US Embassy in Afghanistan on 'immediate' lockdown over COVID-19 surge

US Embassy in Afghanistan on 'immediate' lockdown over COVID-19 surge
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The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday went into an immediate lockdown amid a surge of COVID-19 infections in the mission, communicated to staff through a management notice that was obtained by The Hill.

At least one person has died, several staff have been medevaced and 114 people are in isolation, the notice reads, laying out an alarming and dangerous health situation and absent critical resources.

“Military hospital ICU resources are at full capacity, forcing our health units to create temporary, on-compound COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients,” reads the notice, which is believed to have been distributed to everyone at the posting.

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The distribution of the notice was approved by Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson, and lays out the lockdown of the mission, confining all personnel to their quarters on the compound, with few, mission-critical work exceptions.

“We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the Mission’s ability to carry out the nation’s business,” the notice reads.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday that operations at the embassy are likely to resume when the “leadership is confident the chain of transmission has been broken.” 

He added that vaccines are available to members of the embassy team in Kabul. 

Afghanistan is experiencing a surge in cases amid a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 96,500 current cases, according to the World Health Organization.

At least two main hospitals in Kabul have shut their doors to patients over lack of bed availability and oxygen and material shortages, Reuters reported

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At least 662,000 vaccines have been distributed in Afghanistan, and the State Department said in April it had deployed vaccines for employees to all their posts abroad.

The U.S. Embassy notice, however, urged staff to get vaccinated, saying that 95 percent of their cases are among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals.

“Please avail yourselves of the vaccines available in the Embassy,” the notice reads. 

The notice also scolds staff for failing to wear masks properly. “We are seeing a lot of noses.”

Restrictions at the embassy include the shuttering of nearly all recreational services like gyms and pools as well as prohibiting sports. Masks are required, while staff are urged to maintain six feet of distance.

“Individuals should not eat with anyone else, regardless of vaccination status,” the notice reads.

Failure to adhere to the guidelines could result in consequences, the notice reads, including removal from the embassy “on the next available flight.” 

“We are all in this together and rely on your cooperation during this difficult time. We can only return to normal operations with the cooperation of everyone,” the notice reads.

The shutdown at the embassy comes at a time when the Biden administration is working to project confidence in its diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan amid its drawdown of troops aimed at ending the more than two-decade military operations in the country.

Ambassador Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), expressed deep concern over the state of operations at embassy Kabul, in particular at a time when the State Department is struggling under a backlog of U.S. visa applications for locally-employed staff at risk of violence from the Taliban for their work with Americans.

At least 18,000 Afghanis are waiting on processing of their visa applications to the U.S. and lawmakers are pressing the administration over the urgency of the situation.

“We can’t get to those visas if our embassy is on lockdown,” Rubin said.

He added that AFSA is advocating for COVID-19 vaccinations to be mandatory, much like certain vaccinations are required for other postings abroad.

“It should be a requirement and expectation that federal employees, unless there’s a valid medical or religious exemption, that vaccination should be required as a condition of employment,” he said.

“It’s life and death, it’s very serious.”

Updated: 5:47 p.m.