Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The United States has officially become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. On March 26, the country reached 82,000 cases, eclipsing Italy and China with the world’s highest number of active cases. As of April 1, the number of active cases in the  U.S. is rapidly approaching 200,000, with deaths nearing 4,000.

The State Department, embattled by funding cuts and personnel shortages, is struggling to respond to the unprecedented number of requests for assistance.

For Americans abroad, these numbers bring desperate efforts to return home into question, especially as protocols for those returning lack consistency and threaten to put travelers and their families at risk of exposure.

Yet isolation measures, combined with the number of Americans abroad asking the State Department for help in returning home, has increased from 13,500 last week to more than 50,000. The State Department, embattled by funding cuts and personnel shortages, is struggling to respond to the unprecedented number of requests for assistance.

“Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens,” said Ian Brownlee, who heads the State Department’s repatriation task force, at a March 25 briefing.

“We’ve now brought home over 9,000 people from some twenty-eight countries, and we’re planning on another sixty-six flights over the next nine days or so. We have some 9,000 people scheduled on those,” Brownlee said.

The State Department is scrambling to find options for travellers, creating a task force to bring Americans home and either requesting planes from the Department of Defense or directing travellers to special flights run by private airlines.

The team has marshaled the resources,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the efforts at a briefing on March 26. “It’s an airlift back home like we’ve not seen in an awfully long time, and I’m really proud of the way our team has responded.” 

Yet the department’s resources, depleted by draconian funding cuts and a 16-month hiring freeze resulting in “staff shortages, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and under trained staff” according to a 2019 report by the inspector general, have lagged far behind the needs of Americans on the ground.

In Ukraine, where I have been based for the past six months, the government implemented a blanket halt to air travel on March 17. Two days later, the State Department issued its highest level travel warning, advising Americans to return home or shelter in place.

On March 22, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv announced that a private airline would operate a single flight, scheduled on March 25, from Kyiv to New York. “At this time, this is the only direct way to travel between Ukraine and the United States,” the health alert reads. “If you need to leave Ukraine, you should strongly consider booking this flight.”

For thousands of Americans in Ukraine, the stampede for tickets was more Altamont than airlift. 

Larissa Babij, an American living in Kyiv with parents in Connecticut, was frantic to buy one, priced at more than $900 (about three times the normal rate). “It took me four hours and a Ukrainian hryvnia bank card to buy it,” she says. “The website wasn’t working; I suspect it may have been stalling because of traffic overload.”

Compounding the confusion was the lack of medical protocol for travellers returning to the U.S.. The Kyiv Embassy had not posted protocol for isolation or screening upon arrival in New York.

After she bought the ticket, Babij independently contacted the embassy to ask how passengers would be screened upon arrival, concerned about exposing her elderly parents to the virus on her return.

The answer was no—quarantine would only be mandated for arrivals from European countries that have abolished passport controls at mutual borders, a region known as the Schengen Area.

Even for travelers arriving from “high risk” countries in the Schengen Area and elsewhere, including China, the CDC protocol advises travelers to stay home for two weeks. There is no compulsory testing of arrivals or mandated quarantine. 

For arrivals in New York, which has rapidly become the world’s most concentrated hotspot for the virus with more than 75,000 cases and 1,000 deaths, conditions are invariably worse than those left behind.

Babij decided not to get on the flight.

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