Updated: March 24, 12:54 am PDT
Updated: March 24, 2020 10:47 pm PDT
Updated March 26, 12:07 am PDT
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!
The ambassador then told his staff that “In light of this conversation, I have chosen to remain on AD.” Apparently, this ambassador also made clear to staffers that the EAC’s decision to seek ordered departure is on the record, but “the decision not to seek OD is mine and mine alone and rests on my shoulders” then urged the embassy community not to “criticize your colleagues for the personal decisions they make.”
The same ambassador is reportedly encouraging people to leave if they can, but the problem is that “it’s too little too late because the host government won’t allow any flights to arrive or depart from country” according to our source.
(Note: On March 21, while we were working on this blogpost, we received the following comment from Sender B: “Assistant Secretary Wells told ambassadors in Central Asia this week that the United States is the “red zone” not a “safe haven.” Stressing that COVID19 has not peaked in the United States and is “out of control.” Despite several posts lacking any access to healthcare, Wells underscored the scale of the crisis in the United States to justify the Department’s preference to remain on authorized departure only at posts in Central Asia. The U.S. healthcare system is incapable of helping officers in the field, she said.)”.
(Note: After this blogpost went online, we received the following from Sender C: “Your previous correspondent took very good notes from the town hall on the Embassy steps–leadership stated that the Department had said that things in the U.S. were too bad back there to warrant us returning (!).)”
It is our understanding, based on what was shared with us after this town hall, that the Under Secretary for Management reportedly also had conversations with four ambassadors who had or were considering requesting ordered departures for their posts.
Border Closures/Flight Restrictions
Several countries in South Central Asia have now announced border closures and flight suspension/restrictions:
On March 20, commercial flights to and from Turkmenistan were suspended.
Uzbekistan has also announced flight restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19. On March 20, the US Embassy in Tashkent announced Commercial Flight Available (03/20/2020) for U.S. citizens departing Uzbekistan. On March 22, Embassy Tashkent sent out an alert regarding the last flight departing Uzbekistan: “If this flight takes place, it is expected to be the last opportunity to depart Uzbekistan until borders reopen and commercial transportation links resume.”
In Tajikistan, the Dushanbe International Airport is currently closed but may re-open for short periods of time.
Previously, on March 17, the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic announced that they are barring the entry of all foreign nationals to the Kyrgyz Republic. In Kazakhstan, the Nur-Sultan and Almaty airports will be closed as of March 22.
Remain in Country/Shelter in Place
These developments are making us ask a few difficult questions we hope somebody would answer:
1) Is the State Department actively discouraging U.S. embassies from requesting mandatory evacuations from posts in South Centra Asian countries? How about from Foreign Service posts worldwide?
In addition to posts in China, only Mongolia is on ordered departure (3/12/20) for “nonessential personnel” as of this writing. We understand that one post in Africa has also gone on “ordered departure” several days ago but there is no public announcement to-date. On March 20, 2020, US Embassy Bangui in the Central Africa Republic announced staff reduction at post but has not indicated its evacuation status. Posts with large COVID-19 cases and community spread like US Mission Italy, US Mission Spain, US Mission Japan, and US Embassy Seoul do not appear to be on any evacuation status. Also see COVID-19 Pandemic Howler: “No one in DC, to include S, gives AF about AF”
2) On March 22, 2020, the US Ambassador to Burkina Faso Andrew Young announced on Twitter that he tested positive of COVID-19. Medical facilities in the country is extremely limited. The Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso airports are now closed to commercial aviation, and all land borders are closed, except for freight traffic, for a period of two weeks, beginning March 21, 2020. What happens to him or any other employee or family member under these circumstances?
By keeping posts on global voluntary departure (with employee consultations with MED), has the State Department placed employees and families at over 270 posts worldwide effectively under a “remain in country” or “shelter in place” policy without publicly articulating that order? CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report notes that COVID-19 can result in severe disease, including hospitalization, admission to an intensive care unit, and death, especially among older adults.
Is the State Department prepared to have our people overseas remain in country and die in country?