Embassy on Near Lockdown After Mass COVID-19 Outbreak Among Staff
At least 114 employees at the U.S. embassy in Kabul have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, is in the midst of a major COVID-19 outbreak, with at least 114 employees testing positive and one dying from related symptoms.
Embassy staff are on a near lockdown, according to a management alert sent out Tuesday, meaning they can only leave their quarters to eat, exercise or relax alone outside. They cannot leave their homes to work unless it is “mission critical and time sensitive” and approved by their supervisor. Pools and indoor gyms are closed, sports are prohibited and eating with others is not allowed.
Management instructed employees to wear masks—noting they are “seeing a lot of noses,” indicating many employees are not wearing masks correctly—and can only take them off outdoors when at least 20 feet away from anyone else. Anyone who violates any of the new policies will face consequences up to and including removal from the post "on the next available flight." Management asked employees to inform on their colleagues who engage in prohibited activities.
The State Department has stood up temporary COVID-19 wards on the Kabul compound, as military hospital intensive care unit resources are at full capacity.
“We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the mission’s ability to carry out the nation’s business,” management wrote in its memorandum.
It noted that 90% of Afghan and third-country national staff were vaccinated, but 95% of COVID-19 infections occurred with employees who had not yet been vaccinated or only received one dose. State received its own allotment of vaccines directly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early in the distribution process and prioritized employees in foreign posts to receive them. After initially acknowledging it encountered "significant distribution challenges," State said in April it had shipped sufficient doses to vaccinate its entire overseas workforce. Management in Kabul noted it still has vaccines available for employee use.
“We are all in this together and rely on your cooperation during this difficult time,” management wrote. “We can only return to normal operations with the cooperation of everyone.”
Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, called on the Biden administration to require all staff at the embassy to be vaccinated in order to serve there. Governmentwide guidance has so far resisted making vaccinations required in any setting.
"At a time when the U.S. military withdrawal is accelerating, attacks on Afghan and coalition forces are intensifying and the U.S. is seeking to establish a stable and positive presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, the damage to our national security and national interests is potentially grave," Rubin said. "This has always been a matter of life and death, but now it literally has become exactly that for our members and colleagues serving their country abroad.