The work of diplomats is personal by nature, but some leaders of foreign outposts in Atlanta are finding during the pandemic era that this need not mean “physical.”
In the first virtual edition of its Consular Conversations series sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC May 8, Global Atlanta welcomed Japanese Consul General Kazuyuki Takeuchi, Bahamian Consul General Astra Armbrister-Rolle and British Consul General Andrew Staunton to provide an overview on their countries’ approaches to combating COVID-19 and shoring up their economies, as well as how their offices have pivoted to serve the interests of their compatriots during the crisis here in Atlanta.
All have pivoted to some form of remote work, with the Japanese consulate rotating by day and Bahamian consular officials only staying in the office in the early days of Georgia’s shutdown to support emergency travel and provide passport services that required biometric validation. After initially supporting travelers aiming to get back home on commercial flights, the British consulate moved completely virtual. [See: How to Access Consular Services Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak]
During the hourlong conversation hosted via Zoom, the three diplomats shared these practical insights, along with more philosophical notes on the future of global collaboration as their countries deal with outbreaks of varied intensity.
As of the May 8 forum, the U.K. had the dubious distinction of suffering the largest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe, exceeding 30,000 on more than 200,000 cases. Some criticized the country’s early approach, which consisted of letting the virus run its course without intense lockdowns.
Soon, however, the plan changed. Having recovered from the coronavirus after days in intensive care, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government instituted restrictions that wore on for more than six weeks and are only now starting to be relieved. (This week, Mr. Johnson outlined a 50-page plan for phased reopening which aims to balance economic recovery with health advice to avoid a “second wave” of infections.)
“I think there’s no real point, at this moment, thinking back to what happened seven weeks ago. It’s what confronts us now and how do we move forward to the next stage,” Mr. Staunton said in the interview.
He preferred to point to the shared sense of humanity and community action that has emerged in the face of the virus, from the U.K.’s 8 p.m. celebrations of frontline workers to his strolls in the neighborhood here in Atlanta.
“People are really beginning now to get into that sense of what drives us, what motivates us, what’s important in our lives, and that’s replicated in the United Kingdom.”
Th consulate itself won’t be “rushing our fences” toward reopening but will take its cues both from Georgia authorities and the broader diplomatic network in the U.S.
While Japan’s outbreak has been slower and more drawn out — some 16,000 cases and 600 deaths as of May 8 — that has created economic challenges. Japan was just emerging from a two-decade period of stagnation in which finances have been stretched thin; now it’s put out $1 trillion in stimulus to prop up the world’s third largest economy.
Mr. Takeuchi has been listening to the well-established Japanese corporate community here, and so far the news hasn’t been good — especially for auto makers and suppliers that make up a good chunk of Japanese investment in the South.
“Because of the slump, in domestic and overseas demand, the manufacturing industry has been taking extremely defensive strategy for themselves,” Mr. Takeuchi said, noting that Japan’s strategy of “slowing the curve” comes at the expense of a quick fix. This week, the country lifted its state of emergency in 39 of 47 prefectures with an eye toward pulling back on some of its voluntary restrictions on movement while taking care of the elderly and fragile. Still, the road ahead is long and uncertain.
“For the next several months, we cannot be optimistic about what’s coming next.”
Meanwhile, already reeling from Hurricane Dorian’s devastating effects last September, the Bahamas now sees a further hit to tourism, which makes up 80 percent of the economy.
“COVID-19 has put a very dramatic halt to that. So we’re not very optimistic about what the next year or even a year and a half to two years is going to look like for the country, particularly because we are still in recovery mode,” said Ms. Armbrister-Rolle.
The Bahamas has been perhaps the most cautious of the three countries on the panel, though it only had 92 cases of COVID-19 as of May 8. Intra-island travel on the archipelago has been at a standstill.
“We’re very concerned. We’re a very small nation. We only have 400,000 people. So every single case is is a really big concern to us. We have a health care system that can very easily become overburdened,” she said.
Led by a medical doctor in Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, the government even too a step that some might consider extreme: In March it blocked entry into the country, even for its own citizens stuck abroad. That led to many travelers (especially in Florida) and students (especially in Georgia) being stranded, leaving the consulate here scrambling to help.
A four-phase repatriation plan is being hatched now, with returnees having to be free from the virus before being granted entry. That’s a problem, since many citizens early on weren’t sick enough to qualify for testing under various state guidelines.
“What we’re doing with the Ministry of Health in the Bahamas is putting those people on separate planes and testing them as they land in the Bahamas,” with some being moved to home isolation, she said.
Freshly out of the European Union, the United Kingdom is now negotiating simultaneously trade deals with the bloc and trade officials are beginning talks with the U.S. via videoconference.
“The U.K. and U.S. two-way trade is a quarter of a trillion. That’s not to be sniffed at,” Mr. Staunton said, noting how the pandemic reveals interconnection of the world in a new way.
“What we’re thinking at this moment in time is that the events of the last three months have shown the importance of smoothness of trade flows. That goes to ensuring that while we can preserve national stocks of key products, we can also access very smoothly those products that other countries are better at making.”
He noted the importance of bilateral talks for Georgia, where upwards of 30,000 jobs are supported by British investment.
“We want to build that. We want to ensure that we have good harmonization of regulation. So the negotiations are really now getting down to the nitty-gritty, and there will be two weeks of negotiations followed by a short break, followed by another two weeks of negotiations.”
He noted that the U.K. is also working to with the nations to ensure the rapid development of a vaccine and equitable distribution to even the world’s most vulnerable. Ms. Armbrister-Rolle said the Bahamas is looking at potential developments in scientific or medical diplomacy that will emerge post-COVID-19.
Mr. Takeuchi added that, if nothing else, diplomats will now be operating in a world where people know the value of both their individual freedom and collective connectivity.
“Many people now know that how squeezed they are by sheltering inside their borders and how important interdependence of global society is, we have to develop this idea into common sense of world citizens, perhaps in cooperation with diplomats all over the world.”
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