Getting Citizens Home During The Covid-19 Pandemic: Interview With A Swedish Diplomat In Argentina

How diplomats work to get their citizens home during a pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting global travel, most countries are doing their best to repatriate their nationals who have been left stranded amid airport and border closures and travel bans. Andreas Perez de Fransius, a Swedish diplomat in Buenos Aires, tells us all about the challenges of repatriating Swedish nationals from Argentina.


Could you tell us a little bit about you and your family?

 My family and I have been living in Argentina for almost three years. I’m the Deputy at the Swedish Embassy. Our son is 6 years old and my wife, Marianne, is 8 months pregnant. Marianne is also one of Bébé Voyage’s co-founders. Prior to being posted in Argentina, we lived in Mozambique, in Southern Africa. 


How is the Swedish Embassy handling the pandemic in Argentina?

Given that this was a public health crisis that arrived in Argentina rather suddenly, our first step was to update our travel advice, both on the Embassy website as well as through social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to reach as many Swedish citizens as possible. 


In the first phase, we informed all Swedes we were in contact with about the last available commercial flights. However, due to health concerns, the Argentine government subsequently suspended all international flights.


The Swedish Foreign Ministry’s guiding principle has always been that people who have traveled abroad are responsible for arranging their own return travel and that they need to take reasonable precautions, i.e. have valid travel insurance. Having said that, in cases like this when air traffic is suddenly shut down, it goes without saying that you can only get so far with that type of advice. In our case, that has meant liaising with other European countries to enable Swedes to travel on their special evacuation flights.


After obtaining seats for Swedes on European flights, some challenges still remain. One basic concern was how to get the passengers to the airport. Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world (its area is as big as India) and many of the top tourist sites are literally thousands of kilometers away from the capital. 


To stop the spread of the disease, domestic flights were suspended and a lot of restrictions were placed on road traffic. Argentina is a federal country which means the political authority is divided in two autonomous sets of governments, one national and one subnational. Some provinces have applied additional provincial rules in addition to national directives. So we have had to issue official certificates to allow Swedes to travel domestically. We have also had to engage directly with the police and other authorities as the federal provisions are often applied differently. I do want to stress, though, that we have an excellent dialogue with the Argentine authorities and we have been able to resolve any issues that have come up.


When it comes to the domestic transportation of our citizens, we have collaborated with other European Union (EU) countries to provide joint transport options. In a situation where the media tends to play up a resurgence in nationalism, I’m proud of how well we continue to collaborate within the EU to solve this situation together. 


Are Swedish citizens able to go back home?

Yes, we have been able to send nearly everyone home and are expecting the remaining ones to be able to leave the week of April 6, 2020. 


What has been your main responsibility during this crisis? Has your job changed?

Completely! I’ve basically put all of my regular tasks and responsibilities aside to focus exclusively on dealing with helping Swedes get home. 


This has involved keeping abreast with new policies and regulations that affect Swedish travels, engaging with the Argentine authorities to address issues that come up and liaising with other Embassies to find travel options for Swedes.


What has been the hardest part of your job in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

It sometimes feels like a Sisyphean task: as soon as we think that we’ve been able to evacuate everyone, new cases arise. It has also been challenging to have vulnerable people stuck far away from the capital. 


Working for a small country like Sweden, we also lack some of the means that other countries have. We’re unlikely to send an aircraft to evacuate Swedes; instead our role has been to negotiate with other EU countries to get seats on their aircrafts.


What is your advice to Swedish citizens?

To get in touch with the Embassy quickly. A basic challenge for an Embassy in a situation like this is that we simply don’t know how many of our citizens are in the country. We do have a list of Swedish citizens, but registering yourself with the Embassy is voluntary and most people don’t register. I understand why: most people don’t expect a pandemic to break out! But the sooner we know who is still in the country, the more options we have available to get people home.


And, prior to traveling, make sure to have valid travel insurance! 


How is the situation in Argentina?

The Argentine government has taken decisive steps to stop the spread of the disease and we’ve been in a country-wide lockdown since March 16. Schools were suspended the previous week. I’m impressed with how quickly people have adapted to the situation and changed their daily lives so as not to expose themselves or spread the disease.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

The Swedish Embassy’s experience in Argentina shows that the key to dealing with this pandemic has been an effective collaboration with the local authorities and with other countries. The way to deal with a crisis of this proportion is international collaboration, not every nation for itself.


Aside from the formal role that I’ve described above, in a crisis we diplomats have an additional role that in practice is just as important: listen to travelers in difficult situations, empathize with their situation, and show them that we care and are doing all we can to help them. I have found that even in situations where we haven’t been able to find a quick solution to their predicament, providing emotional support is just as important. Just trying to be a good human being goes a long way. I think that’s true for all of us, especially in a crisis situation.


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