After the Secretary of State’s visit, I focused on getting my foot better and getting off crutches. We all figured life would finally get back to normal. However, there was a growing rumble of this virus COVID-19 around the world. I had been planning a crisis management exercise for the past 6 months, and my supervisor and I decided to move it up a few weeks. In early March, the consular staff met at an off-site location and went over what to do in the case of American citizen evacuations – a revision of promissory notes, passport applications, and more. Little did I know that it was one of the last time we would all be together as a happy group.
That weekend, sensing tension in the air, I hopped a ride with my neighbors/friends to my favorite place – Sine Saloum. I foresaw the possibility of a lockdown in Senegal, but was not sure what else my future held, and I wanted at least one last chance to enjoy the beauty of the Delta. I’m so happy I did. We spent the weekend kayaking, enjoying the peace and quiet, and eating delicious food at Ecolodge de Simal. It gave me a reserve to draw on in the coming weeks.
The week after changed everything. COVID-19 hit Senegal, President Macky Sall declared a national emergency, and borders began to close. Americans began to worry and email, call, and show up at our door. We cancelled routine appointments per the a worldwide ban. And we realized we needed to get people out.
During a mass evacuation, the entire mission shifts gears and the focus becomes getting Americans home. My colleagues and I worked day and night to answer questions, working with all agencies to secure flights, calling local contacts to secure travel authorizations for those coming from other regions, creating manifests, digging through manifests and emails to identify at-risk individuals to prioritize. It was stressful, exhausting, and like nothing I have ever experienced. The vast majority of Amerians were pleasant, but of course it is a stressful time, and that showed in many of the individuals that contacted us. A lot of people believe the U.S. Embassy is all-powerful, able to swoop in with Marines and Black Hawks to extract Americans from wherever they are stuck (thanks, Hollywood). Unfortunately, that is not the case, so managing expectations also became a large part of the job. Other Americans believe that the U.S. Embassy has unlimited money and can provide free flights or make planes magically appear in Senegal. Also, not the case. Nevertheless, we were able to evacuate hundreds of Americans on a few flights.
As we continued our evacuation, focus also turned to mission personnel. A Global Authorized Departure had been announced, and those that felt at-risk were urged to leave on one of the evacuation flights. From the beginning, I said I would not go and I would stay behind. But as time went on, and the reality set in, I began to change my mind. The Embassy management folks started urging us to think about leaving temporarily, and some of the following ideas casued me to rethink my previous decision.
#1. If things did get bad, and we were forced to evacuate at that time, there was the big chance that I couldn’t bring my cats. The thought of leaving them behind to fend for themselves was not an option for me.
#2. The health facilities in Senegal may be overwhelmed, so if I did get COVID, it would be likely I would not get the help I need. Plus, I developed asthmatic symptoms while in Dhaka and felt that might create some complications if I were to get COVID.
#3. We would be teleworking regardless of our location due to social distancing. And I am likely to have steady internet, electricity, study food supplie, and potable water in the U.S.
These decision points caused me to jump on the last of the evacuation flights with two kitties in tow. One of my friends who was also evacuating was nice enough to carry one kitty for me, and I carried the other.
The flight was somewhat stressful, but I was surrounded by at least 40 of my co-workers and friends. The landing itself was one of the scariest I’ve experience (so much turbulence). But overall, my diplokitties behaved very well. We arrived to an eerily empty Dulles. Rather than try to negotiate a flight to Georgia, I had rented a car. After a day of rest in a nice hotel, I shoved the kitties in to a large dog crate in the SUV and drove 10 hours. The roads were nearly empty, and kitties again were very well behaved, though unhappy at being cooped up.
Now I am at my safe haven, living in an AirBnB near my parent’s house. I go on near-daily bike rides, telework throughout the day, enjoy ample time with kitties, and try not to stress over when I will return to Senegal. I watch the cases rise in Senegal from afar, and try to keep in contact with those that stayed behind. Kitties are enjoying all of the spring birds and squirrels, and we have settled in nicely. No idea when I will return, but the plan is to get back and try to get back to work sometime in the next few months. Until then, it’s quarantine life for me! At least I have good company.