WASHINGTON – At the best of times, working at the US Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo has always been tough: pollution, poor electricity, unreliable internet service, and an unhealthy healthcare system made it a job difficult for American diplomats.
This was before the coronavirus pandemic.
In a warning cable sent to State Department headquarters last week, US Ambassador to Pristina Philip S. Kosnett described increasingly dire conditions for his staff, including depression and burnout, after nearly a year of trying to balance public diplomacy duties during the pandemic.
He said many embassy workers did not feel safe going out, shopping or doing medical exams in a country that disdains face masks. Still others have come to the office, unable to access government systems from their homes, to meet work demands with staff weakened by virus-related departures.
Mr Kosnett said he had not yet received any vaccines for his diplomats, although doses had been administered to some Washington-based State Department employees for two months.
“It is more difficult to accept the logic of the department to prioritize the immunization of back-level staff in Washington,” Mr. Kosnett, a career diplomat, wrote in the cable, a copy of which was was obtained by the New York Times. “Until the department is able to deliver vaccines to posts like Pristina, the impact of the pandemic on health, well-being and productivity will remain profound.”
His concerns, reported earlier by NBC News, have been echoed by US diplomats working in Europe, the Middle East and South America, who complain that the State Department’s vaccine rollout has been disjointed at best. .
At worst, some diplomats said, it left the distinct impression that the needs of senior leaders and employees based in the United States were more pressing than those of staff living in countries with increasing cases of the virus or without a modern healthcare system – or, in some cases, both.
The outcry represents a muted but widespread mutiny within the US diplomatic corps, the first to date in Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s term.
Some career Department of State employees have also complained that political appointees have been hired for privileged positions, despite Blinken’s commitment to promote from within.
But the department’s internal schism over vaccine distribution resonated particularly in light of President Biden’s pledge to speed up doses to Americans and after Mr. Blinken noted last month that the pandemic had killed five U.S. citizens. and 42 staff members employed locally in embassies and consulates around the world.
In at least two cables to department staff this month, Mr Blinken and other senior officials appeared grieved as they tried to assure frontline diplomats that they too would be vaccinated, if they wanted to. as soon as the doses are available.
“The sad and difficult reality is that there are more places that need doses immediately than we have the stock to accommodate,” said Carol Z. Perez, acting deputy executive secretary, in the last cable, dated Monday, to update all diplomats. and consular posts on the ministry’s virus response. “I understand the frustration and we are doing all we can to address these gaps.”
She said the next tranche of doses for employees, due next month, would be sent “almost exclusively overseas,” given that staff in “critical infrastructure” jobs in Washington had been vaccinated.
Still, the cable, which was signed by Mr Blinken, said it was not clear how many doses the State Department would receive from the government vaccination campaign in March – or where, exactly, they would be. sent.
So far, the department has received about 73,400 doses of the vaccine, or about 23 percent of the 315,000 requests for its employees, families and other household members from U.S. diplomats posted abroad, native-born staff members. foreigner working in embassies and consulates abroad and entrepreneurs. .
Eighty percent of those vaccines were sent overseas – on par with the number of full-time State Department employees who work overseas, other than family members or entrepreneurs. But diplomats noted higher risks of infection and poorer quality of health care in many countries that were not at all comparable to conditions in the United States.
An official based in the Middle East said medical staff from some US embassies had been sent back to Washington to administer vaccines to local officials, leaving the impression that foreign staff were not a priority.
Much like in the United States, officials at the department’s headquarters have struggled to deliver a vaccine that requires sub-zero temperature checks to more than 270 diplomatic posts around the world. In recent weeks, the State Department has secured more than 200 freezers for embassies and consulates to use to store vaccines, 80 percent of which had been delivered, Ms. Perez said.
She also acknowledged “missteps”, such as in December, when an unknown number of doses stored at the wrong temperature in Washington were to be used immediately or wasted. They were issued to departmental employees who were put on a priority list by their managers and who were able to make it to the medical unit at State Department headquarters on short notice during the holidays.
Much of the first installment of doses went to the department’s front-line workers: medical, maintenance and diplomatic security staff, and officials who work in 24-hour operations centers who monitor diplomatic and security developments in the area. the world. Vaccines were also distributed to employees of State Department missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
What was left, for the most part, went to Washington area employees who worked in government offices at least eight hours per week.
In January, diplomats in Mexico City, West Africa and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan received the vaccine – as did employees at passport offices in Arkansas, New Hampshire and New Orleans. Additional employees in the Washington area also received doses.
This month, the bulk of the doses went to diplomatic posts in East and Southern Africa, as well as the remaining Washington area employees who regularly work in the office and staff of the US mission. at the United Nations in New York.
Separately, a senior department official said on Tuesday that a dozen senior officials appointed by the Trump administration were also vaccinated before leaving the government, although the official declined to identify who they were.
Some diplomats overseas have said it may be faster to get the coronavirus vaccine from the countries they are affected in than to wait for the State Department. In Monday’s cable, Ms Perez said it would be allowed by at least 17 foreign governments so far, provided they meet US legal and security standards.
She also said the State Department was the only federal agency to have used all vaccines received from the Department of Health and Human Services without wasting or wasting any doses. “I wish we had more,” she says.
Despite widespread exasperation, at least some diplomats abroad have said they also understand that global demand for the vaccine has far exceeded supply – although, they said, the State Department could have planned. better months there are months to get more doses.
In Pristina, where around 20% of embassy workers have been infected with the virus, Kosnett said staff morale has plummeted since news of the vaccine rollout. He said many diplomats doubted the embassy would ever receive doses, and some thought the State Department cared little about their fate.
He and other senior embassy officials “can and should do more locally to address morale issues,” Kosnett wrote in the cable.
“But we would ask Washington to do more, too,” he said. “Repeatedly raising expectations and then lowering hopes for vaccine distribution has had a negative impact on the future prospects of our community.”