Sunday, April 12, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, the agency said. As of April 13, the airlift has completed 37 flights with an additional 43 scheduled. Medical supplies delivered so far include: 7 million gloves (New York), 19 million gloves (Chicago) and 13 million gloves, 97,000 gowns and 106,000 shoe covers (Columbus).

FEMA also identified Western Global Airlines as the latest all-cargo carrier to participate in the program alongside Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), National Airlines, Kalitta Air, UPS (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX). Last summer, freight forwarder Flexport sued Western Global for allegedly failing to perform under its charter contract because aircraft repeatedly required unscheduled maintenance and replacement aircraft were inferior.

Similarly, Qatar Airways is operating an air bridge with a fleet of freighters rotating between China and France on behalf of the French government.

Also, the first face masks made by SanMar Corp., a Seattle-area apparel and accessories supplier, were shipped from Knoxville, Tennessee, and Honduras last week with the help of UPS aircraft, according to the company’s LinkedIn page. SanMar is part of a coalition of U.S. apparel companies working with the White House to build a supply chain to produce millions of masks, which the federal government will distribute to hospitals and healthcare workers battling the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The coalition includes textile companies such as Hanesbrands, Fruit of the Loom, Parkdale Mills and five other companies that are re-tooling their manufacturing capabilities to quickly make millions of face masks each week. 

“We are doing daily calls with the White House and are part of this effort as a result of our ability to make and sew textiles here in the U.S., as well as in Central America,” said Renton Leversedge, chief customer officer for SanMar, in a news release. “We have manufacturing expertise and we have scale, which enables us to take part in this very important work.”

In Canada, a Cargojet (TSX: CJT) freighter arrived early Monday morning at Edmonton International Airport from Shanghai with a shipment of PPE to protect medical workers and first responders in Alberta. The flight was arranged by Alberta Health Services.