There’s a Nation-Wide Shortage of Sleeping Bags

“Everybody out, now, go!”

My supervisor waved everyone toward the exits, as he rushed around the office, locking all the doors and securing all of our materials. I grabbed all of my stuff, made sure that I had my mask on, checked that everyone on my team got the message to leave, and rushed out of the building. People from other offices in the building were also scrambling to get out as fast as they could. No one was panicking, everyone was calm, but they all showed the same urgency to get out of the building. No one wanted to get stuck inside.

A few years ago, I took the special training course that the State Department requires for all diplomats posted overseas. The official name is “Foreign Affairs Counter Terrorism,” or FACT. We call it “crash-bang.” It’s a week-long course held at a military base, and it prepares us for when things go horribly wrong while posted overseas. Among the modules are defensive driving. We got to crash cars into other cars. It was incredibly fun. The first aid section was stomach-turning for several people. Can you say “sucking chest wound?” We even got to practice crawling through a smoke-filled room, and climbing into a helicopter while wearing flack jackets and helmets. The training is serious and important; I know that people have saved their lives and others’ at post when things went south.

Here’s a CNN story about the FACT course, if you want to know more.

Stubbornly adhering to its zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy, the Chinese government is struggling to control the latest outbreak. The omicron variant has come to China, and just like in the rest of the world, its high infectious rate is causing outbreaks throughout the country. The absolute numbers are small. While the United States saw daily cases numbers in the hundreds of thousands, this week the new daily numbers are in the low thousands. But when your goal is zero, any new case is unacceptable. And there are consequences of this hard line. Local officials have lost their jobs because of their inability to control the spread of the virus. The local health authorities have seemingly absolute authority to control people’s movements and to implement lockdowns and mandate mass testing. All of which we are seeing in China this month.

I don’t know exactly what’s happening in Shanghai now. There isn’t a lot of objective, clear news. And the policy seems to be shifting. In recent weeks, we saw several cases of businesses being locked down, and anyone who happened to be inside when that happened had to get comfortable. They were stuck there for 48 hours while they were tested twice before being released (if their tests were negative, of course). This has happened to people that I work with. The father of one of my coworkers was identified as a “close contact” of a confirmed case. That meant that he was carted off to a quarantine facility, which in this case was a hotel room. He’s confined there for 14 days, while getting tested twice a day, every day.

There is a silver lining to the increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections in China, though. Just like in the rest of the world, although omicron is more contagious, it’s much, much less severe. Although infections are up in China, deaths aren’t. And the vast majority of confirmed infections are asymptomatic. COVID-19 simply isn’t having a large impact on people’s health.

People aren’t afraid of getting sick anymore, which is good. But they are afraid of getting caught up in the government’s unrelenting zero-tolerance measures, which have not yet changed. And the current approach has an enormous impact on people’s lives.

The reason that my supervisor rushed everyone out of the office was because he got word that our building was going into lockdown. This is happening all over the city. Once a building is locked down, no one can leave until the health authorities say so. One of my coworkers was called home in the middle of the day last week, because someone who lives in her apartment building was a close contact of a close contact. Once she returned home, she couldn’t leave her apartment for three days. She had to have two negative tests before she could return to work. Another coworker received the same notification. She has already been tested four times, and she still hasn’t been given the green light to leave her apartment. Today is day seven for her.

The reason everyone was eager to leave the building was that no one wanted to be locked down. Getting locked down anywhere is bad, but being locked down in the office is much worse than being locked down in your own house.

Back in normal times, pre-COVID, we were encouraged to prepare a “Go Bag” in our house. In the case of a sudden emergency, if we had to leave in a hurry, we should have a bag with a change of clothes, our passports and important documents, etc. If we were being evacuated, we could grab the bag on our way to the airport. Now, we are told to have a “Stay Bag” in the office, with a change of clothes and other necessities. Last week I bought a sleeping bag to keep in my office. I wasn’t the only person with that great idea, and I know that, because now there’s a nation-wide shortage of sleeping bags.

I got one of the last ones on the market.

Sure enough, the building where I work is now in lockdown, so I can’t go to work today. Yesterday, we heard another rumor that my apartment building would be locked down today. We haven’t heard anything yet, though. In theory, we can go outside and walk around. But no one wants to enter a store, because once you’re inside somewhere, there’s a chance that you could be locked in.

China is experiencing a strong case of deja vu. Is it 2022, or 2020, too?

A year later, this still chokes me up

A year has gone by now, and even though I still can’t talk about it without choking up, I can write about it. This happened when I was a consular officer in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Burma. Because of religious violence against them, one million of them have fled into Bangladesh. This is a festering humanitarian crisis. Bangladesh is a poor country that is barely able to feed its own people. The addition of a million additional people in need of basic life support is a burden that the country can’t endure. Humanitarian aid is keeping them alive, but no one has been able to offer a workable solution yet.

The issue of refugee resettlement is political and emotional. If I were a refugee, I’d want to return to my home country. But that isn’t always possible. In the case of the Rohingya, the government of Burma refuses to acknowledge their citizenship. They are literally stateless.

The United States, like many countries, allows reunification of refugee families if one member of the family has resettled legally in their country. I was able to help a Rohingya refugee join her husband in America.

It might surprise you to know that the United States isn’t even in the top ten among countries that accept refugees. Would you believe that Iran and Ethiopia each accept more than ten times the number of refugees that the United States does?

Even though there’s a legal mechanism to resettle refugees in the United States, there are all kinds of legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Rohingya crisis created some political obstacles as well, which I don’t want to try to explain, since I barely understood them at the time, and still don’t. Long story short, we had to get the Bangladesh government to agree to allow this one refugee to exit the country and get on an airplane to the United States. Getting one person out took more than a year. It took emails, phone calls, Congressional inquiries, in-person meetings with local government officials, security checks, medical examinations. The United Nations was involved, of course. I learned a lot from the experience, but all through the process, we were communicating with this young woman, and that put a human face on the process. This was a human being, and we were trying to help her get out of hell, and to build a new life.

Finally the day came when all the pieces came together. We had the entry visa, the medical and security clearances, coordination with the local authorities, and the airline. Even though everyone involved had given their approval, there was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be complications. I and a local staff member went to the airport with her, to help her navigate all of the steps. We went six hours before the flight was scheduled to leave. We got special airport passes that let us go through security, and right up to the boarding gate. I wanted to see her get on the airplane, and watch it take off, before I could relax.

Airlines in general don’t know what to do with refugees’ resettlement paperwork. Stateless refugees don’t have passports. The U.S. government uses a special form, but it isn’t the passport and visa that the airline is required to verify. Luckily, I had a good relationship with the airline, after working closely with them on the evacuation flights earlier in the year. I had given them the heads-up that this was happening. Still, the people working the airline counter hadn’t been informed. We explained the situation, but they had to double-check with their supervisors, because they’d never encountered a case like this. I think it helped to have an American officer there to explain the situation and assure the airline that she had permission to enter the United States. The check-in process proceeded.

Her luggage was overweight.

There was a $65 charge for the excess baggage.

Stateless refugees don’t have credit cards.

I was sure as hell not going to let a $65 luggage charge derail the 18 months of work to get that far along. Without hesitation, I whipped out my credit card and covered that charge. This was not an authorized expense, and I will never see that money again. But it was a very, very tiny price to pay to make sure that we could see this though, and reunite this woman with her husband.

The next step was passport control. That required another side trip to the airport police office, and several long phone calls with the higher-ups. I had my phone out, ready to call my contacts in the foreign ministry in case they needed to remind the airport authorities that she had permission to leave without a passport. But eventually they got it worked out. Seeing them stamp her paperwork was a huge relief. A stamp on the paperwork meant that the political obstacle was overcome.

Waiting in the departure lounge until boarding time and wheels-up was a stressful experience. Boarding the plane required another passport check, which required the gate agent to be aware of this special situation. But finally, she was allowed onto the plane, and I waited until wheels-up before leaving the airport.

This was the first time that a Rohingya refugee was allowed to be resettled to the United States in years. The process was an enormous lift, that took international and interagency coordination. My diplomatic skills were put to the test. It was a long, long day in the airport. For me, though, it was worth it. We didn’t just help a person that day, we changed her life.

The next steps are hers, and they will be hard. She now has to learn yet another language, adapt to a new culture, and accept the fact that she will probably never see her home country again. She isn’t a refugee any more, but she’s still an exile. But there’s no doubt in my mind that her life will be better. Because of what I and my team did. I am as proud of the work we finished that day as anything that I’ve done as a Foreign Service officer, and maybe as a human being.

A Golden Cage is Still a Cage

The local government has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re convinced that their approach to controlling the spread of the virus has been proven correct. They point to the very low numbers of infections in China. They consider that to validate their strict social control measures. In contrast, they point to what they consider to be an out-of-control situation in the West.

It’s impossible to ignore the wide difference in transmission numbers that result from China’s approach. There is no doubt that China is controlling the spread of the virus much more successfully than other countries are.

Everything comes at a cost, of course, and China’s success in controlling the pandemic is no exception. The cost is borne by the local people. They have to deal with limitations and restrictions that disrupt their lives, in little and not-so-little ways.

A coworker told me yesterday that the city has cancelled all large, in-person events through the end of the year. All concerts, parties, exhibitions, graduation ceremonies, celebrations, have been moved to online and virtual formats. Many schools are back to holding classes online, too.

Travel has also taken a hit. When people travel, the virus travels, too. We’ve had to cancel many official trips within the country. We can take personal trips, but there’s a huge risk. If you travel outside the city, and an outbreak is discovered (“outbreak” in China means the number of confirmed cases is more than zero), the place where you are traveling to could be locked down. Your long weekend trip could be extended by 14 days, locked inside a crummy quarantine hotel. Which you have to pay for.

Although we really wanted to do more in-country travel, the risks are too high. We aren’t worried about getting sick: we’re triple-vaccinated. But in China, when an area gets locked down, no one gets in or out, regardless of vaccination status, nationality, or color of your passport. The danger of getting sick is pretty small, but the risk of massive inconvenience and disruption to our lives is quite high.

Luckily for us, we’re in Shanghai, where there’s a lot to do, see, eat, hear, experience. There is no danger of getting bored in Shanghai. The staycations that we are planning are pretty great. But the psychological effect of knowing that we have to stay in the city deducts some of the fun. Although it isn’t a bad thing, we’re stuck here.

Diplomatting in Chinese Again

Foreign Service officers have different “portfolios” during specific tours. During my last tour of duty in Bangladesh, I was a visa chief, so most of the time, I was in the office. The few conversations that I had outside the office were about visa policies.

This time around, though, I have a more public-facing position in China. I meet with people outside the office several times a week. Which is great, because I get to diplomat in Chinese. My job during this tour requires me (among other things) to promote education in the United States to Chinese students. This week I went on a road trip to four cities in our consular district. We partnered with several U.S. universities, and set up information booths at our education fair.

Travel by high-speed train in China is convenient, but it’s still travel. Business travel is different from vacation travel. It’s work, not play.

A mix of parents and students come to our booths to ask about studying in the United States. I haven’t felt this useful in a long time. In Bangladesh, I didn’t have any of the local language, so I was limited to talking with people who already spoke English. I could muddle by in Vietnamese when I was in Vietnam, but I never felt as comfortable with Vietnamese as I do in Chinese.

With my background in academia, experience as a parent of college students, and pretty good Chinese, I felt useful. I felt like I really communicated with anxious parents and curious students, and connected with people this week.

The week was capped off by an education fair back in Shanghai. At our booth in the exhibition hall, I spent the day talking, dispelling myths, and clearing up some misunderstandings. I hope that straight answers from an American officer, delivered directly in Chinese, was convincing enough to the people I talked with.

My big takeaway from this week is that although there is still strong interest in studying in the United States, there is a real dearth of information about how to do it right. My team and I are already brainstorming ideas to overcome this information gap, such as online seminars for parents. We have a lot of work to do, and our resources are limited. But I love to connect with people, and I believe strongly in the value of an American education.

I’m Diplomatting Again (Finally)

After the longest home leave ever, I finally got to post. But then I had to sit in a hotel room for two weeks for the mandated quarantine period. Then a few days after we got out of quarantine, there was a week-long national holiday. I was itching to get to work and start to earn my paycheck!

My job during this tour is to lead the public engagement for the Consulate. This “consular district” (the area of China that we interface with) has over 200 million people. That’s a lot of public to engage with.

Last week I visited the city of Ningbo 寧波, which is in our consular district, but is two hours away from Shanghai by high-speed train.

Shanghai train stations are big, modern, and clean, but just as crowded as any other train station that I’ve been to in China.

Travel in China is back to routine, but there’s always a risk of getting “caught out.” The pandemic is still ongoing, and the Chinese government is sticking to the “zero-tolerance” control mechanism. If there’s a local outbreak, the locality is shut down, and no one gets in our out. Diplomatic immunity doesn’t apply! I had to update the social tracking application on my phone to include the city of Ningbo. In the train station someone took my temperature at least three times. Luckily I haven’t heard from the local health authorities that I was exposed to COVID-19. Knock on wood.

I can confirm that the countryside in my consular district is stunningly beautiful.

In Ningo, I got to visit two art museums, one public and one private.

Getting a personal tour of the art museum, led by none other than the museum director. She’s an artist herself. I learned a lot, and tried not to make it too obvious how little I know about art.

I also visited a special-education school that we are working with. One of the teachers is actually a parent of a student at the school. Her child has Down’s Syndrome. She told me that she quit her job to start working at the school, so that she could know how to best help her son maximize his potential. Her story was moving. Like many parents of special-needs children, she struggles to acceptance for her son, not only in general society, but from even her own extended family. Her love and dedication to her child were obvious. I confess that I choked up at one point.

It was a long day: I left the house at 6:30am, and didn’t get home until almost 8:00pm. But it was a great trip. I think we will be able to expand our engagement, and to promote American values. For me personally, I felt like I was doing real people-to-people diplomacy for the first time in a long time. I speak pretty good Chinese, so I can really connect with people. As long as we keep talking with each other, we can narrow gaps in understanding. That’s the idea, anyway.

A little mop-up operation

OK, I think we’re really done this time.

This was the fifth time that we put people on planes, but we’re calling this one flight 4.1.

Ominous Airline was contractually bound to give us 365 seats on our previous flight.  They failed to do so.  After they off-boarded 20-some people on their flight, they were obligated to come back and pick them up. Which meant yet another trip to the airport in a hazmat suit.

Guess who?

We didn’t have as many people this time, and they had been checked in already for the prior flight.  So we didn’t need as many people this time, and we didn’t have to be at the airport as long. In fact, the plane left early this time. The fact that Ominous Airline didn’t use their own plane this time might have something to do with the efficiency.

I like how, from this angle, the U.S. flag looks like a necktie. Bonus points for anyone who can identify that yellow thing in my hand.

Although hundreds of people have since contacted us asking for help leaving the country, I think we’re done now. The state of the outbreak here is serious. The Embassy’s medical officer is more and more vocal that these airport adventures are dangerous for everyone, both passengers and Embassy personnel. We should not be exposing our people to the virus. I don’t disagree. I had a bit of a sore throat and a cough a few days after the flight, and even though it passed quickly, and I had no fever, it was still a scare.

I had to self-isolate at home for a week. Now I’m ready to get back to work.

“This will end when we stop being good at it”

An insightful quote from one of the officers at post. She made this observation as we were preparing for our fourth and probably final charter flight out of Dhaka. In some strange way, we have been victims of our own success.

We did a good job of filling the planes the first three times around (we set the world-wide record for percentage of seats filled on our flights). I guess the Department figured that we were efficient enough to justify a fourth flight.

We were successful in evacuating over 900 people over our first three flights. And the demand for additional flights continued. The Ambassador decided that we would continue. As long as there were Americans who wanted out, and as long as the State Department would subsidize the flights, we would try to get Americans back to America.

Of course, while we have been evacuating Americans, the pandemic situation in Bangladesh has been intensifying. This is the most densely-populated country in the world, and the local healthcare infrastructure is woefully unprepared to treat an outbreak. We were ordered to wear PPE at the airport.

We had spent several days building out flight manifest, negotiating with the charter airline, which we jokingly named “Ominous Air.” We thought that was funny at the time. Later on, we discovered the meaning of the word “irony.”

The calm before the storm

The day started out normally enough. A huge crowd of people showed up at the airport, with way too much luggage. We did our check-in process. We even managed to fill the plane, this time to 100% capacity.

That’s when things went off the rails.

Ominous Air informed us that we had to off-board 16 people because of a problem with the emergency exit doors. We re-did the passeger manifest, keeping vulnerable people (elderly, health problems, etc) on the plane. People were paged and told that the couldn’t travel. Then the off-board number grew to 36. Then it went down to 28. In the end, we had to de-plane 27 people. We did all of the work, from the passenger manifest to contacting the passengers. Ominous Air contracted with a local ground support team that was supposed to do that. Then why did we do it? Good question. We’re still asking ourselves that.

Then we had to get the luggage from these 27 unlucky people off the plane. Ominous Air didn’t have a computerized luggage tracking system, and the ground service company didn’t seem to want to look at luggage tags and identify suitcases. We we did it. Why? Excellent question. Two of my coworkers and I crawled into the guts of the plane to look for the luggage.

This is not a task that you want to do.
So glad that I work with good people. Otherwise this job would really suck sometimes.

The plane finally took off seven hours late. Many passengers were grumpy (to put it mildly). The emails and phone calls from family members poured in overnight, asking for landing times, wanting information about the status of the flight. This is a real public-relations mess. Our credibility has taken a serious hit.

I guess we aren’t good at this anymore. So maybe it will end now?

I might get used to this, but it won’t happen soon.

The charter flights continue. The State Department is still encouraging American citizens to return to the United States. Here in Dhaka, we are still chartering airplanes to get people home. This week was our third go-round. This time, we told ourselves, it would be smooth. We knew what we were doing this time. We learned from our mistakes. We can prevent problems, anticipate any complications, and it will all run like clockwork.

We developed a new registration system, we made phone calls, answered emails, sent out information. We confirmed people for the flight.

Then the Bangladesh government extended the government shutdown, and declared a curfew. People kept getting sick. The police set up roadblocks to discourage people from going out.

On Game Day, we got (temporarily) locked out of the airport.

Airport is locked, and we can’t find the key. Oh, how I wish that were a joke.

In the airport, I was walking back and forth between two ends of the departure lobby. On one side of the building we checked in confirmed passengers, and on the other side, we checked in the standby passengers. I filled my daily exercise quota just from covering that distance several times.

It’s not that big of an airport, but when you walk the length several times a day, the steps add up.

I’m forcing myself to look on the bright side of the day. We created some really amazing consular success stories. One PhD student has been stranded in Bangladesh with his infant daughter. He needed to renew his student visa before he could return to the United States, but his passport was locked up in the offices of our courier company. All businesses are closed by the government shutdown order, including our courier service. We coordinated with the company to open the office especially for the student so that he could collect his passport. Then he brought it to the Embassy, where I issued the visa, our locally-engaged staff printed it, and he whisked off to the airport.

A married couple has some health issues and needed to get to the United States. Problem was, only one of them is a U.S. citizen. So we opened the visa window for the non-citizen spouse, issued a visa, and printed it the morning of the flight.

Some people drove eight-plus hours from remote parts of the country to get to the capital city airport. An hour before the airline’s check-in counter closed, a couple rushed into the airport. They said that police road blocks and checkpoints meant that it took them three hours to get to the airport.

But I also had a huge disappointment. Our email inbox on Game Day had several notifications that people cancelled. Understandable. People are getting sick, others are being warned away by their families in the United States. But a lot of people just didn’t show up for the flight. Instead of a full flight, which I was hoping for, we sent the plane off with 30 empty seats. I received that news after having walked round the airport all morning, then standing at the airline check-in desk for over two hours, reviewing every passport. The news, that we would be so far from full, was hard to take. I was so visibly upset that the DCM (deputy chief of mission, #2 officer in the Embassy), who was monitoring the situation, asked if I needed to take a break.

Even after the flight was fully booked, people had been calling us, begging and crying to get on the flight. We told them: come to the airport, we can out them on standby, maybe, just maybe, we can put you on the plane. Our standby list grew to 92 people. Surely, I felt, we would fill every one of the 358 seats on the plane. But we failed.

Still, we filled to 92% capacity, which set a new record for charter flights that embassies and consulates around the world are organizing. And the silver lining to the large number of no-shows is that every single person who came to the airport got on the plane. That’s not nothing.

Social distancing group photo. What a strange world we are now living in.

This is really meaningful work. The safety of U.S. citizens is our #1 priority. I love working closely with the dedicated officers and LE staff. But after a month of 12- to16-hour days, we are all physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Another Week, Another Charter Flight

We learned a lot from the first time we did a charter flight. So when we did the second one yesterday (after many days of preparation), it went a lot smoother. Many problems, headaches, and much heartburn. But in the end we got 321 322 people out.

What a beautiful sight.

Again, everyone from the Embassy came down to the Consular section to help out. Once again, we spent days calling people, building a passenger list.

We partnered with an airline, and on Game Day, we worked side-by-side to get people checked in and on the plane.

The airline checked the passports, then I checked them again.
A panorama from my position at the airline check-in desk.
Airline employees in pink hazmat suits helping passengers.

At literally the last hour, one of our General Services guys drove to a lady’s house, picked her up, and delivered her to the airport. That boosted our total passenger list from 321 people to 322.

After it was all over, I ran into a few of the airline employees, and we congratulated each other on a job well done.
Wave that flag!

We always say that American citizens are our #1 priority. We proved that again this week. Every Foreign Service officer has to do a Consular tour for two years, regardless of their chosen area of specialization (political, economic, management, public diplomacy). So everyone has Consular experience. I’m so grateful to my colleagues in the other sections of the Embassy who gave us a week of their time to work on this effort. When an emergency happens, we’re all Consular officers.