Surviving the Outbreak, Reflections on ConGen Wuhan’s Evacuation and Life in Quarantine (Via @StateMag)

 

Featured in the  April 2020 issue of State Magazine (published by the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources) is an article by Russell J. Westergard, the deputy consular chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan, China.
Surviving the Outbreak, Reflections on ConGen Wuhan’s evacuation and life in quarantine

By mid-October 2019, the dedicated team at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November. When city officials began to close public schools in mid-December to control the spread of the disease, the team passed the word to Embassy Beijing and continued monitoring. The possibility of a new viral outbreak was always on the consulate’s radar. Still, the working assumption in every scenario had always been that, as in past outbreaks like H1N1 (known as swine flu), it would appear in rural areas first and then spread to major urban centers across China. 

When the Chinese government announced on December 29th that the new and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had been identified and traced to a live animal market near the U.S. consulate, it caught the team’s attention. Four hectic weeks later, ConGen Wuhan closed under ordered departure with the consulate team pulling off what some people involved have since described as a minor miracle. Consulate staff found themselves at the airport of a paralyzed city preparing to evacuate family members and other U.S. citizens from what would turn out to be ground zero of a deadly global pandemic.

Fast forward to the second week in February. As the ConGen Wuhan team, family members, and the rest of the 195 passengers on board that first flight from Wuhan concluded their 14-day quarantine at the March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in Southern California, the joy and a collective sigh of relief were audible.

Read in full here.

 

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Foreign Service Posts Evacuation Tracker: Authorized and Ordered Departures, Post Closures (as of 4/15/20)

Updated/1:35 pm PDT

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. Authorized departure is voluntary, 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. Four of the seven regional bureaus at State are headed by officials in their acting capacity (EUR, SCA, WHA, IO).  
We’ve heard from one post in Africa where COM was apparently told by a senior State Department official that non-emergency personnel should leave with the authorized departure flight or be involuntarily curtailed from post.
Can you still  call a voluntary evacuation voluntary if non-emergency personnel are under threat of curtailments if they don’t go? Is this unique to this one post or is the arm twisting more widespread within AF posts or other bureaus.
Another post in Africa told us that its COM has raised the possibility of involuntary curtailment if folks don’t want to depart on AD but that this was COM’s idea not Washington’s. One source explained that  from a post perspective, you do not want to go on OD because  “you lose control.”  This is probably a limited perspective based on the circumstances of specific posts. Or is it?
What about from the mothership’s perspective? To OD post or not to OD? Why, or why not?
We were told that the “challenge” with “ordered departures” is that Washington is “involved in micromanaging” the termination of the OD but also with the staffing/movement of personnel. Every time post permits anyone to return to post for any reason, the mothership has to review it. Our source told us that the amount of time to review every tweak and revision of staffing would probably be considerable even if just half the posts worldwide are on OD.
We note that per 3 FAM 3774 “official travel to a post or country where an authorized or ordered departure is in effect is prohibited without the formal approval of the Under Secretary for Management (M) following approval of a post policy that clearly describes appropriate restrictions and limits exceptions, in accordance with the procedures described under Waivers of Travel Prohibitions (3 FAM 3776).” Excerpt:

b. In limited circumstances, M may delegate to the COM the authority to approve travel to and from a post under authorized departure (including travel related to rest and recuperation (R&R), home leave, annual leave, etc.) for permanently assigned employees, family members, and MOHs who do not elect authorized departure status.  M also may delegate to the COM, in limited circumstances, the authority to approve travel to post for employees who were away from post when ordered departure was approved.

c.  In situations in which the Under Secretary for Management (M) has not delegated authority to the COM, waiver requests will be forwarded to the regional bureau executive director for review and a recommendation for approval or denial.  If approved in principle by the regional bureau, the request will be forwarded to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) for clearance and returned to the regional bureau executive director for submission to M.  To provide time for the review and approval/denial process, travelers must allow a minimum of 20 working days following submission of requests to the Department for all but the most urgent medical or casualty-related travel.  Given changing conditions in these locations, requests should not be submitted to the Department more than 35 days prior to the proposed departure date.

d. For posts where operations have been suspended or countries where the United States is engaged in contingency operations: Requests for a waiver of the prohibition on official and personal travel to a post or country where operations have been suspended or countries where the United States is engaged in contingency operations must be approved by the Under Secretary for Management, who may waive the prohibition in unusual or compelling circumstances.  The request must be made initially to the regional bureau executive director for review and a recommendation for approval or denial.  If approved in principle by the regional bureau, the request will be forwarded to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) for clearance and returned to the regional bureau executive director for submission to M.  To provide time for the review and approval/denial process, travelers must allow a minimum of 20 working days following submission of requests to the Department for all but the most urgent medical or casualty-related travel.  Given changing conditions in these locations, requests should not be submitted to the Department more than 35 days prior to the proposed departure date.  Approvals for such travel can be revoked at any time by M and M can impose conditions on the traveler’s length of stay, whereabouts, and/or activities in country.  The traveler must explain in detail where he/she will reside during his/her stay; unless approved by the Under Secretary for Management, no employee, family member, or member of household may reside in State Department leased or owned facilities while operations are suspended.

Anyhow, if you have further thoughts on this, drop us a line. Below is a revised evacuation tracker, no additional AD/OD posts since March 28 but we’ve now added the two post closures, the Consulates General in Wuhan and Vladivostok. Note updated date of post closure for Wuhan.  We could not locate an announcement of post closure except as part of an update on the China Travel Advisory dated February 19, which may not be the actual date when USCG Wuhan was officially closed.
Also, please note that the term “non-essential” personnel has been generally replaced with the term “non-emergency” personnel. However, we still occasionally see this term used in official releases from overseas posts. Also as late as 2018, the Foreign Affairs Manual in its danger pay section still makes references to “non-essential” personnel.

@StateDept Prepares to Evacuate USCG Wuhan Personnel on 1/28, Limited Seats Available to Private U.S. Citizens

 

On January 23, the State Department issued a “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” Travel Advisory for China, which includes a “Level 4: Do not travel to Hubei province, China due to novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.” The Travel Advisory also notes that “on January 23, 2020, the Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. personnel and their family members. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Hubei province.”
On January 26, the State Department announced that it is making arrangements to evacuate personnel from the US Consulate General in Wuhan to San Francisco, CA on Tuesday, January 28. There will be a single flight with limited seating capacity on a reimbursable basis for U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens interested are advised to contact BeijingACS@state.gov with passport details. The announcement also states that “… if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus.”
U.S. Mission China is one of the largest operations in the world. It includes the embassy in Beijing and consulates general in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan. We understand that Consulate General Wuhan was expected to open for American citizen services and nonimmigrant visa services in 2018 but its website currently says:

The U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan is not yet open for consular services.  Our new office is currently under construction.  Construction is scheduled for completion in 2020.

OIG inspection of US Mission China notes that as of May 2017, the mission had representatives from 33 U.S. Government agencies and an authorized staff of 729 U.S. direct-hire employees and 168 American locally hired employees and 1,807 non-American locally employed (LE) staff members.
We’re not sure at this time how many direct-hire U.S. employee and family members are located in Wuhan or how many emergency staffers would be left at post. USCG Wuhan website notes that there is a consul general and his wife, a public affairs officer (family?) and a Department of Commerce’s commercial service office (officer?) at post. We will update this when we know more.
The travel advisory issued last Thursday indicate that there was an “ordered departure” issued for non-emergency personnel and their family members. The Health Alert issued by Consular Affairs on Sunday says that the State Department is evacuating its personnel stationed in Wuhan; we’re not sure if that means all its personnel or just the non-emergency personnel and family members. There is no notice at this time that USCG Wuhan is suspending operation or on temporary closure.

 

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Killer Air in China: Pollution Kills an Average of 4,000/day x 365 = 1,460,000

Posted: 4:18 am EDT
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Berkeley Earth released a study showing that air pollution kills an average of 4,000 people every day in China, 17% of all China’s deaths. For 38% of the population, the average air they breathe is “unhealthy” by U.S. standards. According to the study, the most harmful pollution is PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller.  This penetrates deeply into lungs and triggers heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer and asthma.

“Beijing is only a moderate source PM 2.5 ; it receives much of its pollution from distant industrial areas, particularly Shijiazhuang, 200 miles to the southwest,” says Robert Rohde, coauthor of the paper.

“Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today,” says Richard Muller, Scientific Director of Berkeley Earth, coauthor of the paper. “When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level; every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes. It’s as if every man, women, and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour,” he said.

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Perhaps it’s time to revisit this Burn Bag submission?

“Why are we still downplaying the enormous health impact to officers and their families serving in China? Why are State MED officers saying ‘off the record’ that it is irresponsible to send anyone with children to China and yet no one will speak up via official channels?”

Embassy Beijing and the five consulates general in China house one of the largest U.S. diplomatic presences in the world (no presence in Kunming and Nanjing).  Service in China includes a hardship differential (when conditions of the environment differ substantially from environmental conditions in the continental United States) for poor air quality among other things, ranging between 10-25% of basic compensation.

According to the 2010 OIG report, more than 30 U.S. Government agencies maintain offices and personnel in China; the total staff exceeds 2,000 employees. Consulates General Guangzhou and Shanghai are as large as many mid-sized embassies, each with more than 250 employees. Consulates General Chengdu and Shenyang are smaller but serve the important western and northern parts of the country respectively. Consulate General Wuhan, opened in 2008, is staffed by one American. Mission China is a fully accompanied post; we have no numbers on how many family members, including children are present at these posts.

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