Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the State Department has managed to bring home over 40,000 Americans stranded abroad from over 60 countries. While we rightfully breathe a sigh of relief for these repatriated Americans, we are forgetting the tens of thousands of U.S. diplomats and support staff at embassies and consulates around the globe who cannot return home. For them, COVID-19 will be a traumatic and even deadly experience. Indeed, some have already died. Yet, despite the risk, they will continue on after having borne three years of attempted budget cuts and a president who has not hidden his contempt for them. In the upcoming fourth coronavirus stimulus package, these officers and staff members should not only be given recognition for their heroism, but more importantly, should be rewarded with hazard pay and provided the protective equipment they need.
When people think of U.S. diplomats or the State Department, they often think of cocktail parties, pinstripe suits, and intrigue. “Pale, male, and Yale” is an old adage, but the coronavirus has proven that to be very much a thing of the past. State Department officials are going into prisons and hospitals all over the world to check on the welfare of American citizens affected by COVID-19. They are organizing in teams to take tens of thousands of calls at all hours of the night from concerned Americans. Diplomats have rented buses to pick up stranded Americans in remote locations around the globe while negotiating with foreign governments to approve flights when public airports are closed.
They do this work at serious risk to their own lives. When you are a U.S. Embassy staff member, you are not just a diplomat hidden away behind closed doors. You are a social worker, a psychologist, a doctor, a forensics expert, a minister, and often a comforter. During my time at the State Department, face to face contact with foreign government officials and sick Americans were a requirement of the job. Currently, my former colleagues must be in COVID-19 hotspots such as hospitals and airports in order to effectively do their jobs. Already, three State Department staffers have died of COVID-19 and over 154 have tested positive for the virus. There are 3,500 in self-isolation. Many more will likely die.
Instead of the cheers of a grateful nation, these State Department officials receive a lot of criticism. Why did they not warn or rescue me sooner, ask the stranded Americans who, despite this global pandemic progressing for months and despite repeated warnings, still opted to travel internationally? Why didn’t they rescue my constituents first, ask the Republican congressmen who voted repeatedly to cut the State Department security budget?
But not all is criticism, and the most ironic praise comes from the top. “Look at the great job we are doing bringing Americans home,” says the White House that just a few months ago labeled the State Department “radical unelected bureaucrats.” For the better part of three years, the State Department has labored under a president and political appointees who have been seemingly at war with U.S. diplomats. President Trump referred to them as the “Deep State Department” just a few weeks ago. Mike Pompeo, with his eye solely on the 2024 Republican primary, pointedly refused on multiple occasions to defend any of the State Department officials who were repeatedly attacked by President Trump and his allies during the impeachment inquiry. In one of his first acts as president, Trump attempted to cut the State Department budget by 37 percent.
Trump pushed out senior ranking diplomats while handing out ambassadorships and important jobs to campaign donors, political cronies, and members of his golf club. The current U.S. ambassadors to several prominent countries include a handbag designer, former sports team owners, and a bankruptcy lawyer. Three years of indifference and outright hostility has left a hollowed-out State Department as officers — high ranking and midlevel — left in droves. The intellect, institutional knowledge, and language skills of Marie Yovanovitch and Bill Taylor could surely have been used during this pandemic.
Yet through it all — despite the slights, budget cuts, and mass exodus — the officers who stayed are, and will continue being, consummate professionals. Their willingness to risk their lives must stem from patriotism, because it surely cannot be out of an expectation of commensurate salaries or respect. We cannot undo the harm that has been done to them, but we can ensure that future pandemics and crises are met with a respected, well-funded, and well-staffed State Department. Certainly, we can offer better pay and equipment for the public servants going through this right now.