Commentary: Peace Corps evacuated all 7,300 of its volunteers due to coronavirus.
They need immediate help.
by Glenn Blumhorst in the Chicago Tribune
02/21/20 01:24 PM EST
Imagine, if you can, a scenario in which the Department of Defense saw the need to recall for emergency security purposes the entirety of its service corps in one fell swoop. That’s essentially what happened over the past week, when the U.S. Peace Corps agency made the difficult and unprecedented decision to suspend its programs indefinitely, evacuating all 7,300 volunteers serving in more than 60 countries — including 280 from Illinois — due to the coronavirus outbreak and informing them their service has ended.
As the virus spread rapidly worldwide, travel restrictions quickly tightened, risks to the personal health of volunteers rose rapidly and the window to bring America’s “grassroots diplomats” home was closing swiftly. Understandably, the top priority of the agency was ensuring the safety and security of volunteers overseas. But today many returning volunteers feel like they have been fired and left with no benefits and little support as they arrive home.
To its credit, the agency remains focused on the complex process of bringing all volunteers home safely. Meanwhile, the broader Peace Corps community, which includes more than 250,000 Returned Peace Corps volunteers over the past 59 years, is rallying to welcome and support our courageous volunteers — these diplomats of peace and goodwill — in returning to a very different home environment than which they left, with an uncertain short-term future ahead.
Having left my rural Missouri home to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991, I felt a visceral connection with the 169 volunteers preparing to leave Guatemala on Wednesday. They shared personal stories and photos on social media, trying to come to grips with what it means to be evacuated from the schools and host families and wider communities they were part of. As they said their goodbyes, I imagine every one of them pledged to return. One day they will.
As the White House and Congress respond to this crisis, perhaps the most complex since World War II, it is important that our returning 7,300 volunteers and the Peace Corps itself not get lost in the shuffle. The White House and Congress should step in quickly to assure Peace Corps volunteers and the public at large that this institution launched by President John F. Kennedy does not become another tragic victim of the coronavirus.
The first step: Congress should include in its massive appropriations packages funds to cover evacuation costs and eventual rehiring and redeployment of many of the current volunteers who wish to return to their countries once the crisis is over.
In addition, evacuated volunteers need additional immediate assistance including:
- Adequate coverage for physical and mental health.
- Support in finding work in their U.S. communities here so they can apply their special skill sets to help their communities overcome this pandemic.
- Appropriate exceptions to current policies related to student loans, graduate school, unemployment eligibility and federal hiring.
I fully realize the Peace Corps community is not alone in its needs. Every extended family, every sector of our economy and every state faces current or pending hardship. But I do raise these concerns, because too often in previous policy conversations the challenges and needs of the Peace Corps community are forgotten at worst, an afterthought at best. In recent months, the Peace Corps already faced threats to its funding and independence.
Why does that matter? There is unfinished business that only Peace Corps volunteers can do. Peace Corps’ underlying mission — to promote world peace and friendship — is as vital today as it was when the program began nearly 60 years ago.
In the meantime, these returned Peace Corps volunteers will join the ranks of nearly a quarter million others who have served their country. They will be America’s next generation of diplomats and international business leaders, educators and entrepreneurs, philanthropists and public servants, globally informed writers and scientists. Undoubtedly, many will serve on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in America, having honed their cultural, language and community health skills working on HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio programs while in the Peace Corps. Their two-year experience abroad returns a lifetime domestic dividend.
Time and again, volunteers learn the importance of resilience and flexibility in the face of crisis and sclerotic systems. After their service, many build on the connections they made internationally — to foster economic development and educate girls, tackle public health and the local impacts of climate change. Their optimism and commitment are crucial in a world where more people increasingly question the viability of democracy itself.
The fact is that Returned Peace Corps volunteers are all around you. When you meet one, thank them for their service. Take the time to listen to their stories. Let your member of Congress know that you value the Peace Corps and its mission at home and abroad.
These are unprecedented times, and many of us feel overwhelmed. Just as we will certainly respond and rally our nation back from the depths of this pandemic, we must also respond to the world and rally our nation to support Peace Corps’ redeployment across the globe.
The pandemic reminds us that Americans — for better and for worse — are citizens of an interconnected world. Peace Corps volunteers are essential to our national understanding of that world in a way that contributes to the health, well-being and security of our country. So I hope and believe that Americans will rally behind this proud institution as it would its other service organizations, and that the Peace Corps will emerge from this hiatus a stronger, better organization.
Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala 1988-91) is president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.