Like many of you around the world and in the US, I and most of AARO's leadership team are hunkering down, confined to quarters, while the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course. It is shocking how quickly the spread of this virus has upended our lives and even threatens the planet's economic wellbeing. Inasmuch as it is first of all a health crisis, I want to take a moment, on behalf of AARO, to express my best wishes for your health and that of your families and loved ones. I also want to reiterate the necessity that everyone follows the advice and guidelines in the general media to minimize exposure to the virus and slow down its spread.
AARO has had to cancel many of its activities. However, we continue to function and are adopting new methods and working to organize online events and using the Internet to deliver vital information. One of our immediate priorities has been to help the US Department of State get information vital to American citizens out to our members, and, through them, we hope, to other Americans who may not otherwise have received it. This has particularly been the case with respect to decisions the US government (USG) took restricting travel between Europe and the US as well as issuing a level 4 advisory, i.e., advising all Americans to avoid international travel. AARO will continue to assist and complement USG efforts to inform citizens worldwide as needed.
AARO is, furthermore, regularly reminding and encouraging all citizens overseas or planning overseas travel to enroll in the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which facilitates communicating time-sensitive information. Enrolling in STEP is a relatively simple process, and it is designed to ensure that you receive updates that are locally relevant in addition to those that may be applicable worldwide. For those worried that information entered in the STEP database might be shared with the IRS or other USG agencies, AARO understands that this is not the case. Recent events have, in AARO's opinion, pushed enrollment in STEP from being a useful resource to a vital necessity. That is why I strongly urge everyone living or traveling outside the US to enroll and regularly update their enrollment to reflect changes of location while at the same time regularly checking local embassy/consulate websites and material available at www.state.gov. It takes some time but, in the end, it is well worth the effort.
I recommend this even as I have followed worrisome news about the breakdown of official channels of communication that have left Americans stranded, as countries suspended foreign travel, feeling desperate and abandoned. That is why AARO has responded positively every time it has received requests from the American embassy in Paris to supplement official channels in getting reliable information out when normal official channels were not functioning as they should have. AARO will weigh in with the Department of State to register its concern and dismay at the occasional dysfunction recently evident. I would observe, however, that this is a very dynamic situation, and the Department of State and other USG agencies have helped repatriate hundreds of Americans in recent days. This has helped dispel the notion of official disinterest conveyed by the media. The continued plight, however, of thousands of Americans trying to make their way back to the US underscores that more still needs to be done.
Another important point I would make is that locally resident Americans around the world can have a huge impact in these situations. Whether it is using local contacts they may have, helping disseminate information, or even providing relief to stranded compatriots, American residents overseas can often contribute in ways that could turn around what looks like a desperate situation for Americans stranded overseas. AARO would like to hear from its members about any such situations around the world, particularly if you think AARO as an organization might be able to help.
As I noted above, AARO has had to cancel or postpone indefinitely many of its activities or else move them online. This includes annual tax seminars, the annual general assembly (more on this later), and events related to voter registration. We will keep you updated through AARO's News & Views newsletter as well as the website. AARO Board member Monte Silver, who serves as Chairman of AARO’s Tax Committee, has already produced videos on taxes that you can view online. He will have more information for Americans related to income tax filing, including the extended deadline, in coming days and weeks. AARO will also closely watch to ensure that American taxpayers overseas who should be eligible for relief under pending congressional legislation are treated equally. And we will continue to send out notices we receive from the American Consulate General as soon as we can.
AARO is always here to help you. Please let us know if there is something more we should be doing.
Above all, stay safe and stay healthy,