Covid-19: Diplomats in limbo as US State Department dithers

US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks. (Photo: Alon Skuy)

Like the rest of the world, the US diplomatic presence globally has encountered the stresses and strains of Covid-19. US Ambassador Lana Marks is no exception.

In the late 19th century, Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant, emigrated to the US and settled in Chicago where she took up her calling as a boarding house cook. Nowadays, she is only remembered for one thing, and it is not her recipes. However, she became the asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, infecting dozens of other people over the course of her life, some of whom died from the dread disease they contracted via their contact with her. (And not her cooking, apparently.)

Chicago public health authorities, astounded by her case, placed her under quarantine several times, even as she repeatedly returned to her profession, until they eventually were compelled to put her under permanent medical isolation for the last several decades of her life — with the authorities still stumped about her condition. In these days of our current torments from Covid-19, you can bet we will begin to see references to the unusual history of Typhoid Mary, as we all confront this newest plague.

A student of history, I began to think about the history of Typhoid Mary as I was reading and listening to more and more about the spread of Covid-19, and, specifically, about the way US embassies abroad are dealing with this new pandemic. That, in turn, led me to the story of US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, and her rather nervous troops at her embassy in Pretoria. More about that story in a minute, but first the 10,000-metre view.

Examining the general circumstances of US diplomats working abroad, and how they are dealing with the crisis, earlier in the week, CNN reported that many US diplomats and locally hired staffers in missions abroad “… are deeply frustrated by the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying they’re getting no clear or consistent guidance to help them operate, meaning embassies are cobbling together their own response on the fly.

At headquarters in Washington, where the first positive case was confirmed Thursday, employees have been worried for weeks about a lack of transparency about potential cases in their midst. In embassies overseas, foreign service officers say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his leadership team are not issuing clear guidance on how to manage their staff, handle travel or deal with public interactions – particularly in hard-hit countries – as the virus sweeps the globe.

“‘Every embassy is just making it up as we go along,’ one foreign service officer based overseas told CNN. ’There’s no f*cking uniformed guidance to the field. Tell us what the standard should be for US government personnel overseas. Tell us exactly how we should be conducting the business of the US government. There’s no uniformity, which leads to interpretation and tensions.’

The State Department’s decision last week to allow for the departure of any staff or family who might be at higher risk from exposure to the coronavirus just generated more questions, diplomats said, including what jobs returning staff will do, when they will be able to return to their posts and about their pay.

In conversations with CNN, eight State Department employees at headquarters and across the globe expressed frustration, resignation, anger and disbelief about a response that many of them described as dysfunctional. Their irritation echoes broader dissatisfaction with the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, which surged to more than 13,000 infections in the US as of Friday morning, as hospitals brace for shortages of everything from protective gear to ventilators.”

(The number of infections jumped to more than 32,000 by mid-day Sunday – Ed)

According to that international news channel’s reporting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists his office was working through a repatriation task force to help get families and officers – and non-official Americans, obviously – back to the US, but in mentioning this, he offered little detail other than to say, “we’re going to use all the tools we can.” Nervous expatriate Americans should not, however, scour the skies or the coastlines looking for the fleets of helicopters and naval vessels on course to evacuate them to safety. That’s only in the action movies.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, this virus is compounding the workload for State Department staff. As one official told CNN, “no one has taken a day off in two months,” speaking of the consular team that deals with visa issues, passports and the safety of Americans travelling overseas. But even as the department’s overseas staffers are focused on their half of that equation, those officers obviously have concerns for their own families living with them at their respective foreign posts. Given the rapid explosion of this unprecedented health crisis (at least in modern times), some of the members of overseas official families have now received authorisation to return to the US under what are called “orderly departure travel orders”, but unexpected problems for such travel include the increasing scarcity of seats on the remaining scheduled air flights and the ever more stringent entry and transit restrictions associated with international travel now.

As the Diplopundit website explained it, “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 US 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)… Ordered departure is an evacuation procedure by which the number of US 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.”

However, US diplomats complain — carefully, given their job circumstances — that even as they work to manage elements of this crisis, communication to them from their own Washington headquarters front office has been “wildly uneven”, as one source told CNN. Another added that even as their embassy works to help stranded Americans despite their embassy’s reduced staff complement, that same staff is not getting the sense Secretary Pompeo is particularly engaged with or sympathetic to these operational issues. Or, as the 24-hour news channel put it:

“Referring to the secretary’s possible political ambitions, this officer said the general feeling is that, ‘Pompeo does not care because he is a political animal and he does not like us… No one votes on how State people are treated.’”

In fact, as things continued to become increasingly serious, on Friday, the state department actually announced it was suspending all routine visa services at its embassies and consulates worldwide because of the pandemic, saying:

“As resources allow, embassies and consulates will continue to provide urgent and emergency visa services. Our overseas missions will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.”

The result of such tangled, untidy communication and guidance is that US embassies located in the same part of the world may actually be following different protocols, according to officers who spoke to CNN. Or as one officer told the network:

“Of course, we’re adult enough and empowered enough to make up our own policies out here. That said, guidance from the mothership matters at State and I think that guidance has been lacking.”

And back in Washington, DC, itself, staffers were continuing to complain of an information vacuum from the overseas embassies, and with reports of positive Covid-19 cases at embassies trickling out, sometimes from the embassies themselves, at other times through the inevitable organisational grapevine. In other words, the Department of State is in something of a “state of confusion”, in contrast to the management of this crisis in the Defense Department. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon generally knows how to issue orders and get its staff and the military follow them.

And so where does that leave the US Embassy in Pretoria? It came as something of a surprise for many to discover that the incumbent ambassador Lana Marks had been in Florida with her friend Donald Trump for dinner at the president’s beachfront club, Mar-a-Lago, when the president was hosting his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro. As we now know, some members of the Brazilian leader’s party tested positive for Covid-19, as have several US senior staffers including at least one member of the vice-president’s staff.

Then, Ambassador Marks returned to South Africa amid growing consternation among her embassy’s staff. Once it was clear she had been in close contact at the dinner with some who were positive for the virus, the ambassador had to hold a virtual town hall on 20 March to quell the disquiet. According to The Washington Post, the meeting was held “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 “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.” 

In this there seems to have been a kind of echo with Donald Trump’s unscientific explanation that somehow, some way, the virus would magically vanish once the temperature rises a bit in the US, come April.

Washington, too, was, not surprisingly, buzzing over such comments, with sources telling Diplopundit that “Embassy Pretoria is in meltdown”. A South African cynic might well remark, noting this meteorological explanation of how to deal with Covid-19, that this carried a disconcerting echo of former President Jacob Zuma’s explanation of how he had dealt with the possibility of Aids infection by way of a nice hot shower.

For her part, Ambassador Marks had tweeted her defence of all this, saying, “As #Covid19 evolves in SA, it is essential that everyone stays both safe and healthy – on a personal level, I am strongly advocating self-quarantine and social distancing for those who may, even by the remotest possibility, have been exposed.”

That was followed by, “Returning to Pretoria, I had to take a fairly full flight. While nobody on the plane was diagnosed with #Covid19, and neither I nor my family are experiencing symptoms, in order to err on the side of extreme caution, we will self-quarantine for the prescribed 14 days.”

And that social media message, in turn, was followed by a third one, “I hope my personal actions serve as a good example to everyone who has recently travelled – adhering to the guidelines of USG and SAG. The entire world has an invisible enemy. We’re stronger together, even when we’re together apart! #covid19 #strongertogether #togetherapart.” However, in none of those messages, or in any subsequent communication, has it been made clear the ambassador or anyone in her family has taken a Covid-19 test.

At her virtual conference meeting of staff members at the end of the week, the ambassador defended her choices and her explanations, including a discussion of the South Florida weather’s medicinal qualities. As The Washington Post reported on the meeting:

State Department employees at Thursday’s meeting protested that they have been placed at risk, that Marks is not following the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that she is incorrect that the virus could not have been transmitted at the outdoor dinner.

“Marks, a fashion executive and Mar-a-Lago member, told staff at the meeting she would go into semi-seclusion but not cut out all meetings or contact with staff, these people said. She had previously told staff members who raised concerns that the incubation period has passed and that she does not believe she is at risk.”

In a rather stinging rebuke, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, Eric Rubin, said:

“At a time of pandemic, it is critical that professional medical advice be followed by every US government employee, whether career or political appointee.

“Our colleagues in the field are facing unprecedented threats and challenges. They need to know that their leaders have their welfare and well-being foremost in their minds, and that everything will be done to ensure the health and safety of our employees and their family members. There is no room for individual decisions and no excuse for putting people at risk. Leaders need to be held to the highest possible standard at this time of danger.”

Eventually, over the weekend, the ambassador offered a full statement from herself, to tamp down the furore, saying:

I have no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens in South Africa, including and especially the entire staff at the US Mission. I must stress that the ‘town hall meeting’ I organized for our US Mission in South Africa community on March 19 was held virtually, with each individual member invited to join remotely from a computer or phone.

“In no uncertain terms, I am strongly advocating self-quarantine and social distancing for those who may, even by the remotest possibility, have been exposed to Covid-19. My own social distancing began soon after I took a crowded commercial flight back to post. Since that flight, I have conducted the majority of my meetings over the phone.

“In order to err on the side of extreme caution, and in line with US and South African government recommendations, I will self-quarantine along with my family for the prescribed 14 days. All US Mission personnel in South Africa are adhering to the US and South African government recommendations in this regard.

“I am experiencing no symptoms of coronavirus, and have been in consultation with a physician.

“Additionally, I have mandated telework for as many US Mission staff as possible and large portions of our team are now pursuing their critical work from home. For those unable to telework, we are enforcing social distancing and recommended hygiene measures within the office and, wherever possible, meetings are held on virtual platforms.

“On March 14, the Department of State authorized the departure from any diplomatic or consular post in the world for US personnel and family members 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.

“On March 15, the US Mission in South Africa, in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic, announced the cancellation of most non-immigrant visa appointments from March 16, 2020 until May 31, 2020. The US Mission continues to provide services to US citizens.

“On March 19, the US Department of State issued a Travel Advisory advising US citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of Covid-19.

“As a result of the travel restrictions, a reduction in commercial air connections out of South Africa is anticipated. Many travelers in South Africa have reported unexpected flight cancellations and limited flight availability. American citizens are encouraged to take advantage of commercial air options before additional travel restrictions are implemented in South Africa as we have seen elsewhere in the world.

“We are continuously assessing travel conditions, and will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for US travelers as situations evolve.”

Other sources indicated the embassy staffers have now largely gone to working via their computers from home, and that there are, so far at least, no positive cases among the embassy staff, although some have chosen self-isolation following their return from abroad in the past two months. There are, however, some staffers who are stuck in transit, without onward flights back to their assignments in South Africa. All in all, it has definitely become “not business as usual” for the US Embassy or that nation’s ambassador in Pretoria.

Just like the rest of the world, these days, it seems. DM