The pandemic has thrown many industries into disarray, but in diplomacy, the uncertainty and stress it has engendered has made it all the more important to keep people at the center.
That was the assessment of three diplomats from across the Americas consulted during the second virtual Consular Conversation hosted by Global Atlanta in partnership with the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC.
Argentine Consul General Jorge Lopez Menardi has faced a bit of a roller coaster during this busy time helping his constituents here in the Southeast U.S. navigate the crisis.
For one, his own 23-year-old son is back in Argentina, leaving his parents in Atlanta concerned for his welfare and unsure whether he would be able to adhere to lockdowns initiated in early March that have kept the case load relatively low — about 34,000 to date in a country of more than 43 million.
That gave Mr. Lopez, who has been in Atlanta since 2016, a taste of the anxiety some Argentines passing through the Southeast were experiencing.
Until Delta Air Lines Inc. stepped in with a repatriation flight, some citizens were stranded in the region for upwards of two months, leaving the consulate as a sort of triage center for those under extreme mental duress, in addition to the dire disease burden some were facing.
“So you could not imagine the anxiety and all the stress. From our part and from their part, it was really, really hard,” Mr. Lopez said, noting that his team even brought in mental health professionals for added help.
Costa Rica’s Flora Leah Venegas, already stretched thin during normal times, faced a flurry of inquiries related to travel, both from tour groups wondering whether their trips would go on and from Costa Ricans wanting to head home to avail themselves of the country’s much-lauded universal health system.
“You imagine it, we answered it,” she said during the discussion held over Zoom, describing this time as “crazy” in one word.
Costa Rica famously abolished its army in 1949 and boasts some of the world’s best health outcomes, especially relative to its income levels; average life expectancy is longer than in the United States, for instance.
Ms. Venegas said that comes from a strong focus on people that has extended to its COVID-19 response. Aided by a health minister who is also an epidemiologist, Costa Rica has kept its case load under 1,900 total, with just 12 deaths — all without the draconian lockdowns experienced in other parts of the world.
“This pandemic showed us that we are really social, that human beings need contact, and that is not something we are going to control with more police or doing all these crazy measures,” she said. “You have to approach it a little bit differently.”
Both Costa Rica and Argentina have faced spikes in recent days, sparking fears that the worst is yet to come and threatening further the vital tourism industries that help drive both economies. Costa Rica remains closed to foreign visitors at least through June 30.
Argentina, moreover is dealing with the pandemic with a newly elected government that also happens to be navigating yet another sovereign debt crisis. Commodity prices have been hammered as well, hurting the major agricultural exporter’s sales of grain, soybeans and other earners of foreign exchange, said Mr. Lopez, who was confident that a deal could be reached with the IMF and other creditors.
Canada’s Nadia Theodore noted that her country has taken a “whole of government” approach to the pandemic, with agencies working together to help people and companies navigate a health challenge that has given rise to an economic crisis. More than 3 million jobs were slashed in April and May and another 2.5 million people saw hours or pay reduced. Together, that equates to about 15 percent of Canada’s population. The desperate times were met with what some are calling the most aggressive government intervention in the economy since World War II.
On the health front, Canada also has a national health system, though one that is administered by provinces led by chief medical officers in coordination with a similar official at the federal level. The COVID-19 response has brought their collaboration to new levels, as provinces have been tasked with implementing shelter-in-place orders and reopenings with input from health professionals and recommendations from the national government.
“I think we’ve done this for several reasons, but mainly because, given the population density across different provinces in the country, we will have to have different approaches to the recovery, both for the health and safety of citizens but also in terms of the economic reboot of our country,” Ms. Theodore said. Canada has seen about 100,000 cases of COVID-19.
Canada and the U.S. shut down their borders to non-essential travel but kept up trade flows, creating mechanisms that would allow truck drivers, for instance, to cross the border if bringing in freight. Just last week, the countries agreed to let family members cross borders if they agree to a 14-day self-quarantine.
All this is occurring as the neighbors, along with Mexico, seek to set into motion the USMCA, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, on July 1.
Ms. Theodore, an experienced trade negotiator, said most of the work on the deal’s implementation had already been completed before the pandemic, aside from a few aspects of automotive trade and dispute settlement. Also, it’s not the “first rodeo” for the trade bloc, she said.
“Canada and the United States have a long history of balancing interests between ourselves, so it’s nothing new to build on the great relationship that we already have,” she said.
That played out here in Georgia as well, as Canadian companies like Decostar and Irving Consumer Products continued working as essential manufacturers, with the consulate’s trade team checking in to help them navigate minor problems and informational requests. Export Development Canada, which set up an office in Atlanta last year, has been active in helping companies.
“The three words would be flexibility, empathy and humility. With those, we’re on our way to recovery in all senses of the word.” -Nadia Theodore
Thanks to these kinds of touch points, Ms. Venegas of Costa Rica said there is a newfound appreciation for the role of diplomats, especially in times of crisis, that she hopes will endure after the pandemic has past.
“We usually are perceived as someone that’s just having fun. But now I think people understand a little bit more what we do,” said Ms. Venegas.
In the case of Canada, many thought the consulate’s affairs were rather limited, given that the bilateral relationship seems to work so well on its own.
“But this certainly proved them wrong,” said Ms. Theodore, whose arrival in 2017 was marked early on by Hurricane Irma, requiring her to quickly reach out to Canadian communities locally and in the Caribbean.
Echoing Ms. Venegas, she said this time of remote work and stress for many is requiring leaders to focus heavily on their teams’ mental health and the little things like checking in regularly and ensuring that those who lack access to technology are not left behind.
Asked for the last word, Ms. Theodore added a few more:
“The three words would be flexibility, empathy and humility. And I think that with those three things, we’re on our way to recovery in all senses of the word.”