Update 1:14 PDT: US Embassy Pretoria’s meltdown (see below)
We’ve explained previously about evacuations in the State Department’s Foreign Service posts (see New Travel Advisories and Voluntary/Mandatory Departures: Micronesia (L3), Tajikistan (L3), Mongolia (L4)).
Authorized departure is an evacuation procedure, short of ordered departure, by which post employees and/or eligible family members are permitted to leave post in advance of normal rotation when U.S. national interests or imminent threat to life requires it. Departure is requested by the chief of mission (COM) and approved by the Under Secretary for Management (M). The incumbent to this office is Brian Bulatao.
Ordered departure is an evacuation procedure by which the number of U.S. government employees, eligible family members, or both, at a Foreign Service post is reduced. Ordered departure is mandatory and may be initiated by the chief of mission or the Secretary of State. Posts with very few exceptions, report to their regional or geographic bureaus headed respectively by an Assistant Secretary, a Senate confirmed position.
As we’ve watched this pandemic unfold at home, we’ve also watched the State Department’s troubling response to it, particularly at overseas posts and in its public communication.
Update: On March 20, US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks reportedly held a “town hall” meeting for staff members “after mounting complaints from employees that she had refused to self-quarantine or take other protective measures, according to accounts of the meeting provided to The Washington Post by people familiar with it.” She apparently “attended a dinner at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club with Brazilian officials who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But she told her State Department employees she did not consider herself at risk because the dinner was outside and she believed the virus could not withstand the Florida heat.” A second hand source with extensive sources told us “Embassy Pretoria is in meltdown.”
Recently, we heard about Post 1 in Africa that just went into ordered departure. We understand that employees were hoping to get on to what is being called “the last Air France flight.” We were told that what happens if/after they arrive in Paris is “unknown.”
Then we received a howler from Post 2 in Africa: “They’ve shut the airport here. And closed the borders in [XXX]. No one gives AF about AF. Authorized Departure, yes. But flights were full or cancelled so that didn’t leave much room for options. No one in DC, to include S, gives AF about AF.”
We understand that this particular post was given the option to evacuate but “there’s no consensus” from the AF bureau if they’re going to authorize “ordered departure.” Post has sent a request but no response from D.C. — “they’re dragging their feet.”
Source from Post 2 says that they were given a 24-hour window for voluntary departure but then the border to [the neighboring country] had closed as well, and that also cuts off supplies for their host country.
“And as you know, people get crazy if they can’t get food or supplies.”
Source from Post 2 further writes “I don’t know how many more EACs and thresholds they want to cross before they say you’re on OD [ordered departure]. And – we are on staggered shifts so teleworking and not really getting anything done.”
Post 2 also says that “A lot of us are worried because of the optics on a lot of the confirmed cases on the continent – they’re all foreigners.” That’s a real worry given what’s happening in Ethiopia and Cameroon.
On March 18, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia issued a Security Alert on Reports of Anti-Foreigner Sentiment:
The Embassy continues to receive reports regarding a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment revolving around the announcement of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Typical derogatory comments directed at foreigners, the terms “China” and “Ferengi” (foreigner), have been reportedly coupled with the label “Corona,” indicating a disparaging view on the link between the outbreak of COVID-19 and foreigners in Ethiopia. Incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19 have been reported by other foreigners living within Addis Ababa and other cities throughout the country. Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services (taxis, Ride, etc.), being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19.”
On March 19, the US Embassy in Cameroon issued a similar Security Alert:
The Embassy has received reports regarding a rise of anti-foreigner sentiment revolving around the announcement of the spread of COVID-19. Incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19 have been reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners in both Yaounde and Douala. Reports include verbal and online harassment, stone throwing, and banging on vehicles occupied by expatriates.
During the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the attack on one of the Ebola Treatment Centers in February 2019 was preceded by a change in public behavior toward the Medicins sans Frontiers (MSF) team. “On February 17, residents began shouting “Ebola, Ebola, Ebola” at the MSF team. Simultaneously, there was a marked drop in suspected cases referred to the ETC. The ETC had been receiving 35 to 40 suspected Ebola cases a week. However, on the day before the attack, only 1 suspected Ebola case was referred, and on the day of the attack, only 2. Rumors about foreigners experimenting on locals, taking organs, and filling the bodies with concrete and Ebola being a fabrication were also circulating.”
Our Post 2 source says that “We knew what we signed up for. This is an unprecedented time. But borders and airports closing is a bit of a game changer in these high threat posts. It would be wonderful to know there’s some sort of exit strategy. And there isn’t one when they shut down the borders and airports.”
For now other worries include the civil unrest that may occur if food and supplies are stopped; not having plans in place for medical evacuation if/when it becomes necessary; the fact that these places are austere in medical facilities to take care of their own people let alone handling a car accident or malaria; that the guards are wonderful and in place, but you know, for how long?
There are worst case scenarios that we’re not going to spell out here but we’re sure the AF bureau and all posts in Africa are aware of them. It can’t be that no one has thought about what to do with posts in Africa during a pandemic.
Is there a pandemic plan for FS posts somewhere in Foggy Bottom’s vaults? What are their plans for post operations, repatriation of employees/family members, protection of local employees, or continuity of operations during/after a pandemic. Have they simply brushed off the shelf the Bush Administration’s old ‘
stay remain in country/shelter in place’ policy during a pandemic without telling anyone?
273 confirmed #COVID19 cases in Africa in 26 countries and 6 deaths. Over the weekend, Central African Republic, Eswatini, Rep of Congo, Rwanda, Seychelles announced first cases. @WHO is supporting countries with surveillance, diagnostics and treatment. https://t.co/V0fkK8dYTg pic.twitter.com/U4CbMGidSO
— WHO African Region (@WHOAFRO) March 15, 2020
Security Alert: Reports of Anti-Foreigner Sentiment U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia #COVID19 https://t.co/gLqnVq4Pvk From US Embassy Addis: "Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services (taxis, Ride, etc.) https://t.co/hntHlMq3Zw pic.twitter.com/p0C1tB3Pad
— Aly-Khan Satchu (@alykhansatchu) March 19, 2020
— QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) March 17, 2020