WASHINGTON – In the best of times, working at the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo has always been difficult: pollution, poor electricity, unreliable internet service, and an inferior healthcare system made it a plight for American diplomats.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic.
In a warning cable sent to State Department headquarters last week, American Ambassador to Pristina Philip S. Kosnett described increasingly dire conditions for his staff, including depression and burnout, after trying for nearly a year publicly to balance out accessible tasks from diplomacy during the pandemic.
He said many embassy workers felt unsafe going outside, shopping for groceries, or undergoing medical exams in a country where face masks were despised. Others reported to the office independently, lacking access to government systems from home to keep up with the work demands of staff thinned by virus-related departures.
Mr Kosnett said he has not yet received any vaccines for his diplomats, despite the fact that some Washington-based staff members have been dosed for two months.
“It is more difficult to accept the logic of the department’s vaccination prioritization for junior staff in Washington,” wrote professional diplomat Kosnett on the cable, a copy of which was obtained from the New York Times. “Until the department is able to provide vaccines to places like Pristina, the effects of the pandemic on health, well-being and productivity will remain profound.”
His concerns, previously reported by Politico and NBC News, have been confirmed by American diplomats in Europe, the Middle East, and South America, who complain that the State Department’s introduction of the vaccine was incoherent at best.
In the worst case, some diplomats said it left the strong impression that the needs of executives and employees in the United States were more urgent than those of employees in countries with increasing virus cases or without modern health systems – or in some cases, both.
The outcry represents a muted but widespread mutiny among the American diplomatic corps, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s first term.
Some State Department career workers have also grumbled about winning political candidates for plum posts, despite Mr Blinken’s promises to promote from within.
However, the department’s internal schism over vaccine distribution has intensified, particularly in the face of President Biden’s promise to speed up doses to Americans and after Mr Blinken found out the pandemic last month that the pandemic was five American citizens and 42 before Place employed workers in embassies and consulates around the world had killed, made the world noticeable.
On at least two cables to the department’s staff this month, Mr Blinken and other senior officials sounded pained as they tried to reassure frontline diplomats that they too would be vaccinated, if they so chose, as soon as doses became available.
“The unfortunate and difficult reality is that there are more places that need an immediate dose than we have available,” said Carol Z. Perez, the acting head of the company, on Monday’s last cable to all diplomatic Update data and consular posts on the department’s virus response. “I understand the frustration and we are doing everything we can to fill these gaps.”
She said the next batch of cans for employees, expected next month, will be sent “almost entirely overseas” as staff on “critical infrastructure” jobs in Washington have been vaccinated.
Apr. 24, 2021, 8:33 p.m. ET
However, the cable, signed by Mr Blinken, said it was not clear how many doses the State Department would receive from the government’s vaccination campaign in March – and where exactly they would be sent.
The department has received about 73,400 doses of vaccine to date, or about 23 percent of the 315,000 required for its employees, families, and other household members of American diplomats posted abroad, foreign-born employees working in foreign embassies and consulates, and contractors were requested.
Eighty percent of these vaccines were shipped overseas – as were the number of full-time State Department workers who work overseas, if not their family members or contractors. However, diplomats noted higher risk of infection and lower quality of health care in many countries that were not at all comparable to conditions in the United States.
A Middle East-based official said medical staff from some American embassies had been sent back to Washington to administer vaccines to officials, creating the impression that staff overseas were not a priority.
Just like in the United States, officials at the department’s headquarters are struggling to get a vaccine that requires sub-zero temperature control to be shipped to more than 270 diplomatic agencies worldwide. In the past few weeks, the State Department received more than 200 freezers for embassies and consulates to store the vaccines, 80 percent of which had been delivered, Ms. Perez said.
She also acknowledged “missteps”, such as in December when an unspecified number of cans stored in Washington at the wrong temperature had to be used immediately or wasted. They were given to department employees who were prioritized by their managers and could come to the medical department at State Department headquarters on short notice during the holidays.
Much of the first batch of doses went to the frontline staff: medical, maintenance, and diplomatic security personnel, as well as officials working 24/7 in operations centers overseeing diplomatic and security developments around the world. Foreign ministerial missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia received vaccines.
Most of what was left went to Washington area workers who worked at least eight hours a week in government offices.
In January, diplomats in Mexico City, across West Africa and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan received the vaccine – as did employees in passport offices in Arkansas, New Hampshire and New Orleans. Additional workers in the Washington area were also given cans.
That month, the bulk of the cans were destined for diplomatic missions in East Africa and Southern Africa, as well as remaining staff in the Washington area who regularly work from the office and staff of the US Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Separately, a senior official with the department said Tuesday that about a dozen senior officials in the Trump administration were also vaccinated before leaving the administration, despite the official refusing to find out who they were.
Some diplomats overseas said it might be faster to get the coronavirus vaccine from the countries they are stationed in than waiting for the State Department. In the cable on Monday, Ms. Perez said that this has been allowed by at least 17 foreign governments so far as long as they meet American legal and safety standards.
She also said the State Department was the only federal agency that used every vaccine it received from the Department of Health and Human Services without wasting or spoiling any doses. “I wish we had more,” she said.
Despite widespread outrage, at least some overseas diplomats said they also understood that global requirements for the vaccine far exceeded supply – even if the State Department could have had better plans months ago to get more doses.
In Pristina, where around 20 percent of embassy staff are infected with the virus, Kosnett said staff morale has fallen since the vaccine was announced. He said that many diplomats there doubted the embassy would ever receive cans, and some believed the State Department cared little about their plight.
He and other high-ranking embassy representatives “can and must do more on the ground to address moral issues,” wrote Kosnett on the cable.
“But we would ask Washington to do more too,” he said. “The repetitive heightening of expectations and hopes for vaccine distribution has seriously affected the future of our community.”