Opening Photo: The author’s children pose for a portrait in their backyard, March, 24, 2020, during their second week of virtual school. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco
By Isaac D. Pacheco
In a highly anticipated news conference, March 11, 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom publicly acknowledged what scientists and the general public had suspected for several weeks as global reports of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) surged past 126,000 total cases and 4,600 related deaths. By formally declaring COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, Adhanom outlined the framework for a set of preventative and reactionary health and safety measures that would ultimately reshape everyday life for billions worldwide.
“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries [to] climb even higher,” said Adhanom. “… All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector—so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.”
At the time of the WHO pandemic announcement, the United States had reported only 1,000 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 33 deaths. In subsequent weeks, an exponential increase in domestic cases would see the United States dramatically overtake all other countries in COVID-19 cases and deaths, an ignominious distinction it maintains to this day as more than 29 million Americans have been infected and 530,000 have died.
Two days after the WHO announcement, U.S. government agencies, including the Department of State, began issuing telework guidance to employees, anticipating what some hoped might only be a brief interruption to daily operations. One year later, many employees have yet to physically return to the office due to the pandemic’s lingering impact.
As a result of the sudden, lasting shift to the way the Department conducts business, employees turned to new and emerging communication technologies to connect with colleagues and interlocutors. Others developed creative ways of accomplishing their missions from remote locations or while adhering to health requirements that mandate increased physical spacing, mask wearing, and reduced capacity at in-person events. On the first anniversary of the Department’s move to “maximum telework,” State Magazine looks back at some of the stories that defined innovation, courage, resilience, and persistence during the pandemic.
With a global COVID-19 vaccine rollout well underway, Department employees have reason to be optimistic about returning to some in-person engagement again in the near term. What their dedicated efforts throughout the past year have demonstrated, though, is that the new normal may look much different than the pre-pandemic status quo. With better access to tools and resources that enable and enhance telework, many Department employees have not only shown that they can complete their daily tasks remotely but, in some cases, accomplish even more while also saving time and resources compared to traditional in-person operations. How the Department will adapt to this paradigm shift remains to be seen, but if the achievements of employees over the past year are any indication, the potential for a distributed, remote workforce is boundless.
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.