On the front lines of diplomacy, but at the end of the line for a shot

WASHINGTON – At its best, working at the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, was always difficult: Pollution, lack of electricity, unreliable internet service, and a poor healthcare system made it a job. difficult for American diplomats.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic.

In a warning cable sent last week to the State Department headquarters, the 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-facing diplomacy obligations during the pandemic.

He said many embassy employees felt unsafe going outside, shopping or getting medical checkups in a country that disdained masks. Others reported to the office anyway, unable to gain access to government systems from home, to keep up with job demands with reduced staff due to virus-related outings.

Kosnett said he had yet to receive vaccinations for his diplomats, even though doses were administered to some Washington-based State Department employees as early as two months ago.

“It’s harder to accept the department’s logic to prioritize vaccination for top-tier staff in Washington,” wrote Kosnett, a career diplomat, on the cable, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “Until the department can provide vaccines to positions like Pristina, the impact of the pandemic on health, well-being and productivity will continue to be profound.”

His concerns, previously reported by NBC News, have been echoed by American diplomats working in Europe, the Middle East and South America, who complain that the State Department’s launch of the vaccine has been, in the best, disjointed.

At worst, some diplomats said, it left the clear impression that the needs of leaders and senior employees based in the United States were more urgent than those of staff living in countries with increasing virus cases. or without modern health care systems, or, in some cases, both.

The protest represents a silent but widespread mutiny among the US diplomatic corps, the first so far in the term of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

Some career employees at the State Department have also complained about political appointments being chosen for prime positions, despite Blinken’s promise to promote from within.

But the department’s internal schism over vaccine distribution has particularly resonated in light of President Biden’s promise to accelerate doses to Americans and after Blinken noted last month that the pandemic had killed five American citizens and 42 staff members employed locally in embassies and consulates around the country. world.

In at least two cables to the department’s workforce this month, Blinken and other top officials appeared pained as they tried to assure front-line diplomats that they, too, would be vaccinated, if they so chose, as soon as doses were available.

“The unfortunate and difficult reality is that there are more places that need immediate doses than we have the offer to accommodate,” said Carol Z. Pérez, the acting undersecretary of administration, in the latest cable, dated Monday, to update to all diplomats. and consular posts on the department’s virus response. “I understand the frustration and we are doing everything we can to fill these gaps.”

He said the next dose tranche for employees, expected next month, will be shipped “almost exclusively overseas,” as staff in “critical infrastructure” jobs in Washington have been vaccinated.

However, the cable, which was signed by Blinken, said it was unclear how many doses the State Department would receive from the government’s vaccine campaign in March, or where, exactly, they would be sent.

So far, the department has received about 73,400 doses of vaccines, or about 23 percent of the 315,000 requested for its employees, families, and other household members of U.S. diplomats who are stationed overseas, U.S.-born staff members. foreigners working in embassies and consulates abroad and contractors. .

Eighty percent of those vaccines have been shipped overseas, on par with the number of full-time State Department employees working overseas, if not their family members or contractors. But diplomats noted higher risks of infection and lower quality of medical care in many countries that were not at all comparable to conditions in the United States.

An official based in the Middle East said that medical staff from some US embassies had been sent back to Washington to administer vaccines to officials there, leaving the impression that staff abroad was not a priority.

As across the United States, officials at the department’s headquarters have struggled to deliver a vaccine that requires sub-zero temperature controls at more than 270 diplomatic posts around the world. In recent weeks, the State Department obtained more than 200 freezers for embassies and consulates to use to store vaccines, 80 percent of which were delivered, Pérez said.

He also acknowledged “mistakes,” such as in December, when an unspecified number of doses that were stored at the wrong temperature in Washington had to be used immediately or wasted. They were handed out to department employees who were put on a priority list by their managers and were able to come to the medical unit at State Department headquarters on short notice during the holidays.

Much of the first dose tranche went to the department’s front-line workers: medical, maintenance and diplomatic security personnel, and officials working in operations centers around the clock who monitor diplomatic and security developments in all the world. Vaccines were also administered to employees of State Department missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

What was left over, for the most part, was for Washington-area employees who worked from government offices at least eight hours a 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 Washington-area employees were also dosed.

This month, the bulk of the doses went to diplomatic posts in eastern and southern Africa, as well as to the remaining Washington-area employees who work regularly from the office and staff of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York. .

Separately, a senior department official said Tuesday that about a dozen top officials appointed by the Trump administration were also vaccinated before leaving government, although the official declined to identify who they were.

Some diplomats abroad have said it might be quicker to get the coronavirus vaccine from the countries they are posted to rather than wait for the State Department. In Monday’s cable, Ms Pérez said that at least 17 foreign governments would allow it so far, as long as they comply with US legal and safety standards.

He also said that the State Department was the only federal agency that had used all the vaccines it had received from the Department of Health and Human Services without wasting or spoiling any doses. “I wish we had more,” he said.

Despite the widespread exasperation, at least some diplomats abroad said they also understood that global demands for the vaccine had far outstripped supply – even if, they said, the State Department could have planned better months ago to secure more. dose.

In Pristina, where about 20 percent of embassy employees have been infected by the virus, Kosnett said staff morale had plummeted since the launch of the vaccine was announced. He said many diplomats doubted the embassy would ever receive doses, and some believed the State Department cared little about their plight.

He and other senior embassy officials “can and should do more at the local level to address morale issues,” Kosnett wrote in the cable.

“But we ask Washington to do more as well,” he said. “The repeated rise in expectations, then dashed hopes regarding vaccine distribution has had a negative impact on our community’s prospects for the future.”

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