Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide?

Updated: March 24, 12:54 am PDT

Updated: March 24, 2020 10:47 pm PDT

Updated March 26, 12:07 am PDT

SSDO Special Briefing, March 24, 2020

QUESTION:  [… ] And then secondly, I’m sure you’ve seen these reports that there are numerous embassies, or at least several embassies, where people are basically clamoring for order departure status, and that they are being discouraged from that.  Can you address that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Oh, no.  All help is appreciated.  On the second part of your question, Matt, so our embassies overseas have their emergency teams meet regularly to discuss the situation at post, and they have a process and procedure in place where they can really evaluate the transportation system, the healthcare system, and not just the status of COVID in the country.  And when they reach a certain point where they feel like, okay, maybe time to request authorized ordered departure, they submit a request to the undersecretary of management, and those are coming in regularly, and the undersecretary reviews them and then makes decisions on what to approve.  At this point, I think one of the biggest issues is the travel restrictions that countries are instituting around the world.

MODERATOR ONE:  If I could just add on to that, those decisions are made against a robust set of criteria and decisions made based to – based on a consistent set of principles, all which are geared towards maximizing the safety for our employees.

On March 19, we received an email from a post in Central Asia with the subject line: “Abandoned in Central Asia.” We learned that “after weeks of internal debate with Main State” authorized (voluntary) departure was finally approved for their Embassy on March 17. Apparently, last week, the Embassy’s Emergency Action Committee (EAC) also agreed that it was time to go OD”, that is, go on ordered departure, a mandatory evacuation from post except for emergency staffers. Note that the OD was not for suspension of operations.

Ordered Departures: Talking Ambassadors “out of it”

Sender A said that the Embassy’s EAC recommended “OD on Wednesday (March 18)” and then something happened. The South Central Asia (SCA) top bureau official reportedly “talked the AMB out of it.”  As to the rationale for this development, we were told that embassy employees were not informed. 
“We just know that on Sunday [March 15] EACs at two posts said they wanted OD” and by Monday, March 16, the respective chiefs of mission “had refused based on input” from the top bureau official, according to Sender A. 
So curious minds would like to know if these OD requests have actually been refused or if ambassadors were under pressure not to formally request it so the bureau will not have to refuse it in writing? Anyone know?
The frustrated employee writes: U.S. diplomats are now stuck in countries where U.S. citizens are specifically advised not to use local medical facilities and the Embassies only have small medical units for minor issues. Even if they’re needed, there are zero local hospital beds available. Best case, it sounds like multiple OIG complaints waiting to happen. But when did the administration’s image at home become more important than people’s lives? How much Swagger will SecState have when his people start dying?”

A Snapshot on Medical Facilities

We thought we’d checked the information on medical facilities for several countries in the region. For example, Turkmenistan is a Level 3 Reconsider Travel country. The State Department’s Travel Advisory says:
Medical protocols in Turkmenistan are not consistent with U.S. standards and some travelers have been required to undergo medical testing unrelated to COVID-19 including but not limited to HIV testing.  Consider declining any medical procedures including testing unrelated to COVID-19. Due to the possibility of quarantine of unknown length, carry additional supplies of necessary medication in carry-on luggage.”
According to Diplomatic Security’s 2020 Crime and Safety Report on Uzbekistan:
The country’s “health care system is not adequate to meet the needs of many serious emergencies. There is a lack of basic supplies and limited modern equipment. Emergency medicine is very basic. Some medication sold in local pharmacies may be counterfeit. Elderly travelers and those with pre-existing health problems may be at particular risk due to inadequate medical facilities. Most resident U.S. citizens travel to North America or Western Europe for their medical needs.”
Tajikistan’s “inadequate public healthcare infrastructure has given rise to private medical facilities offering varying degrees of quality care in some specialties. Also:
“Medical first responders (ambulance crews) do not meet Western standards, and are not widely available, likely poorly equipped, and often poorly trained.”
On Kyrgyzstan: Medical care is often inadequate in the country.
 “There is a shortage of basic medical supplies. Health care resources are limited and often below U.S. standards. Doctors and medical industry staff rarely speak English, and prices for treatment are not fixed. Use a translator or Russian/Kyrgyz speaking friend or family member to assist with medical treatment. U.S. citizens often travel outside of Kyrgyzstan for medical treatment, including most routine procedures.”
In Kazakhstan, medical care options are limited and well below U.S. standards.
“U.S. citizens often depart Kazakhstan for medical treatment, including many routine procedures. Serious long-term care is not a viable option in Nur-Sultan.”

An Ambassador’s Town Hall Meeting

Last Friday, a U.S. Ambassador at a post in South Central Asia held a town hall for embassy employees; held outdoors on the steps of the Embassy, we were told. 
The U.S. Ambassador, citing what he was told by the top SCA bureau official, informed embassy employees the following (provided to us in direct quotes by Sender A):
  • “Ambassador, you need to understand the United States is the red zone, it is not the safe haven that you think it is.”
  • “The U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the world.”
  • “It has not peaked in the United States, incidents are rising rapidly, it is out of control.”
  • “The ability to get a test for COVID-19 even with symptoms or comorbidities is extremely difficult.”
  • “The healthcare infrastructure of the United States is not capable of helping.”
This ambassador reportedly further told embassy employees that “500,000 Americans are overseas seeking assistance for getting home.” And that “We are taking down the American economy to fight this enemy.”

(March 25 Special Briefing with CA PDAS Ian Brownlee: “Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens and we’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can.”  Wowow!

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U.S. Foreign Service Posts: Tracking Voluntary Departures and Mandatory Evacuations

10:05 PDT Updated with dates of WHO declarations

We created a tracker for Foreign Service posts on authorized (voluntary) departures and posts on mandatory (ordered) departures. The information below is based on data available on travel.state.gov’s public advisories ; we only searched the advisories going back to the beginning of 2020 as these are the ones issued related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Based on CDC’s MMWR report dated February 5, 2020, an outbreak of acute respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019.
On January 23, 2020, the Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. personnel and their family members from USCG Wuhan.
On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”
On January 31, the Department ordered the departure of all family members under age 21 of U.S. personnel in China.
February was relatively quiet with two voluntary departure orders for the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
On March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
On March 12, the Department ordered the departure of all nonessential personnel from Mongolia to travel, transport, and other restrictions related to Mongolia’s response to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.
On March 14, the Department of State authorized the departure of U.S. personnel and family members from any diplomatic or consular post in the world “who have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19 or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification.” Click here for reference.
According to our count, there are currently seven (7) posts on ordered, mandatory evacuation for non-emergency personnel and family members/or family members under 21: these are all six posts in China plus Ulaanbatar;  eight (8) posts if US Embassy Bangui turns out to be on “ordered departure” status. If we’ve missed any post on OD or AD, please feel free to let us know and we’ll update the list.
Note that the Crisis Management Training office at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI/LMS/CMT) has a list of posts on evacuation status that may be available to employees. That list is not publicly available as far as we know.
Below is the State Department’s geographic bureaus for reference: