Organizing evacuations during a shutdown

Organizing evacuations during a shutdown
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBritain and Europe need to step up their support for Hong Kong Take China seriously, not literally Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death MORE established the Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit on March 19, including a Repatriation Task Force to support evacuation plans for U.S. citizens stuck abroad.  This 24/7 task force is working with U.S. embassies and consulates, many operating with skeleton teams following COVID-19-related staff drawdowns, to help American citizens come home. 

American citizens abroad — about ten million of them — know that in an emergency, they should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for help. In a family-sized crisis (sudden death, arrest, medical emergency and criminal assault), or an epic event (hotel fire, plane crash, terrorism, political violence, natural disaster and epidemic), U.S. Foreign Service staff overseas and State Department colleagues in Washington respond every day, around the clock, providing reliable guidance and effective assistance.  

Like an emergency room team responding to mass casualties, or law enforcement during a terrorist attack, Foreign Service staff assisting American citizens during a major crisis overseas are trained in this complex work and various exercises are conducted to hone skills. Like other first responders, the Foreign Service is prepared to work in dangerous conditions despite personal risk, in order to help those who depend on them.  

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Even before Secretary Pompeo established the coordination unit, growing numbers of U.S. citizens, in China and then in other countries, turned to the State Department for help when they could not make their own arrangements to return home. This was happening as fear of coronavirus spread, borders, ports and airports closed, strict local lockdowns were enforced and public transportation out of remote areas became unavailable.  The Secretary’s action now authorizes the charter of aircraft to expedite the process.

The U.S. evacuated 15,000 U.S. citizens from Lebanon during a war in 2006, and 21,000 from Haiti following the massive 2010 earthquake, to cite just two historical examples. The State Department knows how to organize evacuations under the most difficult conditions  and will create paths home for citizens caught in this crisis, too. But what’s so hard about executing on this particular challenge?

It’s the invisible, deadly and now global coronavirus microbe. Foreign governments’ legitimate and necessary measures to “flatten the curve” of infection — like similar measures in the U.S. — conflict directly with our government’s efforts to help our citizens travel home. The very real health threat significantly complicates evacuation planning.

For example, some have suggested the U.S. should “just send planes” to bring people home.  It’s not so simple.  

For repatriation flights from Morocco, for example, embassy staff obtained flight clearances from the host government, notified registered Americans of the flights, built manifests for each flight (prioritizing vulnerable travelers like the elderly, students and those with health issues to go first), notified individual travelers as they were assigned, and provided information about transportation options to the airport.  A dedicated 24/7 call center fielded inquiries and change requests. Embassy staff brought tables, chairs, stanchions, U.S. Embassy signs and identifying vests to wear, promissory notes (by law, travelers must pay for their flight), laptops and wireless printers, hand sanitizer, masks, water and military food rations to the otherwise closed airport.  The team included embassy logistics professionals, expediters and travel assistants, as well as security staff. When some scheduled travelers did not arrive, the airport team tweeted out that seats were still available, holding flights as long as possible.  

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In Peru, where the civilian airport was not only closed but off-limits due to a possible coronavirus infection, Embassy staff improvised departure screening in a small hangar on the military side of the field. So much for social distancing.

As of March 31, about 27,000 U.S. citizens have returned with government assistance (including 1,185 from Morocco and 2,800 from Peru). That is an impressive number considering the immense logistical and communications challenges. Still, repatriations continue. 

Thousands of citizens who would like to come home remain abroad, especially in remote locations; efforts to resolve their situations continue. New requests for repatriation are coming in, as additional borders close and governments enforce strict internal travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.  The global Repatriation Task Force operates around the clock, hundreds of experts who communicate with the public, and each other, from numerous locations (many teleworking from home), using crisis management tools specifically designed for a globally dispersed team.    

By definition, crises do not unfold seamlessly or easily.  Ongoing operations will generate many lessons learned and those will be incorporated in future training and crisis preparation.  Meanwhile, as some of us obediently stay home and read about efforts to stop the spread of the virus, these dedicated public servants deserve recognition and credit for their resolute, indefatigable, and often risky work.      

Michele Thoren Bond is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.