U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said helping to manage the U.S. embassy’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak in China is “like nothing I’ve dealt with before.”
“As governor, I had to deal with a lot of different disasters and emergencies — tornadoes, ice storms, floods, the plane crash of flight 232,” he told the Des Moines Register in an interview. “But this is very different.”
In China, Branstad has helped manage the evacuation of about 60% of the embassy’s U.S. citizens as well as 800-some Americans who were living throughout the country, he said.
“People had to work extraordinary hours to help evacuate the people from Wuhan,” he said. “We had people working really around the clock during that time, and it was very difficult, but we were very successful.”
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The challenge has also been personal.
Branstad, a Republican, has been living in Beijing with his wife, Chris, since he was sworn in as ambassador in 2017. His daughter, Allison Costa, and her husband and two children also moved to Beijing, where she has been teaching at an international school.
During the outbreak, Costa and her family returned to the United States and are staying at the family’s home at Lake Panorama in Iowa, Branstad said, while he and his wife remain behind.
“When you’re the ambassador, you’re like the captain of the ship,” he said. “So it was critically important for me to be here and oversee the operation under this difficult circumstance.”
The spread of the virus
The first infections of the COVID-19 virus were linked to a market in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people. The Chinese government has taken dramatic steps to lock down the city in its effort to halt the spread of the disease.
As the crisis appears to be waning in China, outbreaks of COVID-19 have emerged in other parts of the world, including Italy and Iran.
As of Thursday afternoon, health organizations had reported nearly 100,000 cases worldwide, including 80,000 in China. Across the world, there have been more than 3,300 deaths related to the outbreak, more than 85% of them in China.
The disease has also spread to the United States, where more than 200 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and 12 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracking and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the place where the disease first spread — China — Branstad said much of the country is “basically closed down,” but he and his wife are doing fine and remain healthy. She plays in a Mahjong group with other ambassadors’ spouses, and he recently gave a presentation on the American presidential primary to interested staffers.
“We’ve hosted events at our residence for the remaining staff and their families that are here. So we’re trying to do things to keep up the morale,” he said. “… Our Chinese employees who work for us in Wuhan, they’re still there, but it’s been kind of boring and challenging for them. So we’re sending postcards to them. We do WeChat conversations with them to try to do what we can to keep up their morale, because, obviously, they’re living in the epicenter of this.”
But as travel restrictions ease, Branstad said he’s hoping to return to Iowa.
“I intend to get back for the Iowa State Fair,” he said, laughing.
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