Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by Lt. Col. Michael Smith, Chief of the Medical Readiness Exercises of the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, and Col. Mohamed Tazi Chibi, Chief, Moroccan Military Health Service Inspectorate. They will discuss the Medical Readiness (MEDREX) Program and Concept Development Event occurring September 13th through the 17th – this week.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Lt. Col. Smith and Col. Mohamed Tazi Chibi. We will try to get to as many of your questions as we can during the briefing.
At any time during the briefing, if you would like to ask a question live, please indicate that by clicking on the “raise hand” button. Alternatively, you can type your full question directly into the Q&A for me to read to our speakers. Please include your name, media outlet, and location when you do so. If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Lt. Col. Michael Smith, Chief, Medical Readiness Exercises, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa. Over to you, Lt. Col. Smith.
Lt. Col. Smith: Thank you, ma’am. Good afternoon, everybody. This is, as just indicated, Lt. Col. Michael Smith. I am indeed the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force Chief of Medical Readiness Exercises here in Vicenza, Italy. Here beside me I have my good friend and colleague, Col. Dr. Mohamed Tazi. He is the Division Chief of the Moroccan Military Health Services. We also have with us my new good friend, Lt. Col. Dr. Chelsea Payne, the AFRICOM Command Preventive Medicine Physician. And I just want to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you all today.
But I would like to begin by saying that we are committed to strengthening our partnerships and capacity by working in close cooperation with medical professionals across the African continent, and never has this been more important as COVID-19 continues to impact our world.
U.S. engagement with countries in Africa, as we all know, is not new. For the past few decades, the United States has worked with African militaries building medical capacity, working with training events, training engagements in a number of key skill-set areas.
Medical Readiness Exercises allow U.S. forces to train and operate in unfamiliar environments, share medical procedures, and enhance delivery of multinational general surgery and trauma response in support of regional, UN, and African Union missions.
The shared exchanges of best medical practices results in strengthening the capacity of not only the U.S. but also our African partner medical capacity and their – and generally their health services.
This week, we have medical professionals from across the spectrum of the U.S. Army medical community along with many of our African medical partners. This planning event is giving us not only the opportunity to lay the groundwork for our FY22 execution plan, but also an expanded plan for the next five years.
Our discussions so far have centered on military capabilities for testing, treatment, isolation, and quarantine of infectious diseases generally and, of course, best practices and lessons learned on the COVID response and other medical threats as these have continued to impact us worldwide, as we all know.
These medical exchanges continue to enhance the effectiveness of both U.S. and African partner militaries by improving the health of the force and mission readiness. This in turn increases the security and stability across the continent. These collaborations in numerous cases have life-saving results.
The Medical Training Exercise Program is part of a broader series of military-to-military engagements that truly demonstrate the strong partnership between the U.S. military and our African Partners.
Thank you very much. Dr. Tazi.
Col. Tazi Chibi: I’m Col. Dr. Mohamed Tazi Chibi. I’m a Morocco Royal Armed Forces medical planner for the current event, and particularly for MEDREX. I’d like to thank you for having me and also to thank SETAF for this opportunity to attend the Medical Readiness Exercise [inaudible] event for the first time in person. So we’re going to have plenty of time to discuss what – what really happened during this first experience for us in Morocco. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you.
Lt. Col. Payne: Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. So I’m Lt. Col. Payne. I’m a preventive medicine physician. I work at AFRICOM and oversee force health protection across 53 countries. And a lot of that focus is on theater entry, disease and nonbattle injuries, air medical evacuation, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s really [inaudible] to be here today and to look at how the pandemic might impact the exercises and how we can improve communication and collaboration as we move forward.
Moderator: Excellent. Thank you for those opening remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. For those asking questions, please indicate if you would like to ask a question by clicking the “raise hand” button. Alternatively, you can type the question directly into the Q&A tab. Please type in your name, location, and affiliation along with your question. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: Medical Readiness Program and Concept Development Event occurring this week, September 17th through – September 13th through the 17th.
Okay. We have a few questions that were submitted in advance, and so we ask that if others would like to continue submitting questions in English, they may do so on Twitter and via email to AFMediaHub@state.gov. Please be considerate to other journalists on the call and make your questions as brief as possible in the interest of time.
So our first question, we just want to get a highlight and an overview of what this planning exercise entails. We know that the U.S. military works a lot in the area of planning. So could you talk to us a little bit about what the planning entails and how we use our international partners to implement the plans that are in place.
Lt. Col. Smith: Thank you. So the planning first and foremost entails a lot of work. We go through about a two-year process to start the planning with our partners before we actually conduct a MEDREX, so it’s a very extensive process. This two-year process allows us to not only gain buy-in and understanding of what the MEDREX Program, the Medical Readiness Exercise Program is, but also what it is not.
For our purposes, we have to maintain that the Medical Readiness Exercise Program is for U.S. military medical professional training. We provide these exercises so that they can get experience in new and unfamiliar environments that will enhance their capabilities to respond to any kind of crisis or pandemic, in support of pandemic operations even in the United States.
So the effects are wide-ranging, but again, for the planning purposes we get our partners involved from the very beginning because we obviously rely upon the coordination with their highest-level leadership to allow us not only access to the country, access to their medical facilities, and access to their personnel, which is obviously a huge investment on their part and much appreciated.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll go live now to a question from one of our participating journalists. We will go to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Mr. Ateba, please unmute and ask your question.
Question: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you for doing this. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. I just wanted you to give us a bit more details on the people participating in these exercises. Do you – can you give us names of countries and how many people in all will be taking place – I mean be participating? Thank you.
Lt. Col. Smith: Sure. Thank you for that question. So for this actual exercise, and we – with the COVID situation, obviously, we had to change the way we do business. We used to have these events strictly face to face, in person. However, with COVID, we had to switch to more of a virtual engagement model, which actually has been excellent because we have about 50 people here in person.
However, with our virtual aspects, we have been able to increase that to about 80 people all over the world, and that means the U.S., Europe, and Africa. And with that, we have about seven different countries from Africa along with a number of different units from the United States – active duty units. We have AFRICOM, of course, our U.S. Africa Command down here from Germany. We also have a number of our State Partnership Program country – National Guard State Partnership Program representatives here.
So the countries that we have here are very interesting. We have a – all the way from the top to the bottom. We have Morocco, of course. We have Senegal. We have Ghana. We are working with Chad. We are working with South Africa, Angola, Kenya, and Rwanda. So you can see we are dispersed all across the African continent.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll go to one of our questions that we have that was sent in, or one of our questions previously mentioned. Can you talk to us a little bit about how COVID affects the Medical Readiness Training Program? You mentioned that a little bit at the top that it causes to do a lot more things virtually, but since you will be on the ground for this exercise, what are the changes that have to be made implicating COVID?
Lt. Col. Smith: Sure. Well, obviously we have to pay more attention to the COVID protective procedures: distancing, face mask covering, hand-washing. And actually that’s resulted in a lot of positive secondary outcomes. For example, even amongst the military, we obviously have a lot of training on public health issues and just personal hygiene. This has increased the awareness and the – of our military personnel, for example, in all of those procedures, which has helped keep us safe and as COVID-free as anybody can be or any group can be. So that’s on a personal level.
On a project level that means that we go into the countries – well, we have to put a little bit more money into personal protective equipment and all that, but again, we do that not only to keep ourselves safe but also our African partners. The last thing we want – the doctor’s creed is to do no harm, and that’s exactly what we do not want to do. So we want to go in. We’re there to assist our partners, not to do any further harm to them. So we do increase a little bit of our personal protective equipment.
Again, the virtual aspect – but another side benefit to the personal – to the virtual aspect is that that has allowed us to access some of the higher-level decision-makers that like, for example, Dr. Tazi, who is a very important person in his country – he still obviously has to respond – we all have a chain of command. But now we can actually have more immediate access to those higher-level chains of command and that accelerates the decision-making process, because instead of coming to a conference where they may not have time, now we can get to them in a very punctual manner and get the decisions and the questions responded to, and that has facilitated the planning immensely.
Lt. Col. Payne: Thank you, sir. I would just add the vaccination is an important part of our strategy too, along with all those other preventive measures. And so we have new guidance that really mandates for most of our service members to be vaccinated and increasing awareness of those who are civilian and may not be. And so that’s part of how we protect ourselves and protect our partners.
Moderator: Col. Tazi, could you add to that as well from the Moroccan perspective and as a partner nation?
Col. Tazi Chibi: I would like to point out that in Morocco, we have all the military – before starting the MEDREX, all military, all the doctors were vaccinated. That doesn’t mean that we were not following the rules, but we’re not testing everybody that – who are – yeah, but it helps. It’s kind of – because we had no cases and we’ve had no cases so far among the personnel of the military and the medical personnel, either American or Moroccan. So it helps a lot to just know that everybody was vaccinated without any exceptions. None. All of them.
Moderator: Excellent. Thank you. We have a question from Pearl Matibe of Power FM 98.7. Pearl, would you like to ask your question live? If so, Pearl, you can unmute, or I will ask your question as it was written in the chat, in the Q&A. Pearl’s question is, “Will any countries from Southern Africa be participating? Are Botswana and South Africa participating in the MEDREX?”
Lt. Col. Smith: Well, as I mentioned, South Africa is actually participating. So that is – yes, we are across the African continent. Botswana we work with on a number of other engagements. We do not have a plan currently to work with them, but they are – they’re wonderful partners with us on a number of different medical exercises and engagements, so yes.
Lt. Col. Payne: She’s muted.
Moderator: I’m sorry about that. How does the U.S. Government decide which countries will participate in the MEDREX program? Is there a process where a request goes out to different countries and you check which ones would like to participate, or are these with countries that you haven’t had many MEDREX programs on? How do you select the participating countries?
Lt. Col. Smith: Well, we like to very much consider this a true partnership, and so in order to make such a decision we have to get input from a number of different parties. And that – again, that starts with – I think that the – where it really starts is in part with our U.S. embassy personnel, the Office of Security Cooperation that operates in U.S. embassies in Africa. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. They let us know that they’re – that the nation that they work in is a ready and capable partner to work with. Then we go into some mission analysis and determine if given the limited resources that we have, because we all know that resources are not – are limited, that we make a determination of those that we believe are most accepting of us to come in and work with them and able to accept us to come in and work with them.
The MEDREX Program has a number of different objectives that we have to meet. And so, for example, we have to be able to conduct a number of procedures because, again, as I said, this is for the training of U.S. personnel and to make sure that our medical personnel gets an opportunity to work in these different environments. So we want to make sure that the work level is high enough that it’s worth the time. So all of these things go into the consideration. It starts with the embassy. We obviously – the partner nation gets a vote, so they say whether they believe that they can benefit from our impact. It’s not just us going one way, right.
Moderator: Okay. I just want to make a pitch for our participating journalists. If you do have a question, please use the “raise hand” button or, alternatively, you can put your question in the Q&A.
Our next question is, “What does cooperation with African partners look like for SETAF?”
Lt. Col. Smith: Oh, man. What does it not look like? It looks like increased understanding of the situation in Africa. It increases the understanding of what our partners in the military are doing, what their procedures are. It looks like benefiting young girls that have had their faces bitten off by hyenas, and we’ve worked with our partner nations to sew their face back on and reconstruct their lives, both physically and mentally. It looks like repairing a broken bone that has been broken for years and reformed poorly, reshaping that bone to make somebody physically able to walk again.
These are all the kind of things that we have done, we have actually seen and experienced. It is also helping to increase the population of our African partners as we often are called to work on – with women’s reproductive health issues. We often assist in the birthing of new African partners. So we’re doing our part there as well.
Moderator: Well, that provides us with some really great imagery on how we really are working together as partners.
Col. Tazi, could you talk a little bit about African militaries and why might a military have some hesitancy for working with the U.S. military in this Medical Readiness Program? Or perhaps there is no hesitancy.
Col. Tazi Chibi: As far as I’m concerned, I’m still waiting for hesitancy to – because we are – I think we’ve never hesitated before. And then I’d like you to translate this question because I’m not – I’m not at all. I don’t feel like I’m – we have been hesitant in any of the events. Because it’s not the only events that we’ve been organizing together. It’s a two-handed cooperation between our two countries. Can you imagine how many? So we are not – we can’t afford to be hesitant.
Moderator: Well said. Thank you. Just a reminder to our journalists, to ask your questions you can hit the “raise hand” button or, alternatively, you can put your question in the Q&A. I do see – let’ see if we have any questions. None so far. So another question is about the role of the host country when you have these MEDREX programs. What is the role of the host country? And perhaps, Col. Tazi, you can add a little bit to this as a participating country. What do you expect the host country to do?
Col. Tazi Chibi: First of all, I’ll maybe let Col. Smith comment on how good we were in helping this event to occur, because it’s our first experience, and I think we are the only country which organized for one time MEDREX. Other countries have early – this is the first time for us.
Lt. Col. Smith: Most of them, yes.
Col. Tazi Chibi: Yeah. But we’ve been working hand in hand, and it all started with recruiting the patients. The medical providers, U.S. medical providers are there for only a short time, 20 to 21 days – it’s very short. So we want them to have the maximum of the benefits from their stay with us. So we start, like, more than two to three months to recruit patients in surgery and difficult specialties. We’ve been publicizing this event all around in order to get some interest in that. We’ve been also trying to get the match of each – of each provider, insurance provider to get, like, a sponsor, what we called a sponsor. We don’t want them then to be confused and start from the day one as if they – and I was amazed: it doesn’t take them two or three days that they start to get along with everybody, feel like they’re home. And I don’t know if it’s our efforts, all of us, or it’s that specificity of U.S. military, but I was amazed. In two or three days they were like home, and this is the impression that I had. I don’t know if you share the same.
Lt. Col. Smith: Well, I’m a little bit biased because when I started my international career, Morocco was my first country. So, yes. And your question is – and I know we only have a short amount of time, so I can’t really answer the question, because what don’t they do for us? Particularly Morocco, but all of our countries, I can say pretty much the same. Obviously, again, it starts with them going forward to their leadership and presenting what we are offering to the country and getting the buy-in so that we can actually conduct the exercise, but getting that initial agreement to come in, again, working with the embassy; they help us coordinate with the embassy to make sure that we are meeting with the ambassador’s objectives as well. And then it goes all the way to once we get on the ground. I mean, I can’t – there I could not stop, because the Moroccans provided us with lodging, they provided us with transportation, they provided us with food, they provided us with friendship, they provided us with professional opportunities to increase our skill sets. I could go on.
Moderator: Thank you. So that actually allows us to get another question in from Pearl Matibe from Power FM 98.7. Her question is, “In the past you have conducted actual medical assistance to the local people in Morocco. Will you do that again and why do you have that engagement with local, and have you done that elsewhere in Africa?” So just to hinge on that question is to tell us a little bit how the MEDREX programs are mutually beneficial – that is, to the United States and to the host country.
Lt. Col. Smith: Sure, sure. Well, obviously I’ll defer part of that question to my good friend and colleague. But for the U.S. medical personnel, like I said, it offers us the opportunity to go into a new environment. And sometimes people say, well, why are we concerned about Africa? Well, number one, they’re a great partner. And as African – the nations that we work with in Africa have all been great partners. So that’s number one. But the work that we do in the MEDREX also has a very positive impact on the flexibility, the professional flexibility of our medical personnel to pick up and go to any location. So, for example, when the COVID situation first hit the United States, one of the units that helps us with our MEDREX program is the 44th Medical Brigade, and they were called to go to New York. They picked up in a minute and they were able to get on the ground, get set up in a new location, and be fully functional within 24 hours. That’s the same skill set that we try to apply and the lessons we’ve tried to learn while we’re working with our African partners.
Now, we’re – and we work in some very great locations. But the point is, is that we’re providing that opportunity to be able to be flexible and move that quickly and get up and be that operational. That’s one of the best things that we can bring from this program.
Moderator: Dr. Payne, Col. Tazi, would you like to add something, either one of you or both of you?
Col. Tazi Chibi: Just to add something, because he said everything. But there is two perspectives: What happens in MEDREX and what could happen and be solved in a different and efficient way thanks to MEDREX. So let’s say we’ve been strengthening our interoperability between the two nations. We’ve been also sharing – because medicine is not as universal as it sounds. We have different approaches and we realize – we didn’t realize that before having the opportunity to work with our U.S. medical provider friends. There is many differences. That doesn’t mean that you are right and I’m wrong, but it’s just different. And to figure out that it’s so different was, for us as professionals, amazing and something that we – so it’s not that universal. It’s an end truth; it’s not that universal. So we’ve been learning a lot from simple acts to surgery to high surgery. So we’ve been learning a lot and we’ve been also sharing best practices. And also, for best practices there is no one way and one best practice, so we’ve been sharing a lot, and this is what came out of the AR [ph] that we got.
But beyond the MEDREX, I don’t know a better way – because it’s about saving lives. At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives. But I don’t know a better way to save lives and be efficient than having with your potential partners beforehand, sharing, building a strong relationship and sharing the same jargon, and also getting to know each other and getting to know the other concerns and the other best practices. It makes it easy to work together on short notice and also to save more lives and be efficient in saving lives, because it’s about saving lives.
So when we are working on – maybe we don’t realize and we are just seeing what’s happening in MEDREX in 21 days. But who knows. In a disaster or crisis, do we imagine when you meet somebody, a familiar face, somebody you’ve been working together and you – it just goes like that. You don’t need to introduce yourself, because you don’t have time to introduce yourself in a crisis anyway.
Moderator: Dr. Payne, would you like to add something to that?
Lt. Col. Payne: I was just going to add that one of the things about the medical readiness exercises that makes them more sustainable is that they do work so closely with the partner nation and they help those patients who got care in those facilities to go back into their regular health care systems so they can continue to have high-quality care throughout the continuum of receiving care. And being able to get this exposure to partner nations gives them better situational awareness for when a crisis does occur, what to expect, and how to work with those particular partners.
Moderator: Okay, I want to give our participating journalists their last chance to ask any questions as we begin to wrap up. I do see one question that was posed in the chat from Mr. Muhindo Josenet. I’m still waiting to find out about the media outlet, but it is a good question. The question is, “In some African countries there have – there’s been some misinformation about COVID-19. Does the MEDREX program address any of these issues?”
Lt. Col. Smith: We do not specifically and directly address COVID [inaudible] the public health messages that we try to send when we go forward. Again, we try to model the best practices of hand-washing, et cetera, et cetera. We don’t – that’s the – we’re too busy to get into explaining COVID because we’re working on our missions of surgeries, et cetera, et cetera. However, again, part of the modeling is making sure that when we’re working with our African partners that we model those – our hand-washing procedures, our various procedures – not that they don’t, but that we are reinforcing that for everybody. Because the patients are there watching as well, watching us and how we interact with their medical professionals. So we want to make sure that we demonstrate that we’re working well together, we have the same sanitary procedures, and that helps the patients feel more comfortable working with people that [inaudible].
Lt. Col. Payne: I would just add that some of these virtual engagements that they are now doing do help feed into sharing best practices related to force health protection and pandemic response. Those topics seem to come up no matter what you’re trying to focus on in medicine these days. And we have [inaudible] programs through AFRICOM, like the African Partner Outbreak Response Alliance, that do also specifically focus on pandemic preparedness and response, and it is an area of concern. Absolutely.
Moderator: Well, thank you. That’s all the time that we have today, but I would like to ask our panelists if they’d like to have any final words. So we’ll start with Col. Tazi.
Col. Tazi Chibi: Yeah, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share what we achieve together. But also, I would like to open a window and say that more is to come, and it’s going to be huge, for sure.
Moderator: Thank you. Lt. Col. Smith?
Lt. Col. Smith: Yes, ma’am. So I just want to emphasize again, thank you all for allowing us this opportunity to talk about this program, which we were so proud of and we believe does so much good. Again, it’s a wonderful, low-cost, good return on investment for the U.S. taxpayer. It’s providing our medical professionals that obviously work in the civilian environment as well to get training and enhance their professional experiences and knowledge, and again, on a very low-cost basis. It helps get our partners – us overseas working with our partners. And the key point I think there is not only all the professional relationships, because that’s easy to do, because we’re working every day with them, but the real impact and what we want to focus on is the fact that it does not end with our military partners. Each one of those people that we have changed their lives, it also impacts their families and their communities. So for a very small investment we get a huge return.
Moderator: Dr. Payne, anything from you?
Lt. Col. Payne: Thank you also for the opportunity to be here today and support this excellent exercise. Absolutely, it promotes regional stability and interoperability across the continent. We appreciate each country’s efforts to participate and also the Army’s efforts in hosting. Thank you.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Lt. Col. Michael Smith, Chief, Medical Readiness Exercises at U.S. Army Southern Europe Task Force, Africa, and Col. Mohamed Tazi Chibi, Chief, Moroccan Military Health Service Inspectorate, for joining us, and also Lt. Col. Dr. Payne for joining us as well. We’d also like to thank all of our callers for participating as well. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.
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