At least two local hires of the U.S. diplomatic mission to India have died and more than 100 personnel, including Americans, have been infected in the punishing COVID-19 wave currently gripping the nation, according to CNN.
It is not clear where the affected employees are located among the U.S.’s five consulate offices across the country and major embassy in New Dehli.
American personnel, family members and local staff finally received their first COVID-19 vaccines just two weeks ago amid frustration over the rising case numbers, a source told CNN. The source added that the U.S. diplomatic mission staff felt they were not being prioritized given the fact that most foreign service diplomats in Europe and elsewhere—including Kabul and Baghdad—had already received their shots.
The staff in India was also frustrated by high-level visits by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and later Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, which they felt put them at risk in the planning process, which involved in-person meetings even as the case numbers surged. A source told CNN there were “reports of positive COVID cases in the wake of the trips, it is unclear if they were directly linked to the visits.”
Secretary of State Tony Blinken referred to the growing frustration by diplomats abroad in February, and the State Department spokesman Ned Price said on April 18 they had “completed deployment of vaccines to all of our posts abroad.” Though by then, the situation in India had already begun to spiral out of control.
In a statement to CNN, the State Department said they had no priority higher than the safety and security of employees. “We are closely monitoring the situation and we will take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of our employees, including offering vaccines to employees.”
Price also told the network that while he could not confirm the deaths or reports of the outbreak at the India diplomatic mission due to “privacy concerns,” the situation was dire. “India is enduring a deeply concerning outbreak and the entire country has been affected,” he said at a briefing. “We obviously do have a large diplomatic presence within India, it is tantamount to the deep engagement and partnership we have with India, but I’m not in a position to speak to any cases within our staff or embassy community.”
President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi on Monday, though the U.S. has not yet pledged to send actual vaccines to the beleaguered nation—only components to make the jabs. “The President pledged America’s steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases,” a readout of the call said. “In response, the United States is providing a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics.”
India continues to set daily records in new infections as the country succumbs to a deadly third wave, crippled by shortages of critical supplies including oxygen, medicine, and ventilators. The source told CNN that the U.S. reluctance to vaccinate the staff in India proved deadly and that the vaccines “came too late for the two people who died... it’s horrible.”