More than 100 people at the US Embassy in Kabul have Covid-19, one person has died, and several have been medically evacuated as a wave of the deadly pandemic hits Afghanistan and the US military withdrawal from the country continues.
The surge in cases has prompted a lockdown at the diplomatic mission and the creation of “temporary, on-compound COVID-19 wards to care for oxygen-dependent patients” because “military hospital ICU resources are at full capacity,” according to an Embassy management notice dated June 17.
“95% of our cases are individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated,” it noted. Eric Rubin, the President of the American Foreign Service Association, said his understanding was that the outbreak at the embassy was primarily among American embassy employees and contractors.
Amid the outbreak, all personnel at the embassy’s compound “are confined to quarters, except to get food from the DFACs,” a military term for dining facilities, “or to exercise or relax outdoors, alone,” the notice said, outlining a series of restrictions on activities and work.
The notice called for those coming to the embassy to be vaccinated before arrival, noting that “failure to do this puts everyone in the community at risk.”
“Please avail yourselves of the vaccines available in the Embassy. Over 90% of our Afghan and TCN (Third Country National) Staff have received vaccines and we have more vaccine available,” it said.
Rubin echoed the call for those at the embassy to be vaccinated, and told CNN that AFSA would press for the federal government” to require all US employees, US government employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment overseas unless they have professional medical advice to the contrary” or a religious exemption or a disability.
“It’s unacceptable to have our posts in key countries on lockdown when the means of preventing that are available,” he said.
“This is a critical moment in Afghanistan with our transitioning down from our military presence, and to have our embassy in lockdown with all of our people confined to their quarters is a very significant threat to our national interest and national security for no good reason,” Rubin added.
According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the country is at “a crisis point as infections and deaths are spiralling out of control.” Infection rates are up approximately 2400% this month, the organization said in a statement Thursday.
“We are saddened by the deaths of many valiant Afghans who have been sickened by this pandemic and we in fact grieve the passing of a local embassy staff member,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a briefing Thursday. “We do expect that normal embassy operations will resume once embassy, leadership is confident that chain of transmission has been broken.”
The embassy notice stated that “restrictions will continue until the chain of transmission is broken,” warning that “failure to abide by the Mission’s COVID policies will result in consequences up to and including removal from Post on the next available flight.”
The outbreak comes as the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is “more than 50% complete,” according to US Central Command.
The embassy publicly announced last week it was suspending all visa operations in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country. That move has prompted even greater concern among lawmakers and advocates for the fate of the Afghans who helped the United States during its nearly two decade military campaign on the ground, as it presents another obstacle in the special immigrant visa application process.
Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said last Friday that applications at the Chief of Mission stage would continue to be processed in Washington, DC.
In response to the suspension of visa operations, Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the administration to look into the possibility of humanitarian parole, which “is used to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to an emergency,” according to US Citizen and Immigration Services.