Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19: Poland divides and conquers

“[My] family simply declined to be evacuated, saying that they feel safe in Hong Kong,” remarks Mr Aleksander Dańda, Polish Consul General.

Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19 is a Harbour Times exclusive series exploring the different measures the Consulates in Hong Kong have taken to ensure the staff is maintaining its regular duties during the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representing Poland, one of the largest countries in Europe, is the Consul General of the Republic of Poland, Mr Alexander Dańda, who arrived September 2019.

Prior to his appointment as Consul General, Mr Dańda was a student of Jagiellonian University, where he earned his Ph.D. in Political Science. He was an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Cracow University of Economics, a member of the Board of Directors of the Polish-US Fulbright Commission, and Director of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.

What functions have stopped or slowed in your office on the consular, trade, immigration or other fronts?

We haven’t stopped any functions whatsoever. Although the extraordinary measures imposed due to the danger of the COVID-19 outbreak (both in Europe and in Hong Kong) made it difficult to maintain the regular scheme of Consulate General operations, we have managed to maintain all the consular functions. That much being said, it also needs to be stressed that we are not currently operating on a “business as usual” basis. 

The mandatory quarantine for travellers from Schengen States, the lockdown established in Poland 10 days ago and now the lockdown in Hong Kong – they all took a toll on the way that the Consulate operates. At present, the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland accepts new visa applications in special cases only (for example, emergency or humanitarian cases, applications of Polish citizen’s family members or EU Member State citizen’s family members). Each of those special cases is being determined on an individual basis by a consul who may demand that additional documents are to be presented concerning matters such as the applicant’s state of health. This temporary limitation of visa issuance will remain in force until the COVID-19 situation stabilises in Hong Kong as well as in Europe.

With respect to all the other consular activities, we are continuously helping Polish citizens to cope with the constantly changing contemporary situation: various travel bans, difficulties encountered by Polish citizens in the recent days and weeks, and the need to issue travel documents (temporary passports). The telephones at the Consulate are ringing throughout the day and we are trying to help with different types of hardships being reported to us. There is also an emergency number, which we operate 24/7, that one can call in order to ask for our assistance in, especially urgent matters. We are making interventions with the Hong Kong authorities on behalf of Polish citizens, calling the Immigration Department most often). In other words, we are doing all that can be done under those very special circumstances in order to make sure that not one Polish citizen’s call for help goes unanswered. 

A good example that demonstrates this important function of the Consulate in those difficult times can be the fact that we have been helping our Polish citizens living in Hong Kong and Macao by supplying them with face masks – at a time when it was still almost impossible to obtain a packet of facemasks in a regular shop. Help with legal matters (like registering birth or marriage certificates in Poland), translations of documents into Polish or into English – those are also the activities being regularly performed by the staff of the Consulate.

What activities have increased?

Regarding what I have just said, it is the number of phone calls in urgent matters as well as emergency phone calls that have increased substantially. To rephrase it – we are definitely issuing fewer visas right now, but that is being offset by the amount and the scope of activities that we are performing in regards to the various untypical emergency situations, which are usually only a marginal part of our work.

How do you reconcile work-from-home measures and security?

The Hong Kong authorities made it pretty clear that there are going to be no exceptions for diplomats when it comes to being recognised as a person of close contact with the confirmed COVID-19 case. Such a close contact person has to be quarantined in a government facility, which for diplomats means that we are basically unable to perform our duties. 

Such an interpretation of quarantine regulations in Hong Kong made it necessary for our Consulate to change the way that we work, at least for the time being. Presently the whole staff of the Consulate is divided into two separate teams, which alternate at the office every other day. The teams do not have any contact with one another, so even if – touch wood – there is a situation where one of us is determined to be a close contact person or is found to contract COVID-19, the other team can continue the work of the Consulate. The team which does not work at the office on a certain day is working from their respective homes, dealing with the emails and some of the workload connected with answering the urgent phone calls.

Has your home office asked you to do anything differently?

At the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in January, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has suggested to us that if we feel vulnerable, we can send our families home – to Poland. As I live here with my wife and two daughters, we sat around the table and had a very difficult albeit – to my surprise – a very short discussion on the subject. The family simply declined to be evacuated, saying that they feel safe in Hong Kong. When the numbers of cases amassed in Hong Kong in February, I was also given the chance by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to decide whether suspending consular activities is warranted. Given the general outlook of the situation, I decided that any scaling down of our activities or suspending them was not necessary. It was only in mid-March, 10 days ago, after the government of Poland announced the state of epidemic emergency and all the inbound and outbound flights to Poland were stopped, that we were given instructions to substantially scale down the visa issuing activities of our Consulate, which we did.

After short deliberation, the family decision was to stay together in Hong Kong.

Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than previously? Were numbers up because of the protests? Did they spike again as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread?

At present, we estimate that there are about 650 to 700 Polish nationals living and working in Hong Kong, and another 50 in Macau. The Polish community here has been growing constantly over the last 10 years. It is also worth mentioning that, although not very big when we compare it with the numbers of the French or German diaspora, the Polish community in Hong Kong is actually the biggest Polish community in any city in China.

It needs to be said that there is no legal requirement for a Polish national to register with a Polish consulate while staying abroad. When the COVID-19 epidemic began, we started sending our information emails to those Poles who registered with us out of their own free will, giving their contact details to the Consulate. In that way, we have gradually compiled quite a substantive email database which we now use for the purpose of informing the Polish community on the most recent updates in regard to all that needs to be known about measures taken by Hong Kong government, as well as Polish and EU authorities, to fight the coronavirus. In recent weeks, we have seen a substantial rise in the emails sent to the Consulate asking to add those email addresses to the so-called “Polish nationals in Hong Kong information board” list.  The rise in numbers of people interested in our dispatches is very important feedback for us at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Hong Kong, that our work here is needed and is being appreciated.

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the author

Jasmine Lee is writer, commentator, and journalist. She graduated from McGill University where she took numerous opportunities to study and work around the world. Her specific areas of interest include media studies and human rights.