Today is Day 13 of a 4-day lockdown. The lockdown has limited the availability of food and access to quality health care. We’re fine for now, but the situation is unstable, changing every day.
A few days ago, the Department decided to put the Consulate on “Ordered Departure.” When a post goes on Ordered Departure, American personnel who aren’t performing a “mission-critical” function, especially those with families with small children, must leave. They have to return to DC, and work remotely (as best they can) from (cramped and crappy) hotel rooms until this is over.
We lived through this two years ago in Dhaka. We had the choice to leave then, and we chose to stay. We felt less vulnerable, and more importantly, we felt that we could help. Looking back, I feel that we made the right decision. We did some amazing work then; we really helped a lot of people. I feel the same way this time. Our core mission in Embassies and Consulates is to help American Citizens who are in need.
Ordinarily, my position here in Shanghai is not considered to be mission-critical. Cultural programming is the last thing on anyone’s mind when the city is shut down and under a cloud of uncertainty. Under Ordered Departure, I would be ordered to leave.
We did a lot of thinking about the situation, and decided that it made more sense for us to try to stay. We can be useful here. My wife already works in the Consular section. Several months ago, before any of this started, I asked for and received authorization to perform consular functions in Shanghai, everything from notarial services to adjudicating visas to American Citizen Services. At the time, I thought maybe I could help during the summer visa rush, when tens of thousands of students apply for visas to study in the United States. I told post leadership that we would like to stay and help, if they need two extra pairs of hands. As it happens, so many officers in the Consular section must leave, that they’re short-handed.
Consulate leadership accepted our offer to stay and help. So instead of evacuating to “safe haven” in the United States, I will be detailed to the Consular section, for as long as Ordered Departure lasts (anywhere from a few weeks to a few months).
We are aware of the potential dangers that we face by staying, but I’m not convinced that it’s as dangerous for us as it might be for others. We are physically safe. Violent crime is extremely rare, even crime of opportunity is low. The national surveillance system in China is like something in a George Orwell novel. It’s pretty hard to get away with crime here.
We do face two real threats by staying, though: food and medical care. Because the city is locked down, we can’t go to the grocery store. We are in a better , though, because we speak Chinese. My wife is on the cell phone all day, monitoring “group buys” of food. Unlike some other people, we have plenty of food. The food threat isn’t as serious for us (at least, not yet). Our food situation is much, much better than many people in the city.
Medical care is a larger problem. Hospitals are reluctant to admit anyone, for fear of spreading the virus. There are real stories of patients being refused service because they were running a low-grade fever, which of course is one of the symptoms of COVID. If we have a serious medical issue, it will be harder to get treatment. Harder, but not impossible. A guy in our building cut himself badly a few days ago while chopping vegetables in his kitchen. The building management managed to get him to a hospital and he got stitched up. There were some delays, but not too much.
The city-wide lockdown continues, we haven’t been out of our apartment since April 1, except for three short trips out to a central testing site nearby. We don’t know when we will be able to leave. For now, “helping” means reading my work emails and waiting to be called. I think the Consular section will get more busy later on. After the lockdown is over, it will take some time for the officers to return to post. In that time window, the section will need our help to perform routine Consular services.
We’re fine for now. We are practicing what the Department calls “situational awareness.” We’ve been through this before, and this time we have the advantage of no language barrier. We’re in good health, and unlike last time, we’re triple-vaccinated. I think this will end much sooner than the Department predicts. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that I’m right. In the meantime, there are some frightened Americans in Shanghai who don’t have the same support network and diplomatic immunity that I have. We can help these folks, this is what I signed up for, this is what I want to be doing.